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U.S. To Develop New Nuclear-Armed Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile

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U.S. To Develop New Nuclear-Armed Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile

Tomahawk missile launched from a submarine. Click to see full-size image

The US Department of Defense plans to include a record for a program for the development of a new nuclear-armed, submarine-launched cruise missile in its Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, according to Defense News, citing an unnamed senior US defense official.

The goal is to deploy it within 7 to 10 years.

The source said that the Pentagon would launch an analysis of alternatives process for the cruise missile, which was first announced during the rollout of the Nuclear Posture Review.

“We requested $5 million in FY20, which Congress gave us. There’s nothing in the ‘21 budget because we’ll just continue to use the $5 million to do the AOA,” the official explained. “But in FY22, I hope that you’ll see a budget request that will begin the program of record for the sea-launched cruise missile.”

“You put these on submarines, the Russians won’t know where they are,” the official added. “They’ll hate it. They’ll absolutely hate it.”

The Nuclear Posture Review said that the US would seek two nuclear capabilities, including a low-yield warhead for the submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), and a sea-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile (SLCM).

The low-yield warhead for the SLBM is known as W76-2 and was deployed for the first time in late 2019.

The official said the department is still sorting how much money the program might cost, but it could be similar to the Long Range Standoff weapon, a new air-launched cruise missile. That weapon is projected to cost the Defense Department about $8 billion to $9 billion and a similar amount for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is charged with developing the warhead.

So, the program would cost between $16 and 18 billion.

“Do you put it on a surface ship? Do you put it on a submarine? Do you use a new missile or an existing missile? How far does it have to travel? We’re looking at all of this. And then you also have to look at the concept of operations. How you want them to operate? Do you store the weapons on the sub all the time, or do you bring them into port and bring them in a crisis?” the official said.

If the missile is developed and delivered, the US Navy’s nuclear-armed fleet would go from 12 to 20 or even 30 vessels, surface or undwater, which would be “huge” in countering Russia and China.

The official emphasized that the weapon doesn’t need to be a brand-new design, saying: “It doesn’t have [to] be a big deal” to design and procure.

“The SLCM [submarine-launched cruise missile] doesn’t have to be a big deal. Could be the same warhead. We’re going to look into that,” the official added.

A conventional Tomahawk weapon has a rough range of 1,250–2,500 kilometers, and the range on the new SLCM would likely be longer, as a nuclear warhead weighs less than a conventional payload.

This missile would also be banned under the INF Treaty, if it were not dismantled on the initiative of the US.

But it could potentially be expensive, and not that needed, as there are some critics.

“A new SLCM would be a costly hedge on a hedge,” said Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association. “The United States is already planning to invest scores of billions of dollars in the B-21 [bomber], LRSO and F-35A [fighter jet] to address the [area-access/area denial] challenge. The Navy is unlikely to be pleased with the additional operational and financial burdens that would come with re-nuclearizing the surface or attack submarine fleet.”

Additionally, “arming attack submarines with nuclear SLCMs would also reduce the number of conventional Tomahawk SLCMs each submarine could carry,” Reif said.

The US Congress needs to approve the plan before any program is initiated.

“I don’t know if Congress is going to make a big deal about it or not because there’s really no money involved” in fiscal 2021, the unnamed official said. “But it is a new weapon system, and unlike the W76-2, where you’re replacing a large warhead for a small warhead, here you’re actually introducing more deployed capabilities. But again, it’s 7-10 years.”

The SLCM could be used as a bargaining chip in arms control negotiations with Russia, since with the INF gone and New START moving in the same direction, arms control treaties need to be concluded.

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