U.S. Navy Funds New Submarine-Launched Nuclear Cruise Missile Biden Called “A Bad Idea”

Budget documents reveal the U.S. Navy is developing a new nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile, known as SLCM-N. President Biden described the missile as “a bad idea” when campaigning in 2019. Though an obvious candidate for cancelation, the SLCM-N program is going ahead.

The need for a new sea-launched cruise missile has been under consideration for some time, with the possibility mentioned in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. An un-named Navy functionary told Defense News in February 2020 that it was on their wish list, but the publication of the new R&D budget makes it official: “Project 3467: This project will design, develop, produce and deploy a Nuclear-Armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile.”

Conventionally-armed BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles are the mainstay of the Navy’s arsenal for attacking land targets. With their long range and high precision, they are useful for taking on highly-defended targets, and a salvo of cruise missiles will typically be fired to suppress defenses ahead of a strike by manned aircraft. On occasion, as in the 2018 strikes on Syria, they are used as a low-cost, low-risk alternative to airstrikes.

While not specified, the nuclear cruise missile would be a relatively low-yield weapon compared to the submarine-launched Trident ballistic missiles.

Both surface ships and submarines carry cruise missiles, and previous statements have been carefully ambiguous about which vessels would carry the nuclear version. However, one line in the new R&D budget submission mentions a requirement to “Assess the Virginia Class launch and control facilities to determine the extent of and evaluate for future upgrades.” This indicates that the nineteen nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines will be launch platforms, in addition to any others selected.

The latest version of the submarine has the new Virginia Payload Module; in addition to the basic 12 cruise missile launch tubes, the VPM caries and launches up to 28 additional cruise missiles.

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Existing conventional cruise missiles have a range of 800-1500 miles depending on the size of the warhead. The nuclear warhead – details yet to be determined – may be somewhat lighter than the conventional payloads, giving longer range. The navy did previously have a nuclear version, the original TLAM-N (“Tomahawk Land Attack Missile- Nuclear) which was quietly retired some years ago. The SLCM-N is in a sense reinventing the wheel.

Putting nuclear cruise missile on Virginia-class would be a quick and easy way of ramping up strategic capability. Currently, the only nuclear-armed subs are the fourteen Ohio-class ballistic missile subs, so SLCM-N on Virginia-class would more than double that at a stroke.

But there are downsides.

“Putting nuclear-armed missiles back on the conventional surface or attack submarine fleets of the Navy is a real cause for concern,” says Monica Montgomery Research Analyst, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Forbes. “Doing so would erode the higher-priority conventional missions of the Navy by reducing the number of conventional missiles each boat could carry and increase the possibility of conflict escalation through miscalculation by blurring the line between conventional and nuclear cruise missiles on these vessels.”

Montgomery calls the message sent by the SLCM-N develpment “both surprising and troubling,” seeing it as potentially destabilizing, and says the Trump-era proposal should not have gone ahead under the new administration.

“The SLCM-N was truly low-hanging fruit ripe for cancellation in this year’s budget,” says Montgomery.

There is still time for the administration to change its mind in the next Nuclear Posture Review later this year, according to Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association

“Reversing the Trump administration’s plan to pursue a nuclear SLCM should be an easy choice,” Reif told Forbes.

Reif describes the SLCM-N as “a costly hedge on a hedge” – an extra backup for an already extensive and growing nuclear arsenal – making it a pointless extravagance.

Reif also notes that the nuclear capability will come at the expense of urgently-needed conventional weapons.

“Arming such vessels with nuclear cruise missiles would also reduce the number of conventional missiles each boat could carry, at a time when Pentagon leaders argue that strengthening conventional deterrence is their top priority in the Asia-Pacific,” says Reif.

Biden himself noted that fielding low-yield weapons as alternatives to more powerful ballistic missiles would make the U.S. “more inclined to use them” and increase the risk of a nuclear war.

The SLCM-N project is starting small, just $15.2m in this year’s budget compared to the billions for other nuclear programs. But if the analysts are right, the U.S. Navy is buying trouble rather than new capability.

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