Lawmakers Fume Over Acting Navy Secretary’s Call to Cancel Nuclear Sea-Launched Cruise Missile

WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers voiced concern Thursday over the acting Navy secretary’s move to cancel the service’s nuclear sea-launched cruise missile in fiscal 2023 as top defense leaders said they had not been briefed on the decision. 

“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. This is something that is incredibly important,” said Rep. Mike Turner of 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 said during the committee’s hearing to review the fiscal 2022 budget proposal for nuclear forces.

Multiple media outlets reported this week that acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker directed the service in a June 4 memo to “defund [the] sea-launched cruise missile.”

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review — an examination of U.S. nuclear policy that occurs when a new administration takes office — supported pursuing this type of missile. The strategy under former President Donald Trump’s administration called for expanding the role and capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The Defense Department’s Melissa Dalton testified Thursday that the review by President Joe Biden’s administration is “on the cusp” of commencing. Biden has said he wants to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.

“The sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack,” Biden’s campaign said in an online statement before the president’s election. 

In a Senate Armed Services Committee budget hearing Thursday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they had not been briefed on the memo about the sea-launched cruise missile.

At the House hearing, Turner asked whether Vice Adm. Johnny Wolfe, the Navy’s director of strategic systems programs, had been consulted about the missile.

“I was not privy to it before it was actually signed. But my understanding is, for the [Navy secretary] it was part of a deliberate process to start the dialogue for building the next [Program Objective Memorandum] … in starting that dialogue he does point out that it is not a decision,” Wolfe testified. 

“It’s a hell of a way to start a dialogue, to call for the canceling,” Turner replied.

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