Inhofe: America’s nuclear umbrella has holes in it, leaving U.S. vulnerable to Iran, Russia

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), senior member on Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), today participated in a SASC hearing titled, "U.S. National Security Strategy," with witnesses Eric Edelman, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (2005-2009), and Michele Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (2009-2012).  During Inhofe’s questioning of Edelman, it was highlighted that while President Obama is putting America on a path towards nuclear zero with his lack of investment in our nation’s nuclear stockpile, the rest of the world — particularly those adverse to the United States — is on the verge of a nuclear arms race, leaving the United States vulnerable and not in a position to influence nuclear arm stockpiles.

During the questioning, Edelman highlighted that:

  • North Korea has tested nuclear weapons;
  • Iran is moving very close to being a nuclear threshold state;
  • Pakistan, India, and China have growing nuclear stockpiles; and
  • Russia is modernizing its nuclear force.

Inhofe stated that in the mean time the United States’ warheads are nearly 40 years old and the delivery systems are roughly 50 years old. Edelman also pointed to degradation of America’s nuclear umbrella when he said that the United States has not built a new nuclear weapon since 1988; hasn’t tested one since 1991; and hasn’t been investing in human capital who would be able to properly maintain and modernize the equipment. 

Most notable, Edelman stated in the hearing that “our strategic nuclear forces have been one of our huge strategic comparative advantages as a nation since 1945.” Due to the risks of an "increasingly proliferated” world, Edelman said the United States“cannot afford to let that advantage go by the wayside.” 

Click here for video of the exchange

INHOFE:

In the 20 years that I've been on this committee, we've talked about our -- and you and I talked about this, too -- but the fact that we had the oldest nuclear arsenal in the world, that most of our warheads are 30, 40 years old, and our delivery systems, we look at the triad, you're looking at the B-52, maybe 50 years old, and then, of course, the ICBMs and the nuclear submarines…

Now in -- in light of the new threat, should more attention be given to [our nuclear arsenal] than we have in the past? I noticed when you [delivered your testimony], you ticked off five of the areas that have not been given proper attention. This wasn't one of those areas. Do you think it should be?

EDELMAN:

Senator, you know, I was as undersecretary a member of the nuclear weapons council and followed the issues closely and was very, very concerned throughout my tenure about the state of our aging nuclear force.

We haven't built a new nuclear weapon since 1988. We haven't tested one since 1991. There are lots of ways that we maintain the safety and surety of the stockpile. But as time goes on, and particularly not only as the inevitable corrosion and degradation of components goes on, but also the loss of human capital because we're not able to get the best and brightest minds in the field the way we used to be able to do, I think it's a matter of really increasing concern.

We're unfortunately, I think, living through a period where the risks of an increasingly proliferated world are -- are growing. We already have North Korea testing -- having tested nuclear weapons. Iran is moving very close to being a nuclear threshold state.Hopefully there'll be an agreement that will constrain that.

But if there isn't, or if Iran maintains a near breakout capacity, there's a real prospect that we may get other states in the region who decide to develop their own nuclear capabilities.

In the meantime, you've got growing nuclear stockpiles in -- in Pakistan and India. China's stock -- the Chinese inventory is also growing in terms of weapons, although -- albeit more slowly. And Russia's modernizing its nuclear force.

And I -- I do worry, I think -- I applaud the administration for the very good work it's done and the B-61 modernization effort, but I do think there's much more that needs to be done in this -- in this area.

INHOFE:

I've been concerned about Iran for -- ever since our unclassified intelligence came out in 2007 talking about when they were going to have the capabilities, being 2015, which is where we are right now.

And I'm concerned about the maligned activities. There've been several published reports talking about Sudan, Gaza, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. I don't think we can assume that our concern should be strictly with Iran. And this is my concern that I've had for a long time.

We're supposed to be and historically have been the nuclear umbrella. Our umbrella has holes in it. We have serious problems. And when you look at countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey and others, if they see what our capabilities are, then you know, or I would assume, they're going to be involved and we're going to have another arms race coming -- coming up.

Does that concern the two of you?

EDELMAN:

I think our -- our strategic nuclear forces have been one of our huge strategic comparative advantages as a nation since 1945. And I think we cannot afford to let that advantage go by the wayside.

Extended deterrence of our allies in Asia, in Europe, and now increasingly in the Middle East, has always been a very difficult proposition. It was a difficult proposition when we had a much larger stockpile and inventory of nuclear weapons to make our willingness to use those weapons in defense of our allies, that was a very difficult proposition to convince people of.

It's still going to be a difficult proposition to convince people about. But it'll be much harder to do, as you say, Senator Inhofe, if the appearance is that we're not paying sufficient attention to the stockpile and -- and to the modernization of our forces.

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