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Pentagon leaders, senators surprised by plan to cut sea-based nuclear cruise missiles

Pentagon and Senate Armed Services Committee members members objected on Thursday to a proposal to defund sea-based cruise missiles. Photo by MCS3 Jonathan Sundermann/U.S. Navy
Pentagon and Senate Armed Services Committee members members objected on Thursday to a proposal to defund sea-based cruise missiles. Photo by MCS3 Jonathan Sundermann/U.S. Navy

June 11 (UPI) -- Pentagon leaders told a Senate committee that they were not informed of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker's plan to defund a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mike Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that neither saw a June 4 memo from Harker which called for cancellation of the Navy's nuclear Sea-Launched Nuclear Cruise Missile in 2023.

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"The Navy cannot afford to own, operate, and maintain its current infrastructure and must prioritize demolition to achieve long-term sustainment," the three-page memo says in part, adding "defund [the] sea-launched cruise missile."

The missile was identified in the Pentagon's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review as a requirement.

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"I have not seen the memo, but I would say that all of us, all the services, and the department, are again making tough choices in terms of what to prioritize and where to accept risk," Austin told the committee. "That memo has to be pre-decisional because of where we are in the [review] process."

Milley added that he would seek the memo after the hearing.

"I'm not familiar with the memo and nor was I consulted. But as soon as we're done here, I'll go find that memo and get consulted," he told the committee reviewing the Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal for nuclear forces.

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Senators also showed concern over the proposal to eliminate sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles from the Navy's arsenals aboard ships and submarines.

"I think we're all shocked to have heard the news of the acting secretary of the Navy appearing to take action to zero out the sea-launched cruise missile," said Sen. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee subpanel on strategic forces. "We know that the Nuclear Posture Review isn't underway, and yet we have the first steps toward actions that would be unilateral disarmament."

Turner was not alone in his surprise over the directive.

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"This memo was signed June 4, that's just one week after the Department of Defense submitted a budget request that asked for $5 million to continue to study that concept and NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] requested $10 million to conduct its own assessment," Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said.

"I find it very concerning that an acting service secretary, who hasn't been confirmed by the Senate, is making a decision like this," Fischer said.

In Congress, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.,,and House Seapower Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., revealed plans to introduce legislation to eliminate the sea-launched cruise missile.

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The move is an indication of pressure on the administration of President Joe Biden from his own party to scale back nuclear plans formed under the previous administration.

The proposed bill would end the missile known as the SLCM-N and save $9 billion, a Congressional Budget Office estimate said.

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