The Department of Energy and the Pentagon could be studying a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile by this time next year, the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said this week in an annual report on its nuclear-weapon programs.

The Trump administration called on DoE to research the weapon in the Nuclear Posture Review published in February. At that time, “the intent was to defer the study until FY [fiscal year] 2020,” DoE wrote in its roughly 200-page 2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan. Fiscal 2020 will begin on Oct. 1, 2019.

The Energy Department did not provide a development timeline for the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) in the 2019 plan. For the near term, the agency said it would work with the Nuclear Weapons Council — a joint DoE-Pentagon body focused on nuclear weapons procurement — on an analysis of alternatives for the weapon. 

Without saying how long that analysis might take, DoE wrote in the 2019 plan that it “will not create a formal [SLCM] program until the [analysis of alternatives] is concluded.”

An analysis of alternatives, sometimes completed through task orders on standing contracts with industry, compares and contrasts different options for completing one mission — in this case, building an SLCM.

The Navy carried nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles (TLAM/N) on surface ships until sometime midway through the Obama administration. An analyst deduced the Navy had retired the weapon when, in 2013, the service removed all mention of the missile from an official list of naval nuclear weapons responsibilities.

The TLAM/N used DoE’s W80 warhead: a workhorse model available in great number from the stockpile. The current generation of air-launched cruise missiles uses the W80, as will the next-generation air-launched cruise missile Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Raytheon [RTN] are developing for the Pentagon for deployment later in the next decade.

When the Trump administration initially called for a SLCM study, some government officials — notably including Defense Secretary James Mattis — framed the proposed weapon as a means of scaring Russia back to the negotiating table to talk about its alleged violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

However, the administration has since announced its intent to withdraw from that Cold War-era arms-control pact, which forbade either Washington or Moscow from deploying ground-based missiles that could deliver conventional or nuclear payloads to targets between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers [roughly 300 miles to 3300 miles] away.

Besides the SLCM study, the nuclear posture review also ordered DoE to build a low-yield version of the W76 sea-launched ballistic-missile warhead to check similarly powerful Russian capabilities. The Trump administration fears Russia might use a low-yield nuclear weapon to win a war it starts, but cannot finish, with conventional weapons. Critics say existing nuclear weapons already deter Moscow from such a move. 

DoE was to start production on the low-yield W76 this fiscal year and is slated to finish production of the dialed-down submarine warhead by fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, 2023.