While the decision of the Biden Administration to upgrade US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe has found support, its official abandonment of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles has confounded many.
In fact, many doubt whether the US Congress, for whose approval the Pentagon has sent the proposal as a part of its “Nuclear Posture Review” that was unveiled on October 27, will agree with the idea of canceling the missile program.
According to the British newspaper Daily Telegraph, the US is bringing forward delivery of dozens of guided tactical nuclear weapons, the new B61-12 thermonuclear bombs, to NATO bases, including those in Germany and Italy, within weeks.
It is said that these new bombs that are 12 feet long can be dropped from planes as a “dumb” gravity bomb or in “guided drop mode” with an accuracy of within 30 meters. The US is also said to be having 100 older B61s stored at European bases.
The US bombs being delivered to Europe can be dropped by a variety of aircraft, including B-2 stealth bombers and smaller warplanes like the F-15, F-35, and Tornado.
It may be noted that though the US move can be seen in the context of the rising apprehensions of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as a fallout of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the fact remains that the modernization of the B61 nuclear bomb program has been openly discussed in the US budget documents and public statements for many years.
B61 nuclear bombs have been in service with the United States since 1968. Currently, the B61-3, B61-4, B61-7, and B61-11 modifications are being used. B61-3 and B61-4 are tactical ammunition used with F-15E and F-16C fighter jets.
B61-7 and B61-11 bombs are considered strategic and are used with B-2 and B-52 bomber jets. The development of B61-12 has been ongoing since 2012 and is supposed to replace the B61-3, B61-4, and B61-7, all currently in service with American combat aircraft.
Incidentally, the just-released Nuclear Posture Review says that its Air-based nuclear Force will concentrate on the following:
- Modernize the B-52H bomber fleet as a nuclear standoff platform with global reach
- The Air Force will acquire 100 B-21 aircraft
- Fully fund the long-range standoff weapon and the associated W.80-4 warhead to replace the Air-launched Cruise Missile
- Retire the B83-1 gravity bomb and leverage existing capabilities in the near term, and develop an enduring capability for the improved defeat of Hard and Deeply-buried Targets.
According to the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the US will continue to deploy a nuclear triad but will modernize them, in the process of which some programs may be abandoned. It says that the three legs of the nuclear Triad are complementary, with each component offering unique attributes.
“While the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains safe, secure, and effective, most nuclear deterrent systems are operating beyond their original design life. Replacement programs are on track at this time, but there is little or no margin between the end of the effective life of existing systems and the fielding of their replacements.
These replacement programs are planned to deliver modernized capabilities to avoid any gaps in our ability to field a credible and effective deterrent”, the NPR says.
With this vision, the NPR talks of “canceling” the nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM-N) program. The 2018 NPR introduced SLCM-N and the W76-2 (thermonuclear warhead used on submarine-launched ballistic missiles) to supplement the existing nuclear program of record in order to strengthen deterrence of limited nuclear use in a regional conflict.
We reassessed the rationale for these capabilities and concluded that the W76-2 currently provides an important means to deter limited nuclear use. Its deterrence value will be re-evaluated as the F35A, and LRSO are fielded and in light of the security environment and plausible deterrence scenarios we could face in the future.
We concluded that SLCM-N was no longer necessary given the deterrence contribution of the W76-2, uncertainty regarding whether SLCM-N on its own would provide leverage to negotiate arms control limits on Russia’s NSNW, and the estimated cost of SLCM-N in light of other nuclear modernization programs and defense priorities.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also defended the decision by saying that 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.
Of course, the Biden Administration’s decision to cancel the missile falls in line with the US Navy’s fiscal 2023 budget request released earlier this year.
The service hoped to eliminate 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.” It was feared that even with full funding, the missiles would not be ready until 2035.
Incidentally, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2021 that the new cruise missile and its warhead would cost $10 billion through 2030.
However, it is surprising that General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in April had told Congress that his views on the SLCM-N and other low-yield nuclear weapons have not altered since the program was announced by the Trump Administration in 2018.
According to him, they “are necessary to enable our flexible and tailored deterrence strategy as we modernize aging nuclear forces.” He pointed out to the House Armed Services Committee in April, “My position on SLCM-N has not changed. My general view is that this President or any President deserves to have multiple options to deal with national security situations.”
General Milley’s stand on the missile is in sharp contrast with that of the U.S. Strategic Command head Admiral Charles Richard, whose outfit oversees the nuclear mission. Admiral Richard has written to the lawmakers, endorsing Pentagon’s decision to scrap the missile program.
General Tod Wolters, who leads U.S. forces in Europe, also endorses the plan. He, in fact, concurred with Adm. Richard’s assessment in a March 30 House hearing.
But then the Republican lawmakers, who oppose the scrapping of the plan, give importance to General Milley’s view. “One way or another, we need to overturn that decision,” says Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, a top Republican on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces panel, which oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Experts see the decision to cancel the submarine-launched cruise missile as something that could help President Biden address calls from fellow Democrats to scale back America’s nuclear arsenal without sacrificing major components of its nuclear “triad” of nuclear-tipped ground-based inter-continental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, and submarine-launched nuclear arms.
However, it is unclear if Congress, which is anticipated to come under Republican control after the results of ongoing midterm elections are announced, will resist the efforts to scrap it.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)hotmail.com
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