SLCM-N? Hard Pass
wrong idea at the wrong time.
I don’t know if you noticed it, but for some reason the memo went out the last 90-days to bring out a half-decade old argument to the surface when we need the distraction the least.
We are just now getting a consensus that our Navy has a critical shortfall in everything from maintenance capacity to effective battle force ships to submarines to the shipyards that we need to prepare for the war the People’s Republic of China seems to be intent to brew west of the international dateline.
It appears that many believe that now is the time to <checks notes again> invest a large percentage of a static level of capital in a Sea Launched Cruise Missile- Nuclear (SLCM-N).
Really people? Now?
In summary: Salamander non-concurs.
So, I guess it is time to weigh in here in as short of a summary as possible.
I don’t do so lightly as there are people I greatly respect who support it. I’ve more than second guessed my thoughts on the topic as on this issue I find myself aligned with those who are usually on the other side of arguments I make - but that’s OK; I always try to take each issue on their own merits, not which tribe is flying it with their banner.
The Congressional Research Service report from DEC 2022 summarized the “why now?”;
SLCM-N was one of two systems that the 2018 NPR identified as a way to “strengthen deterrence of regional adversaries.” The Navy deployed a low-yield version (with less than 10 kilotons, rather than 100 kilotons, of explosive power) of the W76 warhead on its long-range submarine launched ballistic missile in 2019 (see CRS In Focus IF11143, A Low-Yield, Submarine-Launched Nuclear Warhead: Overview of the Expert Debate, by Amy F. Woolf). The Navy conducted an Analysis of Alternatives in support of the SLCM-N from 2019-2021, and expected to begin the development of the missile in 2022 and achieve operational capability late in the 2020s.
According to a 2019 paper prepared by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, SLCM-N would serve as a response to developments in Russian and Chinese nuclear forces and doctrine that could undermine regional deterrence. The paper argued that the SLCM-N would be “capable of proportional, discriminate response based on survivable, regionally present platforms, and with the necessary range, penetration capability, and effectiveness to hold critical adversary targets at risk.”
Doing a bit more reading on the topic (especially the Atlantic Council issue brief Harvey co-authored (we’ll bring out a few more comments from the full report below), I’ve only become more convinced that - though an attractive and sellable theory - they are incorrect and are not fully addressing countering arguments.
Mark you calendar; Sal sez the Biden Administration is correct.
Congress is now debating the administration’s decision to cancel plans for a modern nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N).
senior Biden defense policy officials conclude that current and planned nuclear capabilities, including a new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) delivered by strategic bombers and modern B61-12 gravity bombs delivered by new, dual-capable F-35 fighter aircraft (DCA), are sufficient to augment deterrence of adversary limited nuclear first use.
If they aren’t - then … well … what the he11 people.
The chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, continue to see value in pursuing the SLCM-N “because of its distinct contribution” for deterring regional nuclear attack.
Nope. I don’t buy it.
In the broadest outline, here is where I stand in opposition.
No Such Thing as Tactical Nuclear Weapons: from the dawn of the nuclear age there has been a theory that there could be “limited nuclear war.” Yes, we can wargame such things with all sorts of planning assumptions and careful crafting by judges etc … but any brief review of human nature and war shows that once a weapon is used once, the door rapidly opens to general use, more use, larger use. Once that seal is broken, all falls out. The first use of a small nuke to take out a military target will quickly force the opponent - if not cowed (humans don’t usually do that once the blood is up all that easily) - to respond in kind in a larger way. You can’t stop it. Indeed, the foundation of our desire to get SLCM-N is RUS and PRC “plans” to use “small nukes” first. This is a bad theory that, left unchallenged, will leave us flat footed and could even encourage a nuclear war to start.
Tactical Theories v. Political Reality: in line with the above, any tactical use of nuclear weapons, except in very small out of the way corners of the world, will involve the use of nuclear weapons against tens to millions of civilians near by. The global political implications of would be unprecedented. Nations, allied and neutral, will want nothing to do with any of the belligerents in order to not be brought in to this. You can throw all your assumptions about access to facilities and equipment we have globally out the door.
Conventional Cruise Missiles Lose Utility While SLCM-N Gains Their Shortfalls: though there is talk about a “new weapon” everything I’ve read hints that we are just bringing back sub launched TLAM-N. Have the decision makers been briefed on the failure to launch and fail to transition we have experienced the last few decades with conventional TLAM launches? Have they been briefed on the numbers of TLAM who have transitioned from boost only to never reach the target, indeed, never to be located? How about the number expected to be shot down? The numbers who impact the target but never explode (as we have not tested a nuclear warhead in decades, this unquestionably will a non-zero number). What do you do when a goat herder or retired enemy civilian paper mill operator finds a nuke warhead in their back yard? What if the people you just tried to nuke have the dud warhead sitting under their desk? In a global nuclear exchange, these are the least of your problems … but as one can get from the SLCM-N CONOPS, this is a “shoot-look” kind of attack. Your nuke is supposed to click off at 00:29. You reach 00:35 … do you launch the backup? Is your SSN still in the launch basket, or did they scoot? TLAM are slow little creatures … but if a few minutes after ITL <politics happens> and NCA decides to halt the attack? “Sorry sir, we expect to reach the target in 25-min…yes I know you have their Chief of Staff who just overthrew their President on the phone calling for a cease fire … but them’s the breaks, sir. Tell him to duck and cover as America’s finest is now 23-minutes out.” No. This is all just bad theory and questionable wargaming.
