Exclusive: Hillary Clinton, who has carved out a reputation as a war hawk, has quietly voiced opposition to a $1 trillion plan to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal, including a nuke-tipped cruise missile, notes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
Whoever is hacking Hillary Clinton’s emails just did her a big favor, at least with anti-war critics: One newly released message reveals her skepticism about wasteful and dangerous spending on new nuclear weapons in the name of “modernization.” It’s a refreshing change from her usual hawkish stand on national security.
An email leaked to the conservative Washington Free Beacon includes an audio file of Clinton’s remarks at a private fundraiser in McLean, Virginia, last February. Asked by a former senior Pentagon official about her willingness to cancel plans for a next-generation nuclear cruise missile program, she replied, “I certainly would be inclined to do that.”
“The last thing we need are sophisticated cruise missiles that are nuclear armed,” Clinton added.
Current Air Force plans call for spending upward of $30 billion on the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) missile program to acquire 1,000 such weapons. The Air Force says it will begin awarding contracts as early as next summer for the stealthy missiles, which will be launched from bombers more than 2,000 kilometers from their targets.
The LRSO program, in turn, is part of the Obama administration’s grandiose plan to spend more than $1 trillion over the next three decades on new land, sea, and air-launched nuclear weapons. That plan calls for building 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, 100 long-range strategic bombers armed with a new class of bombs, and at least 400 silo-based ballistic missiles, in addition to the new cruise missiles.
While nearly every aspect of the administration’s plan has garnered criticism, including the sheer improbability of finding enough funds to pay for such an extravagant “all of the above” program, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter delivered a resounding defense during a recent speech at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, B-52 bombers, and several hundred nuclear-armed cruise missiles.
Offering more rhetoric than substance, Carter insisted that failure to rebuild every leg of America’s nuclear force “would mean losing confidence in our ability to deter, which we can’t afford in today’s volatile security environment.”
Carter’s speech was a belated reply to a letter from 10 prominent progressive senators, including Bernie Sanders, asking President Obama to reconsider his nuclear modernization program. “In particular,” they wrote, echoing Clinton’s own concerns, “we urge you to cancel plans to spend at least $20 billion on a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff weapon, which would provide an unnecessary capability that could increase the risk of nuclear war.”
Experts in the arms control community backed them up. “The Air Force does not need a costly new and more capable nuclear-armed cruise missile,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, “especially if the new long-range penetrating bomber is truly penetrating. We are seeing a return to the days of nuclear excess and overkill.”
Even more authoritative criticism of the LRSO program came from former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who guided development of the current generation of air-launched cruise missiles, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Andy Weber, who oversaw all nuclear weapons programs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2014.
They warned that the missiles are not just a waste of money, but could actually put our national security at risk.
“Because they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants, cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon,” Perry and Weber observed. Canceling the new cruise missile program, they declared, “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least” and “could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons.”
British Defense Secretary and Conservative Party politician Philip Hammond offered a similar view in 2013: “A cruise-based deterrent would carry significant risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead. Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension. So, the cruise option would carry enormous financial, technical and strategic risk.”
Nuclear War ‘Flexibility’
To such criticisms, the Pentagon has argued chillingly that the new cruise missiles will give the United States greater “flexibility” in fighting a nuclear war — contrary to President Reagan’s common-sense dictum that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Clinton has made few firm pledges about nuclear weapons policy, but she told supporters at the private fundraiser that “This is going to be a big issue. It’s not just the nuclear-tipped cruise missile. There’s a lot of other money we’re talking about to go into refurbishing and modernization.”
That event was not the first or only place she has raised questions about the current direction of America’s nuclear policy. At a town hall meeting in September 2015, Clinton expressed admiration for President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex and ridiculed the idea of spending a trillion dollars on new nuclear programs.
This January, in Iowa, Clinton told an activist that the Obama administration’s current plan for nuclear modernization “doesn’t make sense to me.”
Clinton also takes great pride in her role in negotiating a 2011 nuclear agreement with Russia, which limited the number of strategic nuclear warheads that each side can deploy.
To be sure, history gives little reason for optimism that Clinton would follow through as president on her concerns.
President Obama’s transformation from an eloquent advocate of a nuclear-free world to a supporter of unprecedented nuclear spending suggests that the military-industrial complex remains a powerful force.
Still, it’s encouraging to know that Clinton isn’t a hard-wired hawk, and that at least a few generals and defense lobbyists may be losing sleep over the uncertain future of their prized weapons systems.
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Obama Flinches at Renouncing Nuke First Strike,” “Dangerous Denial of Global Warming,” “How Arms Sales Distort US Foreign Policy,” “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.”