FPI Bulletin: White House Plans Nuclear Policy Reversals

July 25, 2016

On July 10, the Washington Post reported that President Obama’s national security team had begun to assemble a disarmament agenda for the President’s final months in office. By design, the agenda consisted of initiatives that the President could implement without congressional approval even though some entailed breaking pledges made to Congress in previous years. This concern led the House Armed Services Committee to summon key administration officials for a hearing on nuclear policy, which laid bare the fault lines on this issue between the White House and the Pentagon. Although hesitant to speak directly to internal debates, senior military leaders believe that the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent could be diminished by the policies that are now gaining traction at the White House.

Hints of a White House Reversal

In a June 6 address to the Arms Control Association, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes gave the first hints of a turnabout on nuclear policy. Rhodes told the audience, “I can promise you today that President Obama is continuing to review a number of ways he can advance the Prague agenda over the course of the next seven months. Put simply, our work is not finished on these issues.” Seven years ago, President Obama delivered  a major address in the capital of the Czech Republic, where he said, “To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy…we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.”

At the Arms Control Association, Rhodes touched a nerve by suggesting the possibility of substantial reductions to the nuclear weapons budget. In mid-June, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) sent a letter to President Obama warning him that budget cuts would violate his 2010 agreement with the Senate, which entailed a commitment to provide full funding for the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in exchange for Senate ratification of the New START treaty with Russia.

It soon became apparent that Senators on both sides of the aisle shared the apprehension of the two committee chairmen. On July 8, fourteen Senators signed a letter to the Secretary of Defense expressing their unease with “recent statements by staff members of the National Security Council that question the nuclear modernization agenda and threaten to undermine” the Pentagon’s commitment to the agenda’s implementation. Signatories included Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.

In addition to potential budget cuts, the Washington Post identified several other disarmament initiatives under consideration at the White House. They included the cancellation of a program to replace aging cruise missiles, a five-year extension of the New START agreement, UN approval of the unratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and a public pledge that the United States would never use nuclear weapons unless another nation used them first.

A Congressional Spotlight on Nuclear Policy

Knowing that senior military leaders have serious reservations about these options, the House Armed Services Committee asked them to testify on July 14, in order to raise public awareness of the tension between the apparent White House agenda and the best advice of those directly responsible for the nuclear deterrent. What the hearing demonstrated is that Pentagon leaders are wary of involvement in politicized debates, yet prepared to alert lawmakers and the public to their concerns about the credibility and reliability of the U.S. deterrent. 

On the issue of funding for the nuclear triad, Admiral Cecil Haney, head of U.S. Strategic Command, said that the President’s proposed budget for 2017 “supports my mission requirements. But let me be clear, there is no margin to absorb new risk.” In other words, cutting the budget would be irresponsible.

When asked about the advisability of a “no first use” policy, Admiral Haney signaled his concern by insisting a careful review would have to precede any changes. If a no first use policy were proposed, he said, “That would require some scrutiny to make sure we are not going to impact strategic stability.” When asked if a no first use policy would limit the options available to the President in a crisis, Haney responded that his general approach “is making sure I can maximize presidential decision space and options.”

Admiral Haney and the other witnesses preferred a bolder approach when addressing the merits of current plans to build a new cruise missile known as the Long Range Stand-Off weapon, or LRS-O. General Robin Rand, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, described the current version of the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) as “a 10-year missile in its 30th year” which will be increasingly vulnerable to enemy air defenses. Admiral Haney offered his assessment that fielding LRS-O as a replacement will help to deter escalation during future conflicts while reassuring allies who depend on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, because the deployment of nuclear-capable cruise missiles is a visible sign of resolve, whereas submarines are not.

General Rand also spoke forcefully about the need to replace the Minuteman III, the aging mainstay of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force. Rand observed that the Minuteman III “is coming up on its 50th year in service.” Although opponents of a new ICBM have proposed an effort to extend the service life of the Minuteman III, Rand dismissed that option as “unwise” on grounds of both cost and effectiveness. He said a new ICBM would be more reliable and more survivable as well as costing just slightly less than a life extension for the Minuteman III.

Robert Scher, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, revealed substantially less about his opinions than the military men on the panel, yet even Scher hinted at his reservations on certain points. When asked whether the administration would extend the New START treaty despite Russia’s flagrant violation of other arms control pacts, Scher simply said, “I do not know the answer.” When asked whether anyone else knew the answer, Scher responded, “There are ongoing discussions, as you’ve heard, but I really am not at liberty to talk about ongoing discussions before decisions have been made.”

Scher also said that he could not disclose the content of discussions about bypassing Senate ratification of CTBT yet acknowledged that he had anticipated the question, since the top arms control official at the State Department had previously assured the committee that the Senate’s prerogatives would be respected. Furthermore, Scher testified that he had contacted that same official prior to his testimony before the House and “she stands by the statements that [seeking a UN resolution on CTBT] would take away the prerogative of the Senate for ratifying treated. In effect, Scher sent a message that both the Pentagon and the State Department opposed any effort to bypass the Senate, even if some in the White House favored that approach.

Finally, when addressing LRS-O, Scher simply gave his unqualified opinion that fielding an updated nuclear-capable cruise missile is critical to U.S. national security. The previous day, at a hearing focused entirely on LRS-O, Scher elaborated his arguments on behalf of the missile program in greater detail. Senior officials from the Departments of State and Energy expressed strong agreement. On this particular issue, White House skeptics seem to have few allies even within the administration.

What Will President Obama Decide?

The Washington Post reported that the White House has convened two Cabinet-level meetings to review a potential disarmament agenda for the President’s final months in office. “No final decisions have been made,” the paper said, “but Obama is expected to weigh in personally soon.” When the President finally weighs in, he should keep in mind the 2010 letter on nuclear modernization, in which he pledged to the Senate that “my Administration will pursue these programs and capabilities for as long as I am President.” A last-minute cancellation of missile replacement programs or a bid to cut the nuclear weapons budget would violate this pledge. Seeking UN approval of the CTBT would break a separate promise the administration made to Congress. The decision to extend New START should be made by the next president, since the extension would run through the end of his or her tenure.

More importantly, there is no strategic justification for any of the initiatives the White House is apparently considering. Nuclear dangers have only intensified since the President unveiled his Prague agenda. Testifying before the House, Robert Scher described Russian efforts to lower the threshold for employing nuclear weapons as “particularly concerning and dangerous.” Yet each and every one of the initiatives under consideration by the White House primarily constrains the United States and lessens the credibility of its nuclear deterrent while failing to rein in the provocations of hostile nuclear weapon states. Seven years after President Obama unveiled his Prague agenda, it remains unclear whether he has learned that American concessions cannot reduce the threat of nuclear war if Russia, China, North Korea and others remain firmly committed to growing and modernizing their arsenals.

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