By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters)—The United States will stop developing nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, Pentagon documents released on Thursday said, despite senior military officials publicly recommending keeping it.
The decision to cancel the submarine-launched cruise missile could help President Joe Biden address calls from fellow Democrats to scale back America's nuclear arsenal without sacrificing major components of its nuclear "triad" of nuclear-tipped ground-based inter-continental ballistic missiles, nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, and submarine-launched nuclear arms.
However, it is unclear if Congress, which could come under Republican control after next month's elections, will resist the efforts to scrap it.
The Biden administration released three documents on Thursday: the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review. Together, they laid out the military's priorities for the coming years and underscored that Washington would maintain "a very high bar for nuclear employment."
Under President Donald Trump's administration, the military made a decision in 2018 to develop a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, with a focus on the threat from Russia.
But the Biden administration said in its review the sea-launched cruise missile program (SLCM-N) was unnecessary and would be cancelled because the United States already had the "means to deter limited nuclear use."
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters the military did not need the SLCM-N because there was enough capability in the nuclear inventory already.
"I don't think this sends any message to Putin. He understands what our capability is," Austin said when asked if the scrapping would send a dangerous message to Russia and China.
In April, top U.S. general Mark Milley told lawmakers that his position on the SLCM-N had not changed and he believed multiple options were needed.
Asked whether any military officials had recommended canceling the SLCM-N, a senior U.S. defense official told a briefing that "everyone's voices have been heard." The official added the program was scrapped because even if it had been fully funded, the missiles would not be ready until 2035.
"As it stands right now, there is no need to develop SLCM-N," the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.
One program from the Trump administration that Biden is keeping is the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile, which the Pentagon fielded in 2020 to address Russia's potential employment of similar-scale tactical nuclear weapons, the kind that Moscow has threatened to use in Ukraine to salvage its war there.
Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's comments about using nuclear weapons to defend Russia, U.S. officials say they have not seen indications that Moscow is preparing to use them.
Putin on Wednesday observed exercises by Russia's strategic nuclear forces, the Kremlin said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Chris Reese)