Home Americas New sea-launched nuclear missile could boost deterrence, US defense officials argue

New sea-launched nuclear missile could boost deterrence, US defense officials argue

US destroyer launching missile at night
Photo: US defense department

Developing and deploying a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile has been described as essential to deter Russia, the US defense department said citing unnamed officials.

A recent State Department paper said the new weapon would help fill a gap identified in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

The United States retired its last nuclear sea-launched cruise missile in 2010 — one of only two remaining US theater or tactical (“non-strategic”) nuclear weapons. In contrast, Russia continued a program to modernize and expand its low-yield theater and tactical nuclear weapons, the Pentagon said. Even more worrying is the fact that Russian strategy actually contemplates the use of these nuclear capabilities in conflict, the officials said.

Russian strategic thought mistakenly believes that limited nuclear first use with low-yield weapons could provide Russia with a “coercive advantage” in a conflict, the State Department paper says.

Russia may have pursued this strategy because the United States, unlike Russia, retired most of its non-strategic nuclear systems. Russia may believe it can use theater or tactical weapons, the paper says, because the United States could not effectively respond and might be reluctant to escalate further by responding with strategic nuclear weapons.

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review calls for adjustments to US nuclear forces to close this perceived gap on the escalation ladder and reinforce deterrence against low-yield nuclear use, DOD officials said.

A nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile would address alarming developments in the forces and doctrine of nuclear competitors, the posture review says, adding that Russia and China both are investing significant sums to improve and expand their nuclear forces with no clear indication as to where that expansion will stop.

There are credible concerns that theater and tactical nuclear capabilities are central to a Russian approach to regional conflict that envisions the early, limited use of non-strategic nuclear weapons to end a war on terms favorable to Russia.

“This approach may be premised on Russia’s belief that its expanding anti-access/area denial networks will be able to neutralize the airborne nuclear deterrent forces of the United States and NATO,” the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review concluded. “In the future, it is possible that China could adopt a similar doctrine. Developing and fielding (sea-launched cruise missile-nuclear) signal the leaders of nuclear competitors in a concrete way that the United States has the capability and will to maintain operationally effective nuclear options to deter regional aggression.”

The SLCM capability could also help allay the concerns of regional allies shielded by the US nuclear umbrella, officials said.