It’s Decision Time for the Air Force’s New Nuclear Cruise Missile
The question is—does the military need it?
This year, lawmakers must decide whether to approve the Obama administration’s plan to spend billions of dollars on new nuclear weapons, including a stealthy cruise missile.
The Pentagon calls it the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, or LRSO for short, and it would replace the outdated Air-Launched Cruise Missile your grandfather’s warbird—the 50-year-old B-52 Stratofortress—still carries on bomber runs over the Pacific and Europe to deter a preemptive attack on America and her allies.
The Air Force’s budget request for fiscal year 2016 calls for around $1.8 billion in spending on the missile during the next five years. There will be two versions—one to carry an updated W80 thermonuclear warhead, and another packed with conventional explosives for non-nuclear attacks.
We’re talking about weapons that, if used, means the world is already half way to oblivion—and there’s no turning back.
LRSO will not be some new smart bomb or another bunker-busting munition, but a high-yield nuclear device capable of great destruction from an equally great distance.
Because what’s special about this weapon is its range—around 1,500 to 3,000 miles or greater, a relatively easy achievement given today’s engine technology. There are few weapons in the Air Force’s arsenal with that kind of reach.
Combine the missile with a smart, radar-evading flight system, and you have a very powerful weapon that is extremely difficult to shoot down.
The Navy has its own sea-based cruise missile—the Tomahawk. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 explicitly forbids the use of ground-launched cruise missiles.
If Congress approves funding, lawmakers will make a long-term investment in this type of weapon, ensuring its survival well past the 2030s when the United States’ aging ALCM nuclear-armed cruise missile is due to retire.
But some in Washington are already calling for the Air Force to terminate—or at least delay—the project. Lawmakers argue the flying branch has not properly justified the missile’s mission objectives, and that it goes against the spirit of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
Others contend that having a conventional and nuclear-tipped cruise missile could increase the chances of strategic miscalculation during times of heightened tensions.
With both conventional and nuclear versions, nobody except the U.S. would know which type of missile any particular bomber has on board. This creates uncertainty—which is dangerous when dealing with potential Armageddon.
The Pentagon argues this program is necessary to keep the U.S. nuclear stockpile modern and capable against potential peer