Washington’s Consideration of Deploying Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missiles on Virginia-Class Attack Submarines to Deter China and Russia


Washington is considering the deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Virginia-class attack submarines to deter China and Russia, according to the Asia Times. This potential move is part of a broader strategy aimed at strengthening the United States’ nuclear deterrence capabilities in response to growing geopolitical tensions. Recently, US lawmakers have focused on how to modify Virginia-class attack submarines (SSN) to install nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM-N). Last week, Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe was summoned to discuss the complexities and uncertainties concerning arming attack submarines with SLCM-N. The discussion revolved around enhancing their nuclear deterrence against China and Russia, according to the Asia Times.

The SLCM-N is a cruise missile with a low-yield nuclear warhead that can be launched from surface ships or attack submarines (SSNs). It was first proposed in 2018 alongside the low-yield version of the W76 warhead (with less than 10 kilotons of explosive power) to arm long-range ballistic missile submarines. This initiative aims to provide the US with more flexible and scalable nuclear options.

US military experts argue that SLCM-Ns would allow the US to engage in a “limited” nuclear exchange in contrast to “massive retaliation.” Lieutenant Commander Alan Cummings of the US Navy Reserve articulated this viewpoint in April 2024, emphasizing that lower-yield nuclear weapons could signal a clear intent to limit the intensity of a nuclear conflict. This approach is seen as a strategic move to prevent escalation to full-scale nuclear war.

Furthermore, using theater-based nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles might not be perceived as “legitimizing” a nuclear retaliatory strike on the American homeland, according to US military experts. They suggest that it would be difficult for American adversaries to immediately identify the origin of the strike after an attack, thereby complicating their response.

Placing SLCM-Ns on US attack submarines will allow the Pentagon to maintain a widespread and enduring presence in strategic regions such as the North Atlantic, Arctic Ocean, and Asia-Pacific. Kyle Balzer of the American Enterprise Institute noted that the low observability of undersea launchers means that Beijing and Moscow would have to assume that these submarines are always on site. Balzer pointed out in Breaking Defense on February 28 that if deployed on select surface ships as well as submarines, the deterrent effect could be even greater. The deployment of SLCM-Ns on attack subs and surface ships would create an atmosphere of ambiguity, making it unclear to Russia and China whether the vessels are nuclear-armed or not, thus complicating their decision-making and enhancing deterrence.

Balzer argues that China and Russia would have to assume the presence of SLCM-Ns regardless of whether they are deployed in significant numbers to forward areas. This ambiguity is seen as having considerable deterrence value and cost-effectiveness.

American lawmakers have been pushing ahead with the SLCM-N program for several years. The United States has not deployed a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile since 1991, but the Trump administration argued in 2018 that the SLCM-N would “provide a needed non-strategic regional presence” in Europe and Asia and contribute to the deterrence and assurance of allies, especially in Asia.

The SLCM-N program was reversed by President Joe Biden in 2022 as an excessive and costly solution. Nonetheless, after a heated debate, the initiative was passed within the framework of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2024 under the pretext of Russia’s special military operation and China’s alleged plans to “invade” Taiwan. It became law in December 2023 with instructions to achieve operational capability of the SLCM-N by 2034.

Russia has repeatedly warned the US against lowering the nuclear threshold and hypothesizing the possibility of a limited nuclear exchange. According to Moscow, the “limited” use of nuclear weapons by no means reduces the risk of an all-out nuclear war, but rather invites it. Commenting on Washington’s plans to deploy low-yield nuclear arms on its submarines or surface vessels in April 2020, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned the move as destabilizing. Zakharova stated that such actions would be seen as warranting retaliatory use of nuclear weapons by Russia.

In May, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned NATO against delivering F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, given that the warplanes could carry low-yield nuclear B61-12 bombs. Moscow said it would treat F-16s in Ukraine as nuclear-capable weapon systems, regardless of their model, and would consider their deployment a deliberate provocation.

China has also repeatedly lambasted Washington for switching to low-yield nuclear arms, viewing it as a return to Cold War-era tactics. Beijing has raised alarms over the AUKUS pact (Australia, UK, and US) plans to build nuclear-powered submarines in Australia, which it sees as violating non-proliferation principles. Both Russia and China adhere to a no-first-use nuclear doctrine, further highlighting the potential risks associated with the deployment of SLCM-Ns.

The deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Virginia-class attack submarines represents a significant shift in US nuclear policy. It underscores the growing concern among American lawmakers and military officials about the strategic threats posed by China and Russia. The move also reflects a broader trend towards enhancing the US’s nuclear deterrence capabilities in an increasingly multipolar world.

The SLCM-N program’s merits are debated among American lawmakers, military officials, and scholars. Proponents argue that these missiles would provide the US with more flexible and scalable nuclear options, allowing for a limited nuclear exchange rather than a massive retaliation. This flexibility is seen as crucial in deterring adversaries and preventing escalation to full-scale nuclear war.

However, critics argue that the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons lowers the threshold for nuclear conflict and increases the risk of miscalculation. They warn that the ambiguity created by deploying SLCM-Ns on attack submarines and surface ships could lead to heightened tensions and unintended escalation.

The decision to pursue the SLCM-N program was driven by concerns over Russia’s military actions and China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. In recent years, both countries have made significant advancements in their military capabilities, prompting the US to reassess its nuclear deterrence strategy.

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2024, which included provisions for the SLCM-N program, was passed amid escalating tensions between the US and its rivals. The legislation was framed as a response to Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine and China’s alleged plans to invade Taiwan. It reflects a broader shift in US defense policy towards countering these perceived threats.

The implementation of the SLCM-N program is expected to take several years, with operational capability targeted for 2034. This timeline underscores the complexity and technical challenges associated with developing and deploying nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Virginia-class attack submarines. The program will require significant investments in research and development, as well as modifications to existing submarine platforms.

In addition to technical challenges, the SLCM-N program faces political and diplomatic hurdles. The decision to deploy nuclear-armed cruise missiles is likely to provoke strong reactions from Russia and China, as well as other nuclear-armed states. It may also complicate efforts to negotiate arms control agreements and reduce the risk of nuclear conflict.

Despite these challenges, proponents of the SLCM-N program argue that it is a necessary step to enhance US nuclear deterrence in an increasingly complex and uncertain strategic environment. They contend that the presence of nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Virginia-class attack submarines will provide a credible and flexible deterrent against potential adversaries.

The deployment of SLCM-Ns is also seen as a way to reassure US allies and partners, particularly in Europe and Asia. The presence of these missiles is expected to strengthen the US’s security commitments and enhance regional stability. However, it remains to be seen how allies will respond to the deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles, given the potential risks and challenges associated with this move.

The SLCM-N program is part of a broader effort by the US to modernize its nuclear forces and enhance its deterrence capabilities. This effort includes investments in new technologies, such as hypersonic weapons and advanced missile defense systems, as well as the development of new nuclear delivery platforms.

The modernization of US nuclear forces is driven by concerns over the evolving strategic landscape, characterized by the rise of China as a major military power and the resurgence of Russia as a strategic competitor. These developments have prompted the US to reassess its nuclear posture and pursue new capabilities to deter potential adversaries.

The SLCM-N program reflects a broader trend towards enhancing the flexibility and scalability of US nuclear forces. By providing additional options for limited nuclear strikes, the program aims to deter adversaries and prevent escalation to full-scale nuclear war. This approach is seen as a way to maintain strategic stability in an increasingly complex and uncertain environment.

In conclusion, Washington’s consideration of deploying nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Virginia-class attack submarines represents a significant shift in US nuclear policy. The SLCM-N program aims to enhance the US’s nuclear deterrence capabilities and provide more flexible and scalable options for limited nuclear strikes. While the program faces technical, political, and diplomatic challenges, proponents argue that it is a necessary step to deter potential adversaries and maintain strategic stability. The deployment of SLCM-Ns is expected to strengthen US security commitments and enhance regional stability, but it also carries significant risks and challenges that will need to be carefully managed.

APPENDIX 1 – Renewed Arguments for the Navy’s Deployment of a Nuclear-Armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM-N)

The discourse surrounding the deployment of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM-N) by the Navy has gained significant attention in recent years, particularly due to its low-yield characteristics. However, focusing solely on yield diminishes other critical considerations that need to be addressed. Senior policy-makers must evaluate SLCM-N within the broader context of U.S. nuclear modernization and theater deterrence, separate from but reinforcing strategic deterrence.

Strategic Context of Theater Deterrence

While yield is an important factor, other considerations play a crucial role in theater deterrence. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) canceled SLCM-N partly because existing capabilities like the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, globally deployable bombers, dual-capable fighter aircraft, and air-launched cruise missiles were deemed sufficient for theater deterrence.

