Hagel's nuclear options

When Chuck Hagel arrives at the Pentagon, pending Senate confirmation, near the top of his E-Ring inbox will be President Obama’s plans to reduce and upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal.

The 2013 nuclear agenda could be quite full. The Pentagon has yet to release its plan to implement the Nuclear Posture Review, and amid continuing resolutions funding the fiscal year and the sequester-delayed budget request for 2014, the new defense secretary must decide the pace of building new nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. Additionally, the Obama administration is poised to start pushing below the caps established by the New START treaty, which limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 warheads each. With that agenda already penciled in, Hagel’s nomination has both thrilled nuclear disarmament advocates and concerned nuclear hawks in Congress.

Conservatives already have tried to block Hagel’s path to the Pentagon by labeling him soft on Israel, Iran, and war in general. And now they're trying a new angle: he’s soft on nuclear weapons.

On the day President Obama announced Hagel’s nomination, the leading conservative voice on nuclear issues in the House, Rep. Mike Turner, sent a blast email to reporters claiming Hagel’s positions were “fundamentally at odds with mainstream thinking and the President's stated policies.”  

Turner accused Hagel of having a “dangerous ideological agenda,” arguing, “This includes calls for drastic, and possibly unilateral, reductions in U.S. nuclear forces, eliminating the [intercontinental ballistic missile] leg of our nuclear deterrent and cancelling our other nuclear modernization programs.”

That’s a questionable charge by Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces in the previous Congress. When Hagel and Obama were senators in 2007, the two were close enough to cosponsor legislation that some nuclear watchdogs say was the “blueprint” to the president’s famous Prague speech, in which Obama called for a renewed focus on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. That speech came early in Obama’s presidency, in April 2009.

That year, after leaving the Senate, Hagel involved himself in the disarmament movement by joining the board of the Ploughshares Fund and the group Global Zero.

“We value his leadership on smart, bipartisan solutions to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, and applaud the President’s choice,” said Ploughshares’ chairman, Roger Hale, in a statement. “Sen. Hagel’s commitment to reducing nuclear dangers -- both in the Senate and in the years since -- sets him apart as one of America’s most insightful and effective voices on nuclear security.”

But not apart from the president, Hagel supporters insist.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday said he had dinner with Hagel and a follow-up lunch specifically on the defense budget this week. At a Pentagon press briefing, Panetta argued Hagel will have no trouble implementing the president’s nuclear policy.  

“There’s no question in my mind,” Panetta said, of the nuclear concerns. “I’ve known Chuck Hagel a long time. I think a lot of the criticisms that are being made right now are unfair, but he’ll have the opportunity to speak to those when he goes for his confirmation hearing….  There are a lot of charges that will be out there. There’ll be a lot of criticisms that are out there but ultimately the truth prevails, and I think the truth in this case will mean that he’ll be confirmed.”

Ploughshares Fund argues that Hagel represents a “growing bipartisan” movement on nuclear reduction. When he was at the Atlantic Council, Hagel “joined with Gen. James Cartwright, Amb. Richard Burt, Amb. Thomas Pickering, Gen. Jack Sheehan and Dr. Bruce Blair in practical recommendations for the 2012 study, Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture.”

Other advocates agree. “There is a mainstream point of view” on nuclear arms reductions, said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, which advocates for fewer nuclear weapons. A 2012 Pentagon white paper already has called specifically for a smaller nuclear force, Kimball said.

Hagel is therefore more likely to oversee the enactment of the Obama administration’s already crafted nuclear policy than he is expected to drastically alter it. He’ll work directly with Obama’s team of Pentagon, State Department, and White House national security staffers, led by Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, the Pentagon’s top policy official; Acting Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller; and Gary Samore, the White House’s point man for weapons of mass destruction.

“Hagel will be part of that equation as Washington and Moscow try to go forward to try and go beyond New START,” Kimball said.

It’s what reduction advocates call “right-sizing” the nuclear force, and Hagel could be in charge of making some early budget decisions this year. For one, how many new nuclear submarines will DOD produce? The Pentagon plans to replace a dozen Ohio-class submarines at upwards of $7 billion each, or by some estimates, $350 billion over the life of that program. Last year, the Pentagon delayed the build of one of two submarines by two years, angering defense hawks on the Hill. Additionally, the Pentagon is still developing the next long-range bomber, at a hit of an estimated $55 billion -- a cost which critics argue is sure to go up, if past is prologue for military aircraft production.

So how many warheads, submarines, bombers, and missiles are enough? Russia is the only other country with enough nuclear weapons to challenge the U.S. arsenal, yet arms trackers say Russia’s arsenal is likely going to shrink because of cost.  “The last I heard, the Cold War is over. We’re no longer enemies. There’s virtually no chance of a bolt from the blue,” Kimball said.

One common concern of hawks like Turner is that the Obama administration, with Hagel’s blessing, would enact “unilateral nuclear reductions.” But Obama has not advocated that position.

The good news for Hagel is that Congressman Turner has no vote in the Senate. But Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the new ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, does.

“Yes, nuclear issues are one of the few areas of concern that Sen. Inhofe will be speaking with Sen. Hagel about,” a Senate aide told the E-Ring. Inhofe currently is on an overseas congressional delegation visit to Asia.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Hagel. “I’m going to withhold judgment for now and rely on the hearings and meetings in making my determination," Corker said. "I’m sure Senator Hagel’s views on nuclear arms issues will receive significant scrutiny as he goes through the confirmation process. I served with him in the Senate and respect his military background and willingness to serve our country in such an important role.”

UPDATED: This piece was updated to correct a previous version. Sen. Corker has not endorsed Hagel.

Dave Fliesen/U.S. Navy via Getty Images