Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

Cancelling the New Sea-launched Nuclear Cruise Missile is the Right Move

| Dec. 05, 2023

Note

Listen to the related podcast: "Debating the New Nuclear Cruise Missile" here.

In June, Republican lawmakers adopted an amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act to develop a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile and recently included funding in appropriations legislation for the Department of Energy. This would override the Joseph R. Biden administration's decision to cancel the program, announced in the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, and it rekindled a debate on its merits.

The Donald Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review articulated the rationale for the new missile as necessary to “expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack; and, enhance deterrence by signaling to potential adversaries that their concepts of coercive, limited nuclear escalation offer no exploitable advantage.” Without such a capability, adversaries possessing tactical — or theater-range — nuclear weapons could be tempted to execute limited strikes against U.S. and allied forces in a future conflict. The deployment of a nuclear cruise missile on naval assets deployed in the region would remove any incentive to consider such limited use because U.S. forces could promptly and proportionately retaliate.

The new missile would effectively reconstitute a retired Cold War system, the nuclear-armed version of the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, which could strike targets at ranges of 2,500 kilometers (or roughly 1,550 miles).

While critics have rightly focused on the program costs and timing of delivery, potential operational challenges for the Navy, and redundancy, proponents have countered that the new cruise missile will enhance deterrence and reassure allies facing adversaries with stocks of tactical nuclear weapons. This is an important claim and ultimately central to whether the program is worthy of funding. However, the deterrence and reassurance benefits of a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile are vastly overstated and may actually undermine the ability of the United States to deter adversaries by diverting scarce resources away from investments in more useful conventional platforms and munitions.

The Donald Trump administration's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review articulated the rationale for the new missile as necessary to “expand the range of credible U.S. options for responding to nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attack; and, enhance deterrence by signaling to potential adversaries that their concepts of coercive, limited nuclear escalation offer no exploitable advantage.” Without such a capability, adversaries possessing tactical — or theater-range — nuclear weapons could be tempted to execute limited strikes against U.S. and allied forces in a future conflict. The deployment of a nuclear cruise missile on naval assets deployed in the region would remove any incentive to consider such limited use because U.S. forces could promptly and proportionately retaliate....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kearn, David W.“Cancelling the New Sea-launched Nuclear Cruise Missile is the Right Move.” War on the Rocks, December 5, 2023.