Handing Putin the Nuclear Advantage
By The Editorial Board
April 20, 2022
Vladimir Putin has made veiled threats about using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and the Biden Administration says it is worried. This makes it all the more puzzling that President Biden is canceling a new weapon that would be a nuclear deterrent.
The latest Pentagon budget request nixes the sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, or SLCM-N. This missile is considered a “tactical” nuclear weapon that has a lower yield than “strategic” options and might be used on battlefield targets. The missile could be launched from submarines or destroyers.
This weapon is aimed at deterring a known risk: Russia’s up to 2,000 tactical nukes, including weapons “employable by ships, planes, and ground forces,” as the Pentagon’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review noted. The Russian nuclear inventory includes “air-to-surface missiles, short range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines,” and more.
Enter the SLCM-N, which would be less of an escalation than reaching for the ballistic subs and could strike much faster than calling in strategic bombers. The Trump Administration proposed the SLCM-N in 2018. Message to Mr. Putin: If you drop a nuke on NATO soil, the alliance has the will and ability to respond in kind. This reduces the risk Mr. Putin will use a nuke.
This is not some novel weapon, and it doesn’t abrogate U.S. treaty obligations. The U.S. Navy had a nuclear-tipped Tomahawk missile during the Cold War that President Obama retired in 2010. The SLCM-N could serve as a deterrent without procuring large quantities or deploying it on every attack submarine.
It would also be useful in dissuading China from using a nuke on Taiwan, without the longer and fraught debate of, say, putting American nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. Which brings us to another point: If allies perceive the U.S. either can’t or won’t respond if they’re attacked by Russia or North Korea or someone else, they will develop their own nuclear deterrent. The SLCM-N could reduce proliferation at a volatile moment.
Several U.S. flag officers have told Congress they think the country needs the missile, and such candor from the brass is notable. The head of U.S. Strategic Command has warned of a “deterrence and assurance gap.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley said he thinks “this president or any president deserves to have multiple options to deal with national security situations.” Good advice.
Many in Congress want to restore the SLCM-N in the military budget, and we hope they succeed. Nuclear weapons are a grim reality of modern life, but they are more likely to be used if adversaries believe the U.S. and NATO lack an adequate nuclear deterrent.