Three stronger arguments for SLCM-N exist beyond firepower alone. First, it enhances theater deterrence options by reducing reliance on aircraft-delivered weapons. Second, it can complement or replace the W76-2, allocating some theater deterrence roles to attack submarines (SSNs) while reserving ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) for higher levels of conflict. Third, SLCM-N supports U.S. arms control, assurance, and nonproliferation objectives, aligning with the recommendations of the 2023 Strategic Posture Commission. The Commission emphasized the need for U.S. theater nuclear force posture to provide a range of effective nuclear response options to deter or counter Russian or Chinese limited nuclear use, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

Yield and Theater Deterrence

Theater deterrence is distinct from strategic deterrence, requiring different approaches to deterring limited nuclear use far from the U.S. homeland. Historically, the United States abandoned “massive retaliation” in favor of “flexible response” to avoid being forced into either an all-out nuclear attack or accepting a nuclear attack without response. Flexible response relies on the concept of limited war, which includes limits on both the means and methods of conflict.

Lower yields signal an interest in limiting conflict intensity. Yield determines the destructive force of a weapon, with lower yields reducing collateral damage and allowing for limited means of warfare. However, the delivery system and host platforms are equally important. These factors influence responsiveness, tactics, logistics, vulnerabilities, and command and control, all of which shape the nature of a potential nuclear exchange.

Controlling the weapon’s origin and flight path is also critical. Adversaries will likely try to identify the origin of a strike, using this information for preemptive or retaliatory actions. Therefore, reserving high-yield intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for higher levels of conflict is prudent. Theater-based weapons like SLCM-N provide flexibility in signaling and negotiating the limits of a conflict, reducing the risks of horizontal escalation.

Diverse Nuclear Options

The current U.S. nuclear arsenal, while robust for strategic deterrence, is suboptimal for theater deterrence. The near-monad of air-delivered capabilities presents several challenges, including logistical and security concerns associated with deploying aircraft and nuclear weapons forward to a theater. These challenges demand deep cooperation with host and overflight nations, who may have reservations in both peacetime and wartime.

Deploying SLCM-Ns on SSNs addresses these concerns by offering a persistent, mobile, responsive platform capable of launching from international waters. This minimizes the risks to allied territory and reduces the logistics and security burdens. Additionally, SLCM-Ns enhance the President’s options for maintaining deterrence in a secondary theater, providing flexibility and reducing the dependency on air-delivered capabilities.

Decoupling Theater and Strategic Roles

The current reliance on SSBNs for both strategic and theater deterrence roles blurs the line between the two, increasing the risk of accidental or retaliatory targeting of strategic assets. Deploying SLCM-Ns on SSNs would decouple these roles, preserving SSBNs for higher levels of conflict and reducing the risks associated with using strategic assets in theater operations. This separation strengthens deterrence and improves escalation control options.

Supporting Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Arms control agreements reduce risks by limiting the means of warfare, contributing to strategic stability. Deploying SLCM-N would signal a U.S. commitment to safeguard itself and its allies, potentially encouraging adversaries to negotiate arms control agreements. The deployment of SLCM-N could serve as a bargaining tool in arms control negotiations, much like the deployment of U.S. Pershing II missiles in the 1980s led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Extended deterrence also plays a crucial role in nonproliferation by minimizing the number of nuclear weapon programs worldwide. By providing credible nuclear guarantees to allies, the United States can prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, contributing to global security.

Escalation Management in the Indo-Pacific

In the Indo-Pacific, where the United States lacks a permanent theater deterrence capability, submarine-based SLCM-Ns would signal the gravity of U.S. commitments and the ability to fulfill them without increasing risks to U.S. or allied territory. In the event of a nuclear response, SLCM-N would provide the President with options to limit the scale and scope of a strike, supporting efforts to restore deterrence.

Air Force General Anthony Cotton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, emphasized the value of SLCM-N in providing additional options for deterrence, assurance, and response without visible generation. Renewing SLCM-N aligns with the broader promise of strengthening regional deterrence to counter theater attacks and nuclear coercion.

The deployment of SLCM-N by the Navy represents a critical component of U.S. theater deterrence, addressing gaps in the current arsenal and enhancing the President’s options for managing limited nuclear conflicts. By decoupling theater and strategic roles, supporting arms control and nonproliferation, and providing credible deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, SLCM-N contributes to a more robust and flexible nuclear strategy. The arguments for SLCM-N extend beyond its low-yield characteristics, encompassing a broader strategic context that reinforces U.S. nuclear modernization and theater deterrence efforts.

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