A tomahawk cruise missile launches from the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Shoup (DDG 86) for a live-fire exercise during Valiant Shield 2018. (US Navy / PO2 Wiliam Collins III)

Risk Roundup: The Nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missile

By Andrew Facini and Christine Parthemore

The proposal to return nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM-N) to American naval vessels has been touted as a solution to a narrowly imagined deterrence problem. Instead, SLCM-N could undermine deterrence and create operational complications, and its presence alone in regional conflict zones would serve to destabilize—and potentially escalate—conflict between nuclear powers and continue a dangerous capability-chasing trend. A full accounting of its various risks is needed.

Key Risks:

  1. The Operational Challenge: The United States possessing nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles would create significant complications for conventional operations and undermine key aspects of U.S. defense strategy for the Indo-Pacific.
  2. The Discrimination Problem: The inability of states to distinguish whether an incoming cruise missile is nuclear or conventional will compound doubt and uncertainty, posing a serious threat to crisis communication, stability, and control—ultimately eroding the deterrence mission itself.
  3. The Proliferation Threat: Any increased reliance on so-called “nonstrategic” nuclear weapons reinforces a dangerous norm of centering nuclear weapons in small-scale conflict planning and could incentivize other states to seek these weapons and consider them more “usable.”


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