Lieutenant General James Kowalski, chief of Global Strike Command, stated that there was “head room” for safe cuts to the American nuclear arsenal, according to a recent article by Politico. He contended, however, that reductions could not be made to the level supported by the Global Zero Report, from which Secretary of Defense nominee former-Senator Chuck Hagel (R–NE), once an advocate of the report’s stance on nuclear zero, has not significantly distanced himself.
Senator Hagel tried to walk back his association with the report, asserting it was merely “illustrative” of his possible goals as Secretary of Defense, yet stated to Senator Jim Inhofe (R–OK) at his confirmation hearing that he still supports nuclear disarmament. However, reductions to 300–400 weapons, as was forwarded in the report, would represent “major structural changes,” according to General Kowalski.
Senator Hagel appeared to hedge his former position on disarmament by stating that he now no longer favors doing so unilaterally, but it would be difficult to adhere to that stance when the report also advocates for a reduced alert level, fewer weapons, and the elimination of the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
According to General Kowalski, reductions in these areas would severely cut into the Global Strike Command’s effectiveness and likely would result in a nuclear dyad, a system consisting only of strategic bombers and nuclear submarines (SSBNs). Senator Hagel’s statement before Congress that he continues to support keeping the U.S. nuclear triad in place, but also the disarmaments favored by the report, is an untenable position. Whether the reductions would be unilateral is a moot point, according to General Kowalski, because they would result in gutting the strategic arsenal, not only for nuclear deterrence, but for our intellectual infrastructure in science and counter-proliferation.
General Kowalski is concerned that “the same level of quality, surety, [and] certification” may not be able to be maintained for an effective strategic arsenal whose job it is to keep the nation and our allies safe. Any reductions to below the 1,500 weapons called for in the New START treaty should “keep parity with Russia,” according to General Kowalski, who further asserted that the current force structure is commensurate with current strategic goals. General Kowalski made it clear that any significant reductions would have to mean “changes in strategy” from the highest political levels.
The Obama Administration is seeking to further reduce the number of deployed warheads in the U.S. long-range nuclear force to between 300 and 1,100, but a Heritage analysis concludes that “a sound targeting policy consistent with a ‘protect and defend’ strategy for the U.S. and its allies and friends indicates that the U.S. should maintain approximately 2,700 to 3,000 operationally deployed warheads and be flexible enough to permit continuous updates.”
The analysis also contends that keeping, maintaining, and updating the nuclear triad (especially ICBMs) is essential to national security. As Heritage has stated before, ICBMs are the most responsive, most numerous, and most flexible leg of the triad and eliminating them puts U.S. deterrence capability and credibility at risk.
Although President Obama personally promised a strong commitment to the U.S. nuclear weapons program and made a further promise to increase the nuclear modernization budget during the New START treaty deliberations, the Administration’s 2013 budget requests for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) do not include funding for nuclear weapons modernization in its Nuclear Activities accounts. Through self-imposed weapons reductions in New START, failures to modernize the nuclear triad, and now with Senator Hagel’s equivocations on the levels of reductions, the President has made clear that nuclear disarmament is high on the national security agenda.
Jordan Harms is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.