Biden moves to scrap Trump-era sea-launched nuclear missile program

The Biden administration is seeking to scrap the U.S. military’s development of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, despite recommendations to the contrary from top officials, according to the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy released Thursday.   

The decision, which comes over top Defense Department officials’ public recommendations to keep the weapon, is part of a sweeping new strategy calling for better military deterrence in the face of threats from Russia and China.  

You are reading: Biden moves to scrap Trump-era sea-launched nuclear missile program

The document, which also includes a review of America’s nuclear arsenal and missile defenses, reverses the Trump administration’s 2018 move to develop a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N), a weapon meant to focus specifically on a Russian threat. 

The U.S. will still maintain a submarine-launched nuclear arsenal.

The Biden administration said the Trump-era program was “no longer necessary,” as the United States already has the “means to deter limited nuclear use.” 

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Asked about the decision on Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. nuclear weapons inventory is already significant and that officials had determined the submarine-launched cruise missile wasn’t a necessary add. 

“We determined, as we looked at our inventory, that we did not need that capability. We have a lot of capability in our nuclear inventory,” Austin told reporters at the Pentagon. 

He added that he doesn’t believe the move sends any message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose current nuclear saber-rattling over Ukraine has prompted renewed scrutiny of the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  

“He understands what our capability is, and … we’ll continue to move forward,” Austin said.  

The administration’s decision to cancel the missile is not entirely surprising, as it falls in line with its Navy’s fiscal 2023 budget request released earlier this year. The service hoped to eliminated funding for research and development into the new SLCM-N, indicating that the program was “cost prohibitive and the acquisition schedule would have delivered capability late to need.”  

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Ahead of the document’s release, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters that the program was cut because even with full funding, the missiles would not be ready until 2035. 

The Biden administration still wants billions of dollars to refurbish the three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad — composed of ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, bomber aircraft and submarine-launched weapons, all with nuclear payloads — but looks to save by slashing the development of the SLCM-N. 

But Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in April told lawmakers that his views on the SLCM-N and other low-yield nuclear weapons have not altered. 

Milley had backed the Trump-era weapons decision in written answers during his 2019 Senate confirmation process, writing that they “are necessary to enable our flexible and tailored deterrence strategy as we modernize aging nuclear forces.” 

“My position on SLCM-N has not changed,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee in April. “My general view is that this president or any president deserves to have multiple options to deal with national security situations.” 

Congress could still move to resist the Pentagon effort to cancel the missile. 

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