DoD photo by Sgt. Aaron Hostutler USMC

Hagel’s Nuclear Site Tour Is a Good Start

Positive policy comes from positive interactions. This is especially true of the military and its leaders. 

It’s heartening to see that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is taking this truth to heart with the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Today, he begins a trip that will swing him through the brain and muscle of America’s nuclear deterrent. His visits to the Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, where we are rebuilding our nuclear warheads, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base, in Cheyenne, Wyo., where we deploy some of them, begin a welcome display of leadership to the men and women in the nuclear trenches. 

But visiting the troops isn’t enough. Our nuclear forces are a shadowy group. Their mission successes are taken for granted. And, regrettably, when they occasionally fall short of their perfectionist standards, those shortcomings can be very much visible. Whether they sit in underground missile silos, turn wrenches on bombers or work in the reactor of a deployed submarine, America’s nuclear warriors are quiet guardians. They do not expect, nor receive, praise for their unique duty, even though that duty is the very centerpiece of U.S. national security. For sixty years, Americans, and their allies, have unknowingly reaped the fruits of the peace and security those warriors provide. Sadly, some Americans enjoy watching them stumble. 

(Related: ’Burnout’ Plagues Air Force Nuclear Missile Crews)

Our nuclear forces cannot speak for themselves. They depend on their civilian leadership to do that. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates was a bright light and strong advocate for their mission. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a heady venue to defend nuclear deterrence, Gates did not shy away from the moral and consequential imperatives of our strategic arsenal. In 2008, he said, “We must deal with the messy realities of the world in which we live. One of those realities is the existence of nuclear weapons.”

Perhaps Hagel, a one-time disarmament advocate, has come around. In his confirmation hearing last year, he spoke wisely when he said, “What has kept the peace since World War II has been America’s nuclear weapons.” No one would welcome it more than the individuals who man the trenches of nuclear deterrence.  

Let’s go back to talking policy. Interactions, hands-on experience, an appropriate security clearance, plus specialized knowledge of the minutiae of targets, trajectories and threats are irreplaceable. Nuclear deterrence is fragile. The peace that rests on that deterrence is fragile. And there are too many people in Washington who want to monkey around with that brittle, precious equation without understanding the full scope of factors that support it. 

Hagel has his staffs, but I’d take the opinion of one bomber pilot, or one targeteer at U.S. Strategic Command, over all the king’s staffers and all the king’s wonks. The secretary, to his credit, has with this trip sought out the opinions of the men and women in the trenches. And it’s a safe bet he won’t like what he hears. 

Travel to any one of the national labs, missile or bomber bases, or submarine pens in the United States, and you’ll get a quick, unpleasant sense of things. Every nuclear weapons state — save for us — is modernizing or growing their nuclear arsenals. Russia and China have been particularly aggressive. But the West has its head buried in the sand with lofty visions of the world they fantasize living in, as opposed to the one they inhabit. 

Nuclear war isn’t likely. But the low odds aren’t a matter of chance. America stacked the deck in its favor throughout the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy called the first deployed minuteman ICBM at Malmstrom Air Force base his ‘ace in the hole’ against the USSR. With the Soviets gone, some think we can give up on the ultimate insurance plan. Why spend money on a new ICBM, even though Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians and others are all building them? Why build a new warhead? Never mind that if our most modern nuclear weapon was listed on Kelly’s Blue Book, you could find it in the “classic autos” section. 

On his trip, Secretary Hagel will likely hear stories of forty-year old equipment falling into disrepair, the increasing challenges of coping with a complex, polynuclear world with far fewer tools at our disposal and the harsh realities of fielding a first-rate nuclear deterrent on a second rate budget. To wit, outgoing Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter noted that for all we squeeze out of our nuclear arsenal, it only takes up some 4 percent of the entire defense budget. With no major theater level conflicts since World War II, talk about a bargain. Shouldn’t our commitment to peace be matched with a commitment in resources?

I’m grateful to Hagel for accepting this challenge, and with the gravity it deserves. As backwards as it may sound, I hope that he matches words to deeds. I hope that he advocates on behalf of the humble, quiet warriors who have stood their vigil for decades. And that he pushes the gears of Washington to give them the tools they need to keep that watch for decades to come.

Rep. Mike Rogers represents Alabama’s Third Congressional District and is chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.