GOP concerned Kerry-Hagel team dangerous for nuclear deterrent, modernization

Woven into Sen. John Kerry’s confirmation hearing yesterday was a conservative yarn likely to reappear next week when Chuck Hagel faces his own hearing to take the Pentagon helm: Is the Kerry-Hagel tandem committed to maintaining America’s nuclear weapons?

In a little noticed line of questioning on Thursday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the incoming ranking member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Kerry he saw a historic and useful balance between the secretary of state, who usually argues for global nuclear reductions, and the defense secretary, whose responsibility is to maintain America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

But Hagel’s record advocating for disarmament, argued Corker, may threaten that balance.

Corker said:

He was part of a group called Global Zero, and for those of us who care deeply about our nuclear arsenal and modernization and that type of thing, some of the things that were authored in this report candidly are [just] concerning.

Typically, there's a tension. The Defense Department presses for weaponry and making sure that our country is safe. The State Department presses for nuclear arms agreements and reductions. And so in the event this person is confirmed, that balance is not going to be there.

But then Corker got to the meat of the matter, which affects his home state of Tennessee: modernization. In nuclear parlance, the word is a euphemism for the expensive upkeep for America’s aged nuclear warheads, which is carried out at nuclear laboratories, including the Oak Ridge complex in Tennessee. There, scientists make sure the bombs work, without actually exploding them, through expensive computer modeling. The funds pay for the cost of parts and labor to keep the warheads ready for action 24 hours-a-day.

Part of the deal to secure GOP support for New START treaty ratification was the Obama administration’s promise of increased funding for modernization, at roughly $85 billion over 10 years for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

In a December 2010 letter to Obama, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the late Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pledged their support for the treaty, following his promise of full funding for modernization.

“We also ask that, in your future budget requests to Congress, you include the funding identified in that report on nuclear weapons modernization,” they wrote.
Obama, in a reply, said he would invest in nuclear modernization for the long-term. “That is my commitment to the Congress.”

But Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget request came in short of the full funding. Conservatives accuse the president of pulling a “bait-and-switch,” figuring Obama’s five-year request is $4 billion short of his promise.

On Wednesday, Corker pressed the issue with Kerry:

You and I have spent a lot of time on the START treaty. I helped you in that effort. You let me be involved in the ratification. Modernization was to take place at a pace that is not occurring. And I'm just wondering if there's something you might say to me that sees our future in a way that with these -- with the combination of possibly these two people, one leading the State Department but one leading the Defense Department in a role that's been very different than previous defense leaders -- is there something you can say to assure me about our nuclear posture in the future and the role that you're going to play in that regard?

Kerry, in his response, said he believes “we have to maintain” the stockpiles with which Corker is concerned:

When that initiative sort of first came out and we began to hear about the potential of people who said let's get no nuclear weapons, I sort of scratched my head. And I said, what? You know, how's that going to work? Because I believe in deterrence, and I find it very hard to think how you can get down to a number in today's world.

But the whole point is, they're not talking about today's world. Henry Kissinger, Jim Baker, I think Jim Schlesinger, former secretaries of defense, many others, have all agreed with that as a goal for the world. It's a goal. It's an aspiration. And we should always be aspirational. But it's not something that could happen in today's world, and nor could any leader today sit here or in any other chair and promote to you the notion that we ought to be cutting down our deterrent level below an adequate level to maintain deterrence.

Now, the military has very strong views about what that is. We've cut down some 1,500 now. There's talk of going down to a lower number. I think personally it's possible to get there if you have commensurate levels of inspections, verification, guarantees about the capacity of your nuclear stockpile program, etc.

Now, Senator, I know you're deeply invested in that component of it, the nuclear stockpile [proposal]. And I may -- we can come to some of that maybe later in the he hearing here. But I believe we have to maintain that because that's the only way you maintain an effective level of deterrence.

And the Russians certainly are thinking in terms of their adequacy of deterrence, which is one of the reasons why they have missile defense concerns.

So I'm -- I don't think Senator Hagel is sitting there or he's going to go over to the Defense Department and be a proponent -- you know, this is talking about conflict revolution [Resolution?], change -- resolution, changes that have to take pace in societies that we'll -- you know, it's worth aspiring to, but we'll be lucky if we get there in however many centuries the way we're going.

Kerry said later that informal talks with Russia are ongoing about future nuclear reductions. No deal is likely to be done without the approval of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the head of Strategic Command, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, and of course, the defense secretary (all of whom testified in favor of New START).

Hagel will speak on his own defense Thursday, in his hearing.

“I believe the nuclear issue will come up,” said one key Hill staffer.

The E-Ring asked another Senate staffer if Hagel is likely to face the similar questions to the ones Corker posed to Kerry. The blunt response by email: “Yes def.”

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call