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The Navy has “zeroed” out the budget line for its previous plans to architect a new, nuclear-capable, Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), a weapon called for in the previous 2018 Nuclear Posture Review intended to give commanders tactical, low-yield nuclear weapons options with which to deter enemies and hold potential attackers at risk.
Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM)
The Biden administration’s decision to cancel the SLCM has generated some debate and concern among Congressional decision-makers, some of whom asked the Navy to explain the rationale for no longer pursuing the weapon. Several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned the Navy leadership about the decision, raising a concern that it might leave the US unnecessarily vulnerable in some respects.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the President has sufficient “tools” in his tool to deter adversaries considering the use of nuclear weapons. He explained that this includes an ability to deal with the threat of tactical nuclear weapons.
The previous administration's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for the rapid integration of new, low-yield nuclear weapons to expand the envelope of possibilities available to commanders pursuing a strong nuclear deterrence posture. The strategy document called for the introduction of a new, low-yield variant of the submarine-launched, nuclear capable Trident II D5 weapon.
The Pentagon has already built this weapon by modifying the existing Trident II D5 to accommodate this. In addition to this, the NPR called for a nuclear-capable Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM). The Biden administration has canceled the SLCM program, an initiative which has sparked debate in Congress and among military decision makers.
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Years ago, when former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was explaining the rationale for the SLCM to Congress, he argued that it was an important mechanism through which to help bring Russia back to the negotiating table given their violation of the INF. Lawmakers questioned Mattis as to whether the introduction of newer, low-yield tactical nuclear weapons might lower the threshold to nuclear confrontation and think that somehow there might be a realistic possibility of a limited nuclear engagement.
Mattis responded that the introduction of these weapons would not be intended to increase the likelihood of a nuclear engagement but rather strengthen a deterrence posture by giving commanders more options with which to hold an enemy at risk. He explained this in the specific context of Russia’s known arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons and the importance of establishing the leverage and deterrence posture necessary to again try to negotiate with Russia and prevent any kind of nuclear engagement.
Chief of Naval Operation Adm. Micheal Gilday told Congress that there is a clear “capability gap” which will be left unresolved without introducing the SLCM. However he made a point to add that there are quite possibly other weapons or alternatives capable of achieving the desired deterrence mission set, without necessarily building a SLCM.
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The issue of tactical nuclear weapons takes on even more urgency given the current situation in Ukraine and the consistency with which Putin and his Russian backers raise the possibility of using nuclear weapons. Such a posture may simply be a manipulative attempt to keep NATO at bay by introducing the reality of nuclear war, yet others express concern that if backed into a corner, Putin may indeed use nuclear weapons.
Perhaps he would use a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine with the hope that such an engagement would not escalate into global thermonuclear war? The Pentagon, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have been very clear that they believe such language on the part of Putin is dangerous and “irresponsible” for a nuclear power. The Pentagon has deliberately declined to engage in escalatory nuclear-warfare rhetoric, yet emphasizes its confidence in the capability and readiness of the current US nuclear deterrence posture.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.