Nuclear weapons are the most fearful and powerful weapons to be designed, produced, and deployed by states seeking the ultimate form of deterrence.  Presently, the United States has nearly 4,000 active nuclear weapons of various types; this includes those that are currently deployed and those in reserve; the number increases when considering those that are set for retirement (Federation of American Scientists, 2024). Of this stockpile of nuclear weapons, a select amount is deployed aboard the Navy’s submarine fleet.

The United States (U.S.) Navy operates two types of submarines: (1) the Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and (2) attack submarines (SSN). The Los Angeles Class is the most prominent of the latter. While both types of submarines are formidable assets that the Navy can rely on during wartime, the two submarine classes serve vastly different purposes. The Ohio Class’ primary purpose is to lurk beneath the world’s oceans, serving as the ultimate and ever-present threat of nuclear retribution against a would-be foe who may be contemplating the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S.

On the other hand, the Navy’s attack submarines are purpose-built apex predators, charged primarily with seeking out and destroying the surface vessels of America’s wartime enemies. They are capable of deploying naval mines and launching tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles and torpedoes. In the very near future, if research and production proceed, some of these attack submarines will be given the responsibility of carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

The Mid-Range Nuclear Weapon Threat

Below the level of potentially state-ending weapons are intermediate-range and tactical nuclear armaments intended for regional and battlefield use. States that are adversarial to the U.S. that maintain stockpiles of these weapons are Russia, China, and North Korea. Specifically, Russia has approximately 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons in its arsenal, and China’s Rocket Force maintains another 2,000 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles (Harvey & Soofer, 2022).

With these mid-range nuclear weapons, both China and Russia have a great deal more regional striking power at the nuclear level than the United States. While the aforementioned states have a combined 4,000 mid-range missiles that are or could become nuclear-armed, the U.S. has approximately 100 tactical bombs in secure storage sites located around Europe (Federation of American Scientists, 2024).

The Need for a Sea-Launched Cruise Missile – Nuclear (SLCM-N)

The glaring disparity in intermediate-range and tactical nuclear capabilities creates opportunities for China and Russia in their respective regions and a severe capability gap for the U.S. This gap could cause a breakdown in deterrence because these adversarial states may feel a “greater freedom to engage in regional, limited nuclear escalation as they question whether the United States would be willing to turn a regional conflict into a suicidal intercontinental nuclear war” (Harvey & Soofer, 2022 p. 5).

Similar to the strategic deterrence provided by the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the proposed SLCM-N would give the president options at the regional level, lowering or negating the possible use of intermediate-range and tactical nuclear weapons by a U.S. adversary.

To this point, Admiral Charles Richard (former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command) advocated for the deployment of the SLCM-N before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2022. He stated: “[A] low-yield, non-ballistic capability to deter and respond without visible generation is necessary to provide a persistent, survivable, regional capability to deter adversaries, assure allies, provide flexible options, as well as complement existing capabilities” (Patterson, 2022).