Congress Aims to Fund Nuclear Weapon Opposed by Biden

November 2023
By Shannon Bugos

For the second consecutive year, Congress is poised to fund the development of a new U.S. nuclear sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) despite the Biden administration’s effort to end the controversial program.

Senator Deb Fischer (D-Neb.) and Senator Angus King (I-Maine) are among the lawmakers opposing the Biden administration in arguing that the low-yield nuclear sea-launched cruise missile “fills the gap” in the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal. (Photo from the Office of Senator Deb Fischer)Since Congress staved off a government shutdown with a continuing resolution in September, the House and Senate have continued to iron out differences in their respective versions of the fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House version allocates $260 million and the Senate $265 million for the development of the missile and its associated warhead, suggesting that the final version likely will reflect something similar.

The Biden administration did not request any funding for the SLCM in 2024. (See ACT, May 2023.) The missile “has marginal utility and would impede investment in other priorities,” the White House said in a policy statement in July. “The [United States] has sufficient current and planned capabilities for deterring an adversary’s limited nuclear use through conventional and nuclear armaments.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, similarly has emphasized that the program would walk “us down a path of spending enormous amounts of money on a capability that we don’t really need,” according to a June 21 article in Defense News.

But other lawmakers view the SLCM as essential to U.S. national security. “The nuclear threat environment is changing rapidly,” stated Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chair of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, in defense of the SLCM in the same Defense News story. “We must adjust our nuclear posture.”

Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Angus King (I-Maine) argued in an op-ed in The Washington Post in September that the low-yield nuclear SLCM “fills th[e] gap” in the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal and “can be a critical part of maintaining the credible deterrent that has protected us all these years.”

In 2023 the Biden administration also did not request funds for the nuclear SLCM, although Congress ultimately authorized a total of $45 million for the development of the missile and its warhead. (See ACT, January/February 2023.)

Another Biden administration policy decision that the House and Senate have pushed back on is the retirement of the megaton B83 gravity bomb fleet by limiting funds until the completion of a related report mandated in 2023. The B83 fleet was slated for retirement until the Trump administration indefinitely postponed it in 2019, and now the Biden administration aims to resume the initial retirement plans. (See ACT, April 2019.)

The House passed its NDAA on July 14, and the Senate passed its version on July 27. The September continuing resolution will keep the government open through Nov. 17.

In addition to reconciling their respective versions of the NDAA, the two chambers are working to pass 12 appropriations bills. Although the NDAA authorizes funding, the defense and energy and water appropriations bills allow actual spending on nuclear weapons-related programs and activities.