We need to know where Democratic candidates stand on nuclear weapons

We need to know where Democratic candidates stand on nuclear weapons
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At the first Democratic Party presidential debate, three candidates identified nuclear war as one of the top two threats facing the country. Indeed, nuclear weapons and climate change are the two existential threats facing the United States — and the world.

By changing its own nuclear weapon policies, the United States can reduce this existential threat. CNN, which is hosting the next Democratic debate, should make sure the candidates address U.S. nuclear weapons policy during the upcoming debate. Here are some questions network anchors and reporters should ask the candidates. 

Striking first

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For several decades, the United States has promised non-nuclear countries that it will never use nuclear weapons against them during a conflict. However, it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first to respond to a non-nuclear attack by countries that have nuclear weapons, namely Russia, China and North Korea. They would likely respond in kind. This means current U.S. policy explicitly allows it to start a nuclear war.

Candidates should answer: Do you believe that the only purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons should be to deter their use by other countries? Should the U.S. declare it will never use nuclear weapons first?

Making the call

The U.S. president has sole and complete authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. As President Nixon said in November 1973, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.” That frightening scenario leads to the following question: Do you believe that a single person — the occupant of the Oval Office — should be empowered to make such a decision? If so, why? If not, how would you include other people in the decision-making process?

Hair-trigger alerts 

The United States deploys 400 nuclear-armed missiles in underground silos and keeps them on “hair-trigger alert” so they can be launched in a matter of minutes in response to warning of an incoming nuclear attack. These silo-based missiles are easy targets and the military is under pressure to “use them or lose them.”

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It would take less than 25 minutes for a warhead to hit the United States, leaving little time to determine whether warning of an attack is real — and creating the risk of a large-scale U.S. launch in response to a false warning. 

The risk is not theoretical — human and technical errors have occurred repeatedly. For example, U.S. military officials misinterpreted a training tape as reality and initiated steps to launch a counter-attack. A defective computer chip had resulted in a false report of an incoming attack at a time of high U.S.-Soviet tensions. 

Not only is keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert dangerous, it’s unnecessary: Most U.S. nuclear weapons are hidden at sea on submarines where they are safe from attack. The obvious question: Do you believe the United States should remove its missiles from hair-trigger alert?

Nuclear treaties

The Trump administration is reportedly considering withdrawing from the New START agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. Without this treaty, there will be no legally binding, verifiable limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles for the first time since 1972.

The Pentagon is a big fan of New START. Air Force General John Hyten, the commander of U.S. nuclear forces, stated in his March 2017 congressional testimony, “I’m a big supporter … when it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, that bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.”

Two important questions are: Do you support New START and its extension? What other diplomatic efforts will you undertake to make Americans safer?

Upgrading the arsenal

The Trump administration is moving ahead with a 30-year trillion-dollar program to replace the nation’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons — as well as the missiles, bombers and submarines that carry them — with upgraded versions. Not only is much of this unnecessary, it undercuts U.S. security.

The U.S. plan will, of course, affect Russia’s plans for the future of its arsenal, and a budding arms race is underway. The question is: Do you favor this plan? If not, what is your plan for the future of the US arsenal?

A growing number of Americans are concerned about the risks of nuclear weapons. Holding presidential candidates accountable for well-founded and coherent positions on issues of this importance is what journalists should do. We will be watching.

Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright are senior scientists and co-directors of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.