The Defense Department has not yet decided what platform would launch the new nuclear- armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) the administration is seeking in the recent nuclear posture review (NPR), the head of U.S. Strategic Command said on Friday.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten said the Pentagon’s FY ’19 budget request has a tasking to look at platforms that would hold the new SLCM. He highlighted the NPR does not say what platform would carry the SLCM “because we want to look at number of options.”

Trident II D5 Fleet Ballistic Missile. Photo: Lockheed Martin
Trident II D5 Fleet Ballistic Missile. Photo: Lockheed Martin

This includes everything from surface vessels like the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers through various types of submarines  including fast attack submarines (SSNs), guided-missile submarines (SSGNs), and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).

The Defense Department will “look across those boards and make sure we understand what it is. That’s what the president’s budget has requested us to go look at those platforms. And we’re going to work down that path,” Hyten said at the NPR Seminar at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The NPR called for lowering the yield of some warheads on existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and later developing and fielding a nuclear-armed SLCMs as a longer-term effort to provide the president with more options to deter attacks by potential adversaries (Defense Daily, Feb. 2).

The effort will first begin with a “capability study” leading to an analysis of alternatives for rapid development of a new SLCM. The U.S. had nuclear-armed SLCMs for decades until the Obama administration announced their retirement in 2010.

Other administration officials speaking at the conference explained why the administration believes the U.S. needs to develop these weapons.

Gregory Weaver, deputy director of plans and policy at U.S. Strategic Command, said the Defense Department looked at Russian doctrine and nuclear capabilities in particular, seeing a growing disparity in Russian tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons (smaller yield and range) and NATO/U.S. capabilities.

They worried that a smaller number and a bomber-reliant set of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons may not be able to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons in a war in Eastern Europe. Officials worry Russia may escalate toward using tactical nuclear weapons in a conventional war because they know their conventional military forces cannot match the full combined NATO armed forces.

Weaver said there are real indications Russia perceives the U.S. tactical nuclear capability as unable to coerce them against limited nuclear use, particularly as they modernize their nuclear forces and air defenses.

Weaver noted reducing Russian confidence in their strategy on limited nuclear weapons use does not mean the U.S. has to match their weapons in capability or diversity.

NATO does not need tactical low yield nuclear weapons equal to Russia, but options Russia believes NATO could use in response to a Russian first use of nuclear weapons.

Weaver highlighted the new SLBM and SLCMs would not increase total nuclear weapon warheads, but replace existing ones.

 Separately, Robert Soofer from the Office of the Secretary of Defense said the latest budget request funds the new lower-yield SLBM warheads at $22.6 million in FY ’19 and almost $50 million across the Future years Defense Program (FYDP).