The Facts Behind Chuck Hagel’s Global Zero Report

Buried deep in the Republican uproar against former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination to succeed Leon Panetta as the Secretary of Defense is a relatively obscure international initiative known as Global Zero and in particular the 2012 Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report: Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy , Force Structure and Posture available in full online. Global Zero is an organization that openly advocates for the reduction of nuclear stockpiles globally with the goal of “A World Without Nuclear Weapons.” One of the guiding principles behind any non-proliferation advocate is the realization that the challenges of the Cold War are in the past and traditional policies and posturing are no longer relevant. It’s no surprise, then, that the party that gave us a presidential candidate who still considers Russia to be America’s greatest “geopolitical foe” would resist the suggestion that the Cold War is over.

But, of course, the Cold War is over and the strategic threats facing America in the 21st century are vastly different from those faced in the 20th, a fact that is rightly addressed by the Global Zero report, which is, incidentally, attributed mainly to former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Retired General James Cartwright. The most telling evidence that times have changed can be seen in the last three occasions American nuclear forces were put on high alert. As the commission notes, the last three times nuclear forces were on high alert were the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and September 11, 2001. One of these things is not like the other. The first two cases featured “Cold War-style nuclear escalation, coercion and risk manipulation” between Russia and America in classic great power conflict. The latter featured a small group of non-state actors embedded in civilian populations launching a multi-target attack in which “Minutemen missile launch crews feared they themselves might be terrorist targets.” Needless to say, America’s immense nuclear arsenal is of no use in preventing or retaliating against terrorist attacks, and as world economies continue to become more and more intertwined and mutually beneficial, the likelihood of great power conflict ala the Cold War becomes less and less likely.

Still, there is always a possibility of large-scale conflict, and America should not be putting itself in a position from which it cannot defend itself. But the Commission’s recommendations do not do this. Let’s look at the three major recommendations made in the report:

1)      Reduce the total strategic nuclear weapon stockpile to 900 with half being deployed and half in reserves. This is, obviously, the meat of the Commission’s recommendations and is a drastic decrease in deployed warheads from even New START, which caps deployed warheads at 1,550. (For its part, reports from the White House indicate that the Obama administration may soon push for a reduction to “just above 1,000” deployed warheads.) Opposition to any reduction in the nuclear weapon stockpile always boils down to a simple concept: If we have fewer nuclear weapons than our enemies then we lose. Not only does this smack of that classic Cold War “missile gap” fear tactic, but it’s not true. The Commission identifies on page 10 of the report that, according to Cold War targeting principles, strategic targets in Russia would be covered by 651 warheads, 254 warheads for China and 40 each for North Korea, Iran and Syria. For those who still think that size matters most, the 900 weapon stockpile would still be head and shoulders above the generally agreed upon threats of North Korea (with less than 12 weapons), Iran (zero) and Syria (zero).

2)      Eliminate nuclear ICBMs and tactical nuclear weapons, or those nuclear weapons designed for use on the battlefield. Currently, ICBMs stationed in existing bases in Minot, ND, Cheyenne, WY, and Cascade County, MT, must fly through, or dangerously close to, Russia and China to reach targets in North Korea, Iran and Syria. This made sense when Russia was the great existential threat to the United States, but as the political calculus has changed to more prominently feature rogue states like North Korea, Iran and Syria as threats, ICBMs have become obsolete, especially as communications technology for ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) becomes more sophisticated. Speaking of obsolescence, the report identifies tactical nuclear weapons’ military utility as “practically nil” thanks to their lack of “assigned missions as part of any war plan” and notes that they remain deployed purely for political reasons.

3)      De-alert nuclear weapons stockpiles and increase the amount of time required to launch a nuclear assault. Currently, early warning teams have three minutes to report whether or not a potential missile launch is real after which U.S. nuclear commanders may have as few as thirty seconds to brief the President who has twelve minutes to decide how to respond. If he responds in the affirmative, missile launchers in underground silos would have two minutes and submarine operators twelve to load their missiles into silos and on their thirty minute flight across the planet, according to the Commission. All told, it takes about an hour for nuclear missiles to be launched right now, leaving absolutely no room for error and forcing rushed, panicked decisions to be made and introducing extra human error to the process. The Commission instead recommends de-alerting nuclear weapons stockpiles such that the window for decision-making expands from 1 hour to 24 – 72 hours, ensuring a more thoughtful response. In a worst-case scenario, nuclear retaliation does not have to be immediate. Launching nuclear weapons a day earlier will not stop incoming nuclear weapons or change the damage already done. While missile silos may be able to be taken out before missiles are launched, America’s second strike capabilities by sea remain secure and fully capable of dispensing a devastating blow to an aggressor.

Unsurprisingly, commentators on the right have not been keen on any of these recommendations and have seized on this passage from the report’s conclusion as evidence of the dangerousness of Hagel’s positions:

“The less good approach would be to adopt this agenda unilaterally.  A strong case can nevertheless be made that unilateral U.S. deep cuts [to its nuclear arsenal] and de-alerting coupled with strengthened missile defenses and conventional capabilities would not weaken deterrence in practical terms vis-à-vis Russia, China or any of the more plausible nation-state challengers that America may confront in the years ahead.  While preserving effective deterrence against all but non-state actors, unilateral steps would lay the groundwork for increasing security cooperation among the former Cold War adversaries and encourage them to consider comparable unilateral actions.”

According to some commentators this passage is evidence that Chuck Hagel supports unilateral reductions in the American nuclear arms supply over bi- and multilateral approaches that include Russia and China.  Of course, this is not the case. While the report does offer a defense of unilateral reductions, it does so only as a worst-case scenario and as a stepping stone towards further cooperation and reductions in arms from those “former Cold War adversaries”.

Conservative commentators still seem stuck in the same Cold War mindset that made Kennedy’s “missile gap” fear-mongering effective in the 50s: The only way to be safe is to have more deadly weapons than your foe. What this misses is that because of the devastating effectiveness of even a single nuclear weapon – and conservative commentators agree on this point with respect to Iran and North Korea – the added benefit of having 500 or 1,000 more nuclear weapons is marginal at best and outweighed by the cost of maintaining the arsenal and the risk of nuclear technology falling into the hands of rogue operatives.

Republicans are purposefully obfuscating the issue when they raise Cain over unilateral disarmament and are being intellectually dishonest when they say that the only way to be safe is to have more nukes than Russia or China. While these are easy concepts for the American public to follow, the true question is how many nuclear weapons and delivery mechanisms are minimally required to maintain our nuclear deterrent – anything above that is unnecessary cost and risk. In fact, it has been Republican presidents who have been at the forefront on nuclear arms reductions — both Presidents Bush drastically reduced the total nuclear stockpile during their presidencies, each dropping the total stockpile by 50%. Chuck Hagel and the Global Zero Commission have outlined one reasonable minimal deterrent that takes into account the modern era, and the Obama administration seems poised to outline its own plans. Republicans should counter with a policy that recognizes modern realities and engage in honest debate on this important subject.

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