Nuclear Arsenal

The US Navy’s new nuclear cruise missile starts getting real next year

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — The Pentagon intends to create a program of record for a new nuclear-armed, submarine-launched cruise missile in its next budget request, with the goal of deploying the weapon in 7-10 years, according to a senior defense official.

Speaking on condition of anonymity during a visit to Minot Air Force Base this week, the official noted that the department is going through an analysis of alternatives, or AOA, process for the weapon, which was first announced during the rollout of the Nuclear Posture Review.

“We requested $5 million in FY20, which Congress gave us. There’s nothing in the ‘21 budget because we’ll just continue to use the $5 million to do the AOA,” the official explained. “But in FY22, I hope that you’ll see a budget request that will begin the program of record for the sea-launched cruise missile.”

“You put these on submarines, the Russians won’t know where they are,” the official added. “They’ll hate it. They’ll absolutely hate it.”

As part of the Nuclear Posture Review, rolled out in early 2018, the Trump administration said it would seek two new nuclear capabilities: a low-yield warhead for the submarine-launched ballistic missile, and a sea-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile. The first goal is complete, with the warhead, known as the W76-2, deployed for the first time in late 2019.

The official said the department is still sorting how much money the program might cost, but pointed to the estimated price tag for the Long Range Standoff Weapon — or LRSO, a new air-launched cruise missile — as a rough estimate. That weapon is projected to cost the Defense Department about $8 billion to $9 billion and a similar amount for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is charged with developing the warhead, the official said.

“Do you put it on a surface ship? Do you put it on a submarine? Do you use a new missile or an existing missile? How far does it have to travel? We’re looking at all of this. And then you also have to look at the concept of operations. How you want them to operate? Do you store the weapons on the sub all the time, or do you bring them into port and bring them in a crisis?” the official said.

Strategically, adding the cruise missile would allow the nuclear-armed Navy to go from 12 ships to 20 or 30, which would be “huge” in changing the strategic calculus for China and Russia, the official noted.

The official emphasized that the weapon doesn’t need to be a brand-new design, saying: “It doesn’t have [to] be a big deal” to design and procure.

“The SLCM [submarine-launched cruise missile] doesn’t have to be a big deal. Could be the same warhead. We’re going to look into that,” the official added.

A conventional Tomahawk weapon has a rough range of 1,250–2,500 kilometers, and the range on the new SLCM would likely be longer, as a nuclear warhead weighs less than a conventional payload. The Navy is already investing in its Next Generation Land Attack Weapon, which could provide a more updated system on which to base the SLCM. The warhead could be a modification of the W80-4, the warhead from NNSA that will be paired with the LRSO.

Critics of the idea argue that another nuclear weapon adds little to the arsenal, while eating into a naval budget that is already under strain.

“A new SLCM would be a costly hedge on a hedge,” said Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association. “The United States is already planning to invest scores of billions of dollars in the B-21 [bomber], LRSO and F-35A [fighter jet] to address the [area-access/area denial] challenge. The Navy is unlikely to be pleased with the additional operational and financial burdens that would come with re-nuclearizing the surface or attack submarine fleet.”

Additionally, “arming attack submarines with nuclear SLCMs would also reduce the number of conventional Tomahawk SLCMs each submarine could carry,” Reif said.

Regardless of the details for the weapon, the official expects the Pentagon is 7-10 years away from deploying the new SLCM — and that’s if Congress backs the plan. Democrats have raised objections to the Trump administration’s plans for new nuclear weapons before, but ultimately did not block the W76-2 project from moving forward.

“I don’t know if Congress is going to make a big deal about it or not because there’s really no money involved” in fiscal 2021, the official said. “But it is a new weapon system, and unlike the W76-2, where you’re replacing a large warhead for a small warhead, here you’re actually introducing more deployed capabilities. But again, it’s 7-10 years.”

When the Nuclear Posture Review was rolled out, officials emphasized that the SLCM could be used as a bargaining chip in arms control negotiations with Russia. Despite a number of arms control agreements being on the ropes, the official this week again argued that the SLCM could “give us some leverage to bring [Russia] back to the arms control table.”

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