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Hagel’s “Global Zero” Plan

A nuclear weapons reduction plan advocated by Hagel evinces a less than serious understanding of both the nature of US deterrence needs, and the geopolitical balance between the United States and Russia.
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Photo Credit: Yori Yanover

Former Senator Chuck Hagel, nominated to be Secretary of Defense, is also a signatory of what is known as the “Global Zero” plan. It calls for the United States and Russia to begin comprehensive nuclear arms negotiations in early 2013 to achieve zero nuclear weapons worldwide by 2030 in four phases.

The first phase would be a reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 1,000 weapons from its current level — some number slightly less than 5,000 warheads. While the U.S. has now deployed 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons, the new total would include stored and reserve weapons, as well as warheads considered tactical and deployed in Europe, and therefore not regulated by current arms control agreements. By way of comparison, the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command laid out in a summer 2012 essay the comparable Russian arsenal, which he estimated was probably in excess of 10,000 nuclear warheads — a number considerably higher than many current and previous estimates of the Russian nuclear arsenal, and nearly twice that of the United States.

The Global Zero plan first would remove all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from U.S. combat bases in Europe to storage facilities in the United States. However, while these tactical U.S. weapons would no longer be able to defend Europe and NATO, Russians weapons would be able to attack all of Europe in a relatively short time — launching weapons from bases in Russia, where they would be stored, reconstituted and redeployed. Given the nature of such weapons systems, the verification of such efforts would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The real eye-opener is that the 1,000 ceiling for the U.S. would include our tactical nuclear weapons and stored weapons for reserve emergencies, and the currently deployed 1,550 weapons. The implication is that Hagel is pushing an 80% cut in overall U.S. deployed weapons. If done proportionately, that would involve a reduction to fewer than roughly 300 total deployed strategic nuclear warheads, a level less than China, and less than India and Pakistan combined.

This further signals the elimination of the U.S. strategic nuclear Triad (air, sea and land) — 300 accountable warheads would enable the deployment of a limited bomber or submarine or IBM leg of our nuclear deterrent, but certainly not all three legs. This would have the effect, by virtually eliminating all serious deterrent capability to our adversaries, of massively increasing the instability of the international security environment — a dramatic reversal of the promises made within the New START Treaty ratification process, in which enhancing and maintaining strategic stability was one of the cornerstones of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review.

By quickly withdrawing our tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, we would be emasculating the extended deterrent umbrella which now covers Europe, and as a result seriously weaken the defense ties to our allies and friends across the Atlantic. There would also be a corresponding weakening of our deterrent umbrella over the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, just at a time when these three nations, and others, are threatened by an expanding North Korean missile and nuclear weapons capability and a major modernization program by China of its nuclear weapons. The result, based on reasonable mid-point estimates of the current PRC arsenal, would be a Chinese deployed nuclear arsenal in excess of that deployed by the United States, to say nothing of what Peking could deploy in the near and intermediate future.

The Global Zero plan also calls for “de-alerting” our nuclear weapons. That would mean any number of things, but generally it means even the severely reduced number of warheads in our deployed arsenal would not, in a crisis, be available for use if they were needed. The warheads might be removed from their missiles or bombers; they might be disabled and stored remotely — requiring many hours, days, or longer to be redeployed.

Previous administrations, as well as the current government, have in various ways discussed and considered such a move. In every instance, de-alerting has been firmly rejected. First, the proposal is totally unverifiable. Second, it is highly destabilizing: in a crisis, there would be a race to re-alert and rearm, making the first and sudden use of nuclear weapons a greater or more likely possibility. Third, de-alerting solves no “nuclear” problem, whether in concerns abut proliferation, threats of an electro-magnetic pulse [EMP] attack, or any other deterrent or arms control requirement.

The second phase of the Global Zero plan would occur from 2014-2018. In a multilateral framework, the U.S. and Russia would agree to reduce to 500 total warheads each, to be implemented by 2021. All other countries, including China, Pakistan, North Korea and others, would freeze their nuclear stockpiles until 2018, followed by proportionate reductions until 2021 — irrespective of whether the U.S. deployed arsenal was smaller and less effective than many other countries. If in fact that took place — with nations hostile to the U.S. having arsenals in excess of the U.S. force — it would be the first time in the history of the nuclear age that such an event took place, and probably an irresistible invitation to them to attack.

Moreover, this plan assumes that a comprehensive verification and enforcement system will have been established — including agreed-on no-notice, on-site inspections, and that safeguards on the civilian nuclear fuel cycle would be strengthened to prevent their being diverted to build weapons.

The final two phases would include a “binding” ‘Global Zero Accord’ between 2019-2023, signed by all nuclear capable countries, for the phased, verified, proportionate reduction of all nuclear arsenals to zero total warheads by 2030. The whopping loophole in this plan is that any nation deeming itself not nuclear-capable could opt out of such an agreement, then be completely free to surprise the world with a nuclear arsenal once all the major powers had eliminated theirs.

Between 2024-2030, finally, there would be a complete “phased, verified, proportionate dismantlement of all nuclear arsenals to zero total warheads by 2030,” with an accompanying comprehensive verification and enforcement system prohibiting the development and possession of nuclear weapons.

Apart from the “Alice in Wonderland” nature of this proposal, there is the sense that its advocates share a less than serious understanding of both the nature of U.S. deterrence needs, and the geopolitical balance between the United States and Russia, not amenable to international or treaty law.

Originally published at the Gatestone Institute.

About the Author: Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland.


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One Response to “Hagel’s “Global Zero” Plan”

  1. Senator Schumer is meeting with Chuck Hagel this week in private. Schumer should consider that Hagel does not believe that a military option is an option even if negotiations fail.

    He has recently changed his previous stated views on this issue to accept "all options are on the table", in order to advance his career. It means he now believes that it is expedient to use the threat as.
    a public lever in negotiations, but if negotiations fail, he would advise in private, that the US should allow a nuclear armed Iran.
    Many of those who are in favor of confirmation such as Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, have said the same thing. Iran certainly understands this, and is rooting for him.

    A nuclear Iran has sworn to eliminate Israel and every mosque in Iran has a poster "Death To Israel."

    After Iran drops an atomic bomb over Tel Aviv, the issue of whether Hagel is anti-Israel or pro-Israel becomes mute.

    Iran has a high tolerance for the deaths of huge numbers of people. The war between Iran and Iraq ostensibly over a territorial dispute concerning 0.1% of Iran's land mass had a million casualties.
    Iran has spread it's terror all over the globe and has murdered more than a thousand Americans.
    It's ideology is identical to Al Quaeda, amd certainly has America, the Great Satan in it's cross hairs.

    A Hagel confirmation kills any chance of Iran agreeing to stop it's nuclear weapons program through negotiations. why would they take the tremendous political risk of telling their people that years of sanctions privations was for nothing when they know their is no risk of an American military action?

    I believe President Obama's primary motivation in nominating Hagel is that he thinks he would help to deeply cut the Pentagon budget, and not to poke a finger in the eye of the pro-Israel constituency.
    But it is a very serious miscalculation of unintended consequences.
    Several Senators and Congresspeople have made exactly the same objections.
    The Senate should not confirm Hagel. Senators Gildebrand, Schumer. Lautenberg, Menendez, Boxer, Cardin and many more that take seriously the Iranian threat and have made promises to their constituents on this issue should vote no just for this reason.

    Senator Schumer should remember how the US government's policy against bombing Aushwitz are now eerily similar to this crucial moment.

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