WASHINGTON – The head of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nation’s nuclear arsenal, told Congress he supports the sea-launched cruise missile program despite the Biden administration’s proposal to cancel it.
Admiral Charles Richard endorsed the project in a letter to Congress last week obtained by Defense News. The letter to Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, comes as Congress prepares to mark up the annual defense authorization bill this month.
“I support reestablishing SLCM-N as necessary to enhance deterrence and assurance,” Richard said in the letter. “The current situation in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory have further convinced me a deterrence and assurance gap exists.”
Richard said he believes “a low-yield, non-ballistic capability that can be made available without visible generation” is needed to address that gap. He backed the SLCM-N while testifying before the Senate in May.
“We are facing a crisis deterrence dynamic right now that we have only seen a few times in our nation’s history,” he said at the time.
Richard first came to the program’s defense via a letter to lawmakers in April. Republicans highlighted his letter and testimony in seeking to convince Democrats to buck the White House and save SLCM-N from the chopping block.
“In an era of great power competition, our nuclear triad is the cornerstone that supports all US military operations,” Rogers said in a statement to Defense News on June 7. “SLCM-N would fill a critical gap in our triad, providing a low-yield and flexible option. Limiting our nuclear deterrent by canceling SLCM-N is a dangerous decision.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., has indicated that Democrats in the lower chamber are unlikely to authorize SLCM-N in the defense authorization bill, staking out partisan battle lines.
Smith told the Council on Foreign Relations last month that SLCM-N would be a “mistake because the idea is that those missiles would be put onto our attack submarines,” which would “undermine that mission.”
“We used to have that capability, and we got rid of that capability primarily because we found it undermined the other missions of the attack submarine and didn’t really add that much to our nuclear capability,” said Smith. “We have cruise missile capability in other legs.”
The Biden administration’s Fiscal 2023 $813.4 billion national budget proposal earmarks $50.9 billion in nuclear weapons, a $7.7 billion increase from the previous budget request.
While the party’s control of the House gives the Biden administration leverage in its efforts to scrap SLCM-N, Senate Democrats have so far remained noncommittal.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said last month that he has “not yet come to a conclusion” on SLCM-N.
“It’s going to be, obviously, an object of debate because we have opinions from military leaders like Admiral Richard and [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley] that they consider it to be necessary or needed,” he told Defense News
Senate strategic forces panel chairman Angus King, I-Maine, told Defense News that he’s in “fact-finding mode.” while indicating he may be favorably disposed toward maintaining SLCM-N.
King noted that Richard’s testimony last month “inclines me to think that it is at least something we should continue to do research and development on and understand better what the options are.”
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., also hopes to recruit Democrats in the upper chamber to rally behind SLCM-N.
“Our senior-most military officers are clear in their support for the sea-launched cruise missile – yet President Biden’s administration continues to ignore their best military advice,” Inhofe told Defense News. “I call on the Biden administration to declassify its Nuclear Posture Review so we can publicly review and debate the inadequate strategy that underpins the misguided decision to cancel this program.”
If the House and Senate defense bills take different positions on SLCM-N, lawmakers will have to hammer out a compromise in a conference committee later this year.
A similar partisan debate is unfolding over the Biden administration’s plans to retire the B83 megaton gravity bomb, which is 80 to 100 times more powerful than the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He previously wrote for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.