Security, Training, Storage, Certification Time & Money Sponge: as an ENS and LTjg, I actually had to deal with all the extra overhead that came with in a unit certified to deliver “special weapons.” With all the shortfalls in personnel and funding we have right now to get ready for a conventional war in the western Pacific … we are going to throw billions of dollars here? Really?
Opportunity Cost: all the money you are going to dump in this bottomless pit of bad theory is money that will not be spent buying spare parts, precision weapons, maintenance time and more that we are already short of.
More Risk for Unwanted Ambiguity: The CONOPS seems to suggest that only a few SSN with carry SLCM-N in their Virginia Payload Module as <not quite SSBN>, being neither fish nor foul. At least the plan <for now> is not to have any on surface ships. Right now, if there is a TLAM in the air, everyone knows it is a conventional weapons. What does an unbalanced autocrat advised by a gaggle of insular, paranoid, sycophantic advisors if he’s briefed that the USS GLOWWORM (SSN-XXX) is in the waters off his coast and one of his maritime militia boats reports seeing cruise missiles coming out of the water … and he’s are not sure if it is firing SLCM-N where his “special weapons” are stored … or they are just conventional TLAM going after his power grid? “Use it or lose it?” You want to create that uncertainty? I don’t.
What the Hell do We Have a Triad For: if we have to bring on this destabilizing weapon back from retirement because we lack confidence in the utility of our low-yield SLBM, fields of ICBM, or our tactical fighters and mind-numbingly expensive bombers from “servicing” these targets … then exactly what the he11 are they doing? Why do we even have them?
Production. If we need a more modern, robust nuclear deterrence, then before we invest billions in a bespoke weapon of questionable utility in a few carefully crafted wargames - perhaps we should get our present nuclear house in order.
If my car is 4,000 miles past its time for an oil change, two of the tires are bald, and I need a jump start any time the temperature falls below 40F, perhaps I should not take what little extra money I have to rig up a subwoofer in the trunk and a bunch of LED lights around the undercarriage.
Senator Kennedy (R-LA) from this May:
Here’s where the United States finds itself today: The United States must now counter nuclear superpowers in both China and Russia while also deterring the itchy trigger fingers of unstable dictators like Kim Jong Un and the Ayatollah in Iran. We should be innovating and preparing our nuclear arsenal for this new global dynamic, but instead, our nuclear stockpile remains stuck in the Cold War.
Simply put: America’s nuclear stockpile is old and shrinking. And while modernizing our nuclear arsenal should be a top priority, our effort to restart nuclear weapon production has been riddled with delays and poor planning. And we don’t have time to waste.
. . .
Today, we are so far behind in our nuclear revitalization that we cannot even produce plutonium pits—an essential component of every nuclear weapon.
. . .
During the Cold War, Mr. President, the United States could produce more than 1,000 plutonium pits per year—and without plutonium pits you can’t have a nuclear weapon—but the United States has not regularly manufactured plutonium pits since 1989. In fact, the United States has not produced a single warhead-ready plutonium pit since 2012.
. . .
Our ability to deter unstable nuclear powers and maintain a peaceful world relies on our ability to continue innovating in ways only freedom-loving Americans can. But these vital projects rely on our plutonium pit production. And failing to produce pits at full capacity is just not acceptable.
If you are getting a whiff of the mindset that intentionally underfunds and under-prioritizes conventional maintenance, training, manpower, spare parts, and weapons inventory so they can spend money on vaporware and science fiction ideas unsupported by physics or law … you’re not alone.
Read this from Tara Copp from the end of last week;
The U.S. will spend more than $750 billion over the next 10 years replacing almost every component of its nuclear defenses, including new stealth bombers, submarines and ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in the country’s most ambitious nuclear weapons effort since the Manhattan Project.
The key radioactive atom in the plutonium pit has a half life of 24,000 years, which is the amount of time it would take roughly half of the radioactive atoms present to decay. That would suggest the weapons should be viable for years to come. But the plutonium decay is still enough to cause concern that it could affect how a pit explodes.
President George H.W. Bush signed an order in the 1990s banning underground nuclear tests, and the U.S. has not detonated pits to update data on their degradation since. When the last tests were performed, they provided data on pits that were at most about two decades old. That generation of pits is now pushing past 50.
