March 04, 2021

Van Hollen, Courtney Introduce Bicameral Bill to Halt Costly and Redundant Trump-Era Nuclear Program

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Congressman Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) introduced the Nuclear SLCM Ban Act, legislation to prohibit research and development, production, and deployment of the nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (N-SLCM) and its associated nuclear warhead. This program, which was reinstated by President Trump after its initial withdrawal by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and retirement by President Obama in 2013, has been shown to be both redundant and expensive.  

“The Trump-era program to arm our naval vessels with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles is not only reckless, it’s costly and unnecessary. This move would unduly burden our Navy – taking away from its core conventional missions – and would prevent vital resources from going where they’re truly needed. This common-sense legislation will ensure taxpayer dollars are put to better use,” said Senator Van Hollen.

“Putting new, expensive nuclear warheads on attack submarines and surface ships that haven’t carried those weapons in almost thirty years is a distraction that will suck precious resources away from the most pressing need of the US Navy—namely, to increase the size of its overworked fleet,” said Representative Joe Courtney, Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces. “Congress and the Navy are already committed to funding recapitalization of our nation’s sea-based nuclear deterrent: the Columbia-class submarine program. Installing so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear warheads on Virginia-class attack subs is a money drain that will hinder construction of three Virginia-class attack submarines per-year—which both the Obama and Trump shipbuilding plans endorsed. The critical mission of attack submarines with ship killer conventional Tomahawk missiles is in the highest demand in the Indo Pacific and European theaters. Loading them with nukes that require a whole host of new apparatuses, training, and restricted movements will hinder, not help, their ability to deter aggressive actions by our adversaries. This legislation is a common-sense bill that will stop the hemorrhaging of precious Navy dollars for a wasteful program that Congress barely debated.”

In 1991, as part of his Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, President George H.W. Bush withdrew all N-SLCMs from Navy ships and placed them in storage. After determining in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that the capability was redundant and that its mission could be fulfilled by other non-strategic systems, the Obama administration officially retired the N-SLCM in 2013. However, seven years later, in an effort to expand U.S. nuclear warfighting capabilities and lower the nuclear threshold, the Trump Administration initiated studies on a new N-SLCM, arguing in its NPR that restoring the capability would bolster regional nuclear deterrence and counter Russia’s arsenal of non-strategic weapons.

Despite the Trump Administration’s claims, it’s clear that reinstating this program is both redundant and costly. In its 2019 cost estimate of U.S. nuclear weapons programs, the CBO projected that the N-SLCM would cost $9.0 billion from 2019-2028. This projection does not account for production costs after 2028, nor does it factor in costs associated with integrating the missile on ships (i.e. modifying existing launch tubes), nuclear weapons training for personnel, and storage and security for nuclear warheads on naval bases. Additionally, The United States possesses an array of non-strategic nuclear capabilities – including heavy bombers equipped to carry gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles and short-range fighter jets capable of delivering gravity bombs – that fulfill our theater nuclear deterrence missions and reassure our allies of our extended deterrence commitments. The Nuclear SLCM Ban Act would thus prevent taxpayer resources from funding this unnecessary project.

The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Markey (D-Mass.), Warren (D-Mass.), Merkley (D-Ore.), Cardin (D-Md.), Schatz (D-Hawaii), Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Smith (D-Minn.) and is supported by the Arms Control Association, Council for a Livable World, and Ploughshares Fund. A one pager on the legislation can be found here, and the bill text is available here.

“As the Biden administration crafts its first budget submission, reversing the Trump administration's plan to develop a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile should be an easy choice. We applaud Senator Van Hollen and Representative Courtney for their important legislation to prohibit funding for the missile. The weapon, one of two more usable low-yield nuclear capabilities proposed by the Trump administration, would be a costly hedge on a hedge. The United States is already planning to invest scores of billions of dollars in air-delivered nuclear capabilities to defeat advancing adversary defenses and provide a regional nuclear capability. In addition, 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. Arming such vessels with nuclear cruise missiles would also reduce the number of conventional missiles each boat could carry at a time when Pentagon leaders argue that strengthening conventional deterrence is their top priority in the Asia-Pacific,” said Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association.

“President George H.W. Bush’s removal of nuclear armed cruise missiles from the Navy was a crucial step in reducing the risk of nuclear war that has since been reaffirmed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike," said John Tierney, Executive Director of Council for a Livable World and former nine-term Congressman from Massachusetts. “Thirty years later, there is no need to reinvest in this redundant Cold War weapon when our nation faces so many other real and pressing challenges. Preventing development and deployment of a new nuclear cruise missile, that would only complicate the critical missions of our conventional fleet, is absolutely in the long-term security interests of the United States. I commend Senator Van Hollen and Representative Courtney for leading this effort.”

“The United States is facing serious threats to its security and prosperity from COVID, climate change, racial injustice, and so much else. The nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missile was retired a decade ago because we no longer needed it, and we still don’t. The scarce funds that the Trump administration sought to spend on this wasteful program should be redirected to higher priorities. Thank you Sen. Van Hollen and Rep. Courtney for your leadership on this crucial issue,” said Tom Colina, Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund.