As conditions for Russian soldiers deteriorate on the battlefields of Ukraine, we have seen a rhetorical escalation of threats of a nuclear strike from Moscow in response. The risk of a possible nuclear conflict has not been this high since the height of the Cold War decades ago.
At this moment, we should be doubling down on our efforts toward nuclear arms control. Instead, the United States Congress is trying to develop a new nuclear weapons delivery system we don’t need, and one the Biden administration has emphatically declared it doesn’t want.
Congress’s pet nuclear boondoggle is known as the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N). It’s a Cold War-era idea that was given new life by former president Donald Trump only to haunt us in the year 2022. Nuke-happy, hawkish Democrats teamed up with the GOP and managed to slip $45 million for SLCM-N research and development into this year’s defense budget — the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that is now being debated.
If completed, SLCM-N would essentially do what its name suggests: deliver nuclear warheads from ships, submarines or naval aircraft on a trajectory that makes it hard to track by radar.
Weapons like the SLCM-N are inherently more dangerous because of their ambiguous nature. These weapons look pretty much like conventional missiles, which are carried by U.S. naval assets around the world. Neither our allies nor our adversaries will be able to tell whether any random ship or submarine is armed with a nuclear weapon. And whenever a ship or a submarine fires a missile, everyone will be left wondering if it’s a nuke or not. The risk of accidental nuclear conflict is exponentially higher with these weapons in play. And they’re not treaty-limited either, which further destabilizes the environment.
Members of Congress, nuclear non-proliferation groups and anti-war organizations have called for the elimination of the SLCM-N. The Biden administration has also strongly opposed its funding in the NDAA. And in the recently released Nuclear Posture Review, the administration laid out multiple reasons to scrap the SLCM-N program entirely, ranging from the cost of the program to its redundancy with already existing weapon systems.