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Jonathan Marrs, 21, left, and Senior Airman Jacob Deas, 23, right, work to dislodge the 110-ton cement and steel blast door covering the top of the Bravo-9 nuclear missile silo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., Aug. 24, 2023. When the first 225-pound aluminum tow, or "mule" could not pull the door open, Marrs dragged down a second tow to give them more power. (John Turner/U.S. Air Force via AP)
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Jonathan Marrs, 21, left, and Senior Airman Jacob Deas, 23, right, work to dislodge the 110-ton cement and steel blast door covering the top of the Bravo-9 nuclear missile silo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., Aug. 24, 2023. (John Turner/U.S. Air Force via AP)
Bob Webster, deputy director of weapons at Los Alamos, said scientists have relied on computer models to determine how well such old pits might work, but “everything we’re doing is extrapolating,” he said.
That uncertainty has pushed the department to restart pit production. The U.S. no longer produces man-made plutonium. Instead, old plutonium is essentially refurbished into new pits.
This task takes place inside PF-4, a highly classified building at Los Alamos that’s surrounded by layers of armed guards, heavy steel doors and radiation monitors. Inside, workers handle the plutonium inside steel glove boxes, which allow them to clean and process the plutonium without being exposed to deadly radiation.
Let’s go back to the Atlantic Council issue brief. The more I read it, the more it makes the case against SLCM-N and in many ways calls in to question what we’ve bought for our money already in our Triad.
Just a few examples;
…the war in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory, their strategic breakout, demonstrates that we have a deterrence and assurance gap against the threat of limited nuclear employment.
Sorry, you have to show your work Admiral Richard. I don’t buy it, not one bit of it. The overall cost-benefit ratio just does not work.
Here is where we seem to be saying that … everything we have right now simply does not deter anyone despite what we’ve been saying for the better part of seven decades;
...options available to the United States are not necessarily prompt, may lack survivability, and may be vulnerable to Russian and Chinese defenses.
…Bombers and fighter aircraft armed with nuclear gravity bombs or ALCMs would have to be generated from the US homeland; they cannot remain in the air for long periods as the crisis unfolds; and if they were forward-based in Asia, as they are in Europe with NATO, they would be vulnerable to enemy preemptive attack.
Interesting … then why do we still keep all those gravity bombs in Europe? Just decoration?
Depending on the scenario, the generation of the bomber could be delayed as a result of enemy conventional strikes on air bases.
So, everyone reads CDR Salamander, I see. Also, I guess the USAF admits now that CVN are more survivable then airbases in WESTPAC? Do the PRC or Russia have conventional ICBM that can hit Missouri? Really?
If allies perceive that plausible US response options were limited or unavailable, then they might choose to develop and field their own nuclear weapons, which is not a desirable outcome in light of long-standing US nuclear nonproliferation policy.
Why is it that American ICBM, SLBM, and worth their weight in Palladium B-2/B-21 bombers might be considered “limited or unavailable?” Again, show your math. Also, “trust us” does not work. I don’t.
Nuclear SLCMs provide a partial hedge to technical problems that might befall the Trident II D-5 SLBM, its warheads, or the new Columbia-class SSBNs. SLCM-N could offer some additional targeting flexibility if SSBNs, or the D-5 missile or their warheads, went down for a period to undergo repairs.
Hey, here’s a radical idea … how about we invest money in making sure our entire nuclear Triad does not go down for “repairs” instead? That statement in an incredible moment-of-truth that implies an almost criminal state of a lack of stewardship of the nuclear deterrence previous generations granted us.
What is the bottom line here…just the tip…of the money?
For a modern SLCM, the cost to field the weapon would be around $9 billion by 2028, far from the hundreds of billions of dollars required for other nuclear modernization programs.
How many DDG can you guy for $9 billion over the next five years?
How many precision strike weapons? How many production lines for 155mm artillery rounds? How many extra barrels for M-777? How many F-35A/B/C? F-15EX? How many strategic sealift ships?
Here is the foundation to everything: there is no such thing as tactical nuclear weapons. There can never be a limited nuclear war. There will not be a climb down once nukes start going off until one party or the other can no longer conduct war.
Any fool who thinks there is such a thing as tactical nuclear use, or limited nuclear war, will be tempted to start one. If started, it will - as all large wars to - answer to its own logic and will soon outstrip the ideas of those who started it. It will escalate in to a global nuclear exchange that in the end will eliminate 3,000 years of progress in much of the Northern Hemisphere and will hand the future over to whatever nations can make a run of it in the Southern Hemisphere.
We need to expend our energies in making sure our strategic nuclear stockpiles and Triad are ready for war and reliable for war. If we need a bespoke use of a handful of nukes, then let it come from a silo in the Midwest, a SSBN, or a bat shaped aircraft based out of Missouri…and let everyone know that is exactly what will happen.
I don’t want any American CINC be briefed on some “limited nuclear use” fever dream a SLCM-N could be used as a base of.
We have orders of magnitude more of a chance of having a straight-up large conventional war to fight in the future. That is a war we are not ready for.