A $31 Billion Missile Program! US Looks To Reintroduce Nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missile Costing Equal To 10 Virginia-Class Subs

A section of US Congressmen are voting for reintroducing a costly and redundant nuclear program. Republican lawmakers in the House are adopting a measure to institutionalize the Sea-Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear (SLCM-N). 

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The SLCM was denied funding in last year’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget and concluded to have no battlefield use in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)

The Cold War-era concept envisages a cruise missile with a low-yield tactical nuclear warhead that can be fired from submarines, warships, or naval aircraft on a trajectory that makes it hard to track by radar. 

According to a report in Defense News, the House Armed Services Committee “voted along party lines to amend the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with a provision that would create a program of record (PoR) for SLCM-N.”

A PoR is a listed ‘line item record’ in current and future defense acquisition plans that make them eligible for continued funding over the years. 

Obscene Cost for a Useless Weapon

If the full HASC advances the Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) and passes the full floor vote in July, it would receive nearly $196 million as research and development funds.

However, political leaders and military experts advise against the astronomical costs and a futile capability, which they say can be invested elsewhere and be performed by other weapons systems. 

A Tomahawk cruise missile leaves the surface of the water after being fired from a submarine. Photo Credit: Raytheon Technologies

Representative Courtney, a Democratic Congressman from Connecticut, who chairs the sea power subcommittee, cited May testimony from Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday stating that the warheads needed to make an SLCM-N program would cost at least $31 billion.

“The Navy can do a lot of other things with $31 billion. You can build 15 DDG destroyers with $31 billion, 10 Virginia-class submarines with $31 billion. You put nuclear warheads on these vessels, then you are changing the mission,” Courtney said. 

Another Democratic Congressman, Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, argued that the US already has ballistic submarines in its fleet as well as lower-yield nuclear options from the air.

“It’s walking us down a path of spending enormous money on a capability that we don’t really need that will undermine our ability to build capabilities that we do (need) going forward,” said Smith.

Why Doesn’t the US Need the SLCM-N

Citing the need for flexibility and regional presence, the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) called for re-establishing a sea-launched cruise missile-nuclear capability.

President Biden’s FY 2022 budget continued funding SLCM-N, aiming to deploy it by the late 2020s. However, with the 2022 NPR identifying SLCM-N as “no longer necessary,” Biden’s 2023 budget request did not include SLCM-N funding.

The missile basically saddles important weapons platforms like submarines and warships with a mission set that can be undertaken by US Air Force (USAF) strategic bombers. It takes away the flexibility of employing diverse firepower options with a varied range of platforms. 

“Should a geographic combatant commander intend to seek permission to use a nuclear weapon for tactical purposes, selecting bombers would offer more flexibility between mission sets and avoid committing to a weapons load-out decision as far in advance as would be necessary if SLCM-N were chosen” retired US Navy officer, Captain John Moulton writes in a paper. 

In other words, an SLCM-N armed naval submarine or warship meets a very “narrow” mission set of destroying hardened enemy ground targets while sacrificing equally important tactical and strategic roles like hunting enemy submarines, destroying surface warships, mine laying or providing Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR). 

Other currently nuclear weapons capable platforms like the B-2 Spirit, B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B Lancer, and the upcoming B-21 Raider envisaged for the same mission could also reach the warzone quickly.

File Image: B-52 Bomber

The cost of revealing its position while firing an SLCM-N would also far outweigh the gains from hitting enemy ground targets with low-yield nuclear missiles, Moulton further explains. Moulton is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks’ Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons. 

The conditions that would justify using a tactical nuclear-tipped cruise missile would be very rare and would prevent a submarine or a naval vessel from performing optimally in a fluid battlefield situation. 

In the Western Pacific, becoming part of a “joint force” in a mutually supporting pushback against a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) fleet inside China’s dangerous Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) zone is a new evolving orientation guiding the US Navy’s submarine arm, explained in a previous EurAsian Times analysis

Lastly, the risks of unintended nuclear escalation are exponentially higher when an SLCM-N is fired since the country sustaining the attack – China or North Korea – might legitimately retaliate with a nuclear strike, triggering a devastating atomic exchange.

Experts have long pointed out how such exchanges cannot be “controlled” given the tensions and the miscalculation involved. 

A US asset firing an SLCM-N also counts as a nuclear first strike, which shifts the diplomatic narrative in the Russian, Chinese, or North Korean favor. None of these countries have ever indicated they plan to use nuclear weapons as a warfighting tool. While China has a clear No-First Use (NFU) policy, Moscow and Pyongyang have maintained they will use nukes only when the physical security of their country faces an existential threat.