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The Nuclear-Force Structure of the Past Will Not Suffice Now

By U.S. Senators Deb Fischer and Angus King
The Washington Post

The Aug. 10 editorial on sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM), “The weapon the warriors don’t want,” didn’t provide key information on why a bipartisan coalition in Congress agrees that this program is necessary.

The essence of our national defense strategy is deterrence — both conventional and nuclear. The realization by potential adversaries that we have the capacity and the will to impose unacceptable costs on them should they use nuclear weapons has constrained the use of these terrible weapons for almost 80 years. But for our deterrent to be effective, it must also be credible. The adversary must believe that we can and will respond; if they do not believe this, deterrence has failed and an unthinkable nuclear conflict becomes more likely.

We have a strong strategic nuclear capability today, but it is just that: strategic, not tactical. The danger is that an adversary might believe that we would not respond to the use of a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon because our only tool is massive retaliation. Indeed, this almost certainly is part of President Vladimir Putin’s calculation as he continues to threaten the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

The nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile fills this gap and can be a critical part of maintaining the credible deterrent that has protected us all these years.

The decision to remove cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads from our military vessels occurred more than 30 years ago, when Russia participated in negotiations.

The world has changed. Russia has unilaterally pulled out of New START, and China expresses no interest in arms-control agreements. Russia has modernized and expanded its nuclear arsenal; China is on pace to triple its own by 2035 and already possesses more intercontinental ballistic missile launchers than the United States.

For the first time, we are facing two peer nuclear adversaries. The nuclear-force structure of the past will not suffice in the 2030s.

Projecting strength against our adversaries — maintaining a credible deterrent — will require targeted investments in advanced military capabilities. The Senate National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes continued research and development funding for SLCMs so that our military has the option to field this capability, if needed, when it can be most effective in managing nuclear risks.

As leaders of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, we’ve heard concerns from the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, multiple combatant commanders and former Democratic and Republican administration officials about this capability (and credibility) gap — one that needs to be filled by a low-yield, non-ballistic nuclear weapon that can respond without visible generation.

SLCMs are our best option for filling this capability gap within the next 10 years, which is why the Senate NDAA supports the continued development of the system. Meanwhile, we encourage other nuclear nations to enter into talks aimed at reducing tensions, improving transparency and building frameworks for effective arms-control efforts in the future.

Deb Fischer
The writer, a Republican, represents Nebraska in the U.S. Senate.

Angus King
The writer, an independent, represents Maine in the U.S. Senate. 

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