China Defense Policy Defense Technologies Nuclear Deterrence Russia United States and Canada

Issue Brief

November 5, 2022

Strengthening deterrence with SLCM-N

By John R. Harvey and Robert Soofer

FORWARD DEFENSE

ISSUE BRIEF

The Biden administration has recently released its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, which assesses the nuclear threats facing the United States. A top priority challenge named by the 2022 NPR is reinforcing deterrence against the potential for Russian and Chinese limited nuclear aggression, including using low-yield nuclear weapons. However, the NPR announces the administration’s decision to cancel a program specifically designed to counter that threat, the nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM-N). Former nuclear deterrence policymakers John R. Harvey and Robert Soofer, from Democratic and Republican administrations, respectively, argue that the SLCM-N is needed to address a gap in US nuclear deterrence capabilities created by Russia’s and China’s continuing efforts to maintain and expand regional nuclear forces.

The old is new again

SLCM-Ns are nuclear-armed cruise missiles capable of being launched from naval vessels, including submarines. During the Cold War, SLCMs were one of a variety of theater nuclear munitions that the United States deployed; these weapons were retired in 2010 as the security environment improved.

Faced with a deteriorating security situation, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review supported the development of a modernized SLCM-N following aggressive Russian behavior. While many nuclear strategists and Members of Congress have lent support to the notion that supplemental US capabilities are necessary to deter limited nuclear use, some question the SLCM-N as redundant, expensive, and potentially disruptive to the US Navy.

A unique role

The SLCM-N would provide a highly survivable US regional nuclear presence. This is crucial given the increasing emphasis in Russian nuclear doctrine on exercising a limited nuclear first strike and China’s expanding nuclear arsenal. SLCM-N has advantages in presence, survivability, and promptness in responding to potential limited nuclear aggression that current US systems lack.

Key takeaways

While the Biden administration has elected to cancel the SLCM-N in its 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, Congress should maintain at least research and development funding for this capability for the following reasons:

  • Fielding SLCM-N is not radical but rather a return to nuclear form
  • Renewed nuclear threats posed by Russia and China make theater nuclear weapons more necessary
  • SLCM-N provides unique capabilities that air launched nuclear weapons cannot
  • SLCM-N is affordable, since it can harness legacy technologies or benefit from other programs in progress
  • Impacts on the submarine force would be manageable

About the authors

John R. Harvey

Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, US Department of Defense

Robert Soofer

Senior associate, Missile Defense Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, US Department of Defense

Forward Defense

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, shapes the debate around the greatest military challenges facing the United States and its allies, and creates forward-looking assessments of the trends, technologies, and concepts that will define the future of warfare.

Image: 100107-N-8288P-031 MEDITERRANEAN (Jan. 7, 2010) The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS Virginia (SSN 774) cruises through the Mediterranean while on a scheduled deployment within the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility. Virginia is home ported in Groton, Conn., and is the lead boat of the Virginia-class of submarines. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class William Pittman/Released)