The 2016 Presidential Candidates on Nuclear Issues

3462671065_f7ae465157With implementation day for the Iran nuclear agreement around the corner, implicit nuclear threats from Russia, an expensive nuclear weapons modernization program in the U.S., striking revelations of attempted nuclear smuggling, and threats of weapons testing from North Korea, nuclear weapons policy is receiving more attention during debates on U.S. foreign policy. Some presidential candidates have expressed their views on nuclear weapons and nuclear security, but for the most part, the issue has been relatively absent from the presidential debates.

The next Commander-in-Chief should be asked about nuclear issues so that the voters know where the candidates stand. Presidential hopefuls from both parties need to come forward with their preferred objectives for the future of U.S. nuclear security.

Republican Candidates

Ted Cruz seems to be on board with strengthening our nuclear arsenal. Cruz told conservative talk radio host, Hugh Hewitt, on his show that, “this issue is certainly relevant to voters—does a potential commander-in-chief know what the nuclear triad is, much less is he or she prepared and able to strengthen it.”

In the interview, Cruz added that the submarine is the most pressing priority of the nuclear triad, saying “There is no doubt that strengthening the nuclear triad is critically important. All three legs of the triad are important. As you noted, are long-range bombers are so old that if they were people, they would qualify for social security. Of the three legs that are most important—is the sub, the Ohio class subs, they are the most important for projecting power and the hardest to take out, and we must replace those subs. We must improve all three legs of the triad, but if we were to start with one, the subs would be of top priority.”

On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Ted Cruz was asked by a Global Zero activist what he thought the right number of nuclear weapons were, Cruz responded by saying, “We need sufficient nuclear weapons to keep this country safe, every one of us would love to wave a magic wand that could eliminate all nuclear weapons from the planet, but the world is getting more dangerous, and the first obligation of the Commander-in-Chief is to keep this country safe, it’s why we need major new investments in missile defense, with effective missile defense we could eliminate the ability of nuclear weapons to murder vast numbers of people.”

Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio from Florida has provided great insight of his opinions of nuclear weapons. Senator Rubio is probably the most hawkish presidential candidate of the Republicans in terms of military and nuclear spending. During the presidential debate, Rubio talked about the nuclear triad saying that, “…all three of them are critical. It gives us the ability at deterrence. Some programs are more critical than others; for example, the submarines, the Ohio Class submarine that needs to be modernized. The air component also needs to be modernized. The B-52, as someone earlier pointed out, is an outdated model that was flown by the grandparents of people that are flying it now. And we need a serious modernization program as well on our silo launched missile. All three are critical for the defense of the country.

Rubio expanded on this issue further when an employee from GlobalZero asked Rubio the question, “Would you be willing to spend $1 trillion, what the CBO has estimated the cost to modernize our nuclear weapons?” Rubio responded by saying, “Absolutely, national security is the most important thing the federal government does, we need to modernize the nuclear triad.

Additionally, Rubio made headlines in New Hampshire with what he said about working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on whether he would meet with someone as malign as President Putin, Rubio said, “Sure. I mean, look, between the United States and Russia, we have over 90% of the nuclear warheads on the planet, so we have no choice but to meet with and look for ways to improve the relationship.

Other GOP candidates’ statements on the issue mostly fall within the usual rhetoric of increased spending on defense. For the most part, they have all mentioned in some way or another that our nuclear arsenal “doesn’t work” as according to Donald Trump.

Even the deficit hawks strongly believe in the ongoing value of complete nuclear weapons modernization. Ohio Governor John Kasich, one of the more notable deficit hawks, has stated that he disagrees that modernization is a waste. Apparently, the estimated price tag of up to $1 trillion over the next three decades does not disturb him.

Most of the GOP candidates ignore the fact that the U.S. is already modernizing its nuclear arsenal and planning to replace all three legs of the nuclear triad of delivery systems and new nuclear bombs.  In reality, the U.S. is spending a total of about $35 billion per year on the nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, the amount the U.S. is spending on its nuclear capabilities is only going to increase: the Navy is set to begin building 12 new submarines to replace its Ohio-class submarines, the contract for the new Air Force long-range strike bomber has just been awarded to Northrop Grumman, and there are plans to build 1,000 new nuclear cruise missiles and 650 new intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Many candidates in the Republican field have instead resorted to bantering over which one of them is best qualified to control the so-called “nuclear button.” Senator Paul and Trump exchanged barbs during a debate and a poll was even put out in late October about the issue. (If you’re curious, the top results were: 39% of Americans trust Ben Carson with the nuclear launch codes, 34% trust Trump, and 27% trust Rubio).

While it is noteworthy to see nuclear weapons appear on more candidates’ radars, there is still a long ways to go. In the end, whoever is elected president will have access to that infamous red button and the citizens deserve to know what that person has in mind for the future of U.S. nuclear policy.

Democratic Candidates

Democratic candidates, when discussing nuclear issues, have focused mostly on the question of nuclear terrorism in the debates, and have given some off-the-cuff responses on the campaign trail on non-proliferation policies. During the October 2015 Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton mentioned the extreme danger of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. Clinton even went as far as to say that it is the greatest threat to U.S. national security. As for non-proliferation policies, she made headlines in Iowa with a quick response to a question about being skeptical about Obama’s estimated $1 trillion nuclear arms upgrade. The question was, “Would you oppose plans to spend a trillion dollars on an entire new generation of nuclear weapons systems that will enrich military contractors and set off a new global arms race?“, Secretary Clinton responded, “I’m going to look into that. It doesn’t make sense to me.” Clinton was also asked in Iowa if she would prefer more reductions between the U.S. and the Russian to 1,000 nuclear weapons apiece, Secretary Clinton responded by saying, “Absolutely. I mean that’s why I worked so hard on what’s called the New START Treaty. We gotta do more.” We look forward to hearing more substantial policy specifics from Secretary Clinton, given her extensive experience with nuclear issues, and with her help in President Obama’s New START treaty that reduces nuclear missiles, and has substantial spending cuts on the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

Bernie Sanders has also provided insight into what a potential Sanders Administration would look like on nuclear issues from a Democratic debate calling for ‘fundamental changes’ to how the Pentagon spends money, saying that, “We have a $600 billion military budget that is larger than the next eight countries. Unfortunately, much of that budget continues to go to fight the old Cold War with the Soviet Union. Very little of that budget, less than 10 percent, actually goes to fighting ISIS and international terrorism.”

Additionally, Senator Sanders spoke on the campaign trail of his support for a world free of nuclear weapons, as President Obama supported when first running for president.