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.
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
Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, US Department of Defense
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, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.