WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Wednesday adopted a measure to institutionalize the sea-launched cruise missile nuclear program, or SLCM-N.
The Armed Services Committee voted along party lines to amend the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act with a provision that would create a program of record for SLCM-N.
“The nuclear threat environment is changing rapidly,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., who chairs the Strategic Forces subcommittee, said before the amendment vote. “China’s arsenal is expanding dramatically and Russia’s arsenal continues to grow. We must adjust our nuclear posture.”
The Biden administration has sought to scrap research on SLCM-N and did not request funding for it in its FY24 budget request. Republicans teamed up with some Democrats last year to authorize $25 million to continue SLCM-N research in the FY23 defense authorization bill, rebuking the Biden administration’s efforts to cancel it.
The House’s FY24 defense authorization bill, which the full Armed Services Committee is expected to advance early Thursday morning — paving the way for a full floor vote in July — would provide nearly $196 million for continued SLCM-N development.
While SLCM-N research has received bipartisan support in the past, Lamborn’s proposal to turn it into a program of record proved a bridge too far for Democrats.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., who chairs the sea power subcommittee, cited May testimony from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday stating that the warheads needed to make a SLCM-N program would cost at least $31 billion.
“The Navy can do a lot of other things with $31 billion,” Courtney said ahead of the vote. “You can build 15 DDG destroyers with $31 billion, 10 Virginia-class submarines with $31 billion.”
“You put nuclear warheads on these vessels, then you are changing the mission,” he added while questioning the ability of the National Nuclear Security Administration to absorb a new program. He also noted that the combatant commanders have not asked to make SLCM-N a program of record in their unfunded priorities lists.
Along party lines, the committee voted down 31-28 a Courtney amendment that would have allowed the Defense Secretary or National Nuclear Security Administrator to waive the establishment of a SLCM-N program.
Republicans countered Democratic arguments by citing military officials who have previously endorsed SLCM-N. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, noted that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley “believes we do need this missile.”
The former head of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nuclear arsenal, Adm. Charles Richard also backed SLCM-N in a letter to House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., last year.
“The current situation in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory have further convinced me a deterrence and assurance gap exists,” Richard wrote.
But Gen. Anthony Cotton, the new head of Strategic Command, has neither endorsed nor repudiated SLCM-N in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
“A low-yield, non-ballistic nuclear capability to deter, assure and respond without visible generation (similar to the characteristics of SLCM-N) offers additional options and supports an integrated deterrence approach,” Cotton wrote. “It is one of several possible nuclear or conventional capabilities the U.S. could develop to enhance strategic deterrence.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, argued that the U.S. already has ballistic submarines in its fleet as well as lower-yield nuclear options from the air.
“It’s walking us down a path of spending enormous amounts of money on a capability that we don’t really need that will undermine our ability to build capabilities that we do [need] going forward,” said Smith.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.