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GOP Senator Sees Threat to Nuclear Triad Under Obama

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON--President Obama’s support for global nuclear disarmament over the long term, compounded with today’s extraordinary federal budget pressures, has caused significant worry for one Republican senator that the U.S. government might decide to scale back the nation’s strategic triad.

“There are a number of reasons to be concerned about the future of our strategic deterrent,” Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said on Wednesday.

The country’s strategic nuclear triad as of March 2012 was comprised of 1,737 warheads fielded on 812 active ICBMs, submarine-based missiles and long-range bombers.

Hoeven told an audience at the Capitol Hill Club that he is “greatly” concerned over the White House’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary given the former senator’s support for the nuclear disarmament advocacy organization Global Zero, which last May issued a report that listed options for scaling back the number of U.S. nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.

Hagel, who could face a Senate Armed Services Committee vote on his appointment this week, has represented his views on U.S. nuclear weapons policy as being within the mainstream thinking of the defense and foreign policy community and the White House.

Among Global Zero’s recommendations are eliminating the land-based leg of the U.S. triad, which encompasses roughly 450 nuclear-armed Minuteman 3 ICBMs located in silos in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

Hoeven’s home state hosts the Minot Air Force Base, where 150 Minuteman 3 missiles and additional B-52 strategic bombers are located. He sharply rejected this recommendation.

 “To say we treasure those bases.... would be an understatement,” he said. The nuclear weapons enterprise and the U.S. Air Force are significant employers for North Dakota.

Obama has publicly stated his support for global nuclear disarmament,  but has made clear that the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal as long as other nations hold such weapons.

The Obama administration is understood to be studying options contained in an unreleased Pentagon “implementation study” for reducing the number of nuclear warheads kept deployed on long-range delivery vehicles to as low as between 1,000 and 1,100 weapons. The White House wants any cuts of that nature to be matched by corresponding reductions by Russia.

The U.S.-Russian New START arms control accord already requires both former Cold War rivals to by 2018 reduce their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads and 700 long-range delivery vehicles with an additional 100 platforms permitted in reserve.

The United States will have to eliminate 289 nuclear launchers from its active arsenal, according to research by the Federation of American Scientists that was compiled using 2012 U.S. stockpile figures. It is not yet known how those cuts will impact each leg of the triad.

Hoeven said further cuts to delivery vehicles should not happen before they are mandated in 2018 under the U.S.-Russian pact.  “Those reductions should be achieved in ways that … do not hamstring any one leg of the triad.”

“To the extent the ICBM force is reduced in size, we should retain all existing silos in alarm status that would allow us to rotate active missiles from one silo to the next,” he said. “This would create ambiguity about the precise location of all of our missiles and allow major silo maintenance to occur without needing to take missiles off-line.”

The first-term senator and former North Dakota governor defended silo-based ICBMs as the “most prompt and dispersed” component of the nuclear triad that is also less expensive than the bomber and submarine legs.

Hoeven asserted that the enormous challenge of mounting a large-scale disarming nuclear attack on the U.S. ICBM force discourages smaller nuclear-armed nations from even contemplating trying to reach strategic parity with the United States. Global Zero “would throw away this advantage,” he said.

The submarine and bomber legs also offer unique defense advantages, he said. Nuclear-armed aircraft can be called back before an attack if the threat scenario changes while ballistic missile submarines can travel unseen, making them the most difficult delivery vehicle to eliminate.

“Ironically, the triad's biggest enemy today is its own success,” Hoeven said as the guest speaker of the first Congressional Breakfast Seminar Series event of 2013. “It makes it easy to take for granted.”

In securing the necessary Republican votes to achieve Senate ratification of New START in 2010, the White House pledged to budget $85 billion over the coming decade for building new strategic delivery vehicles and modernizing nuclear weapons laboratories.

“There is reason to believe that the administration's commitment to these [spending] priorities is wavering on several fronts compounded by pressures in Congress to find budget savings in a period of tight-budgets,” Hoeven said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee member sought to position nuclear weapons as a cost-efficient means of ensuring the nation’s security. The entire nuclear enterprise, including relevant Pentagon and Energy Department operations as well as plans to modernize the three legs of the triad, totals about $22 billion annually, according to Hoeven. That figure represents 2.8 percent of the nation’s defense budget, he said.

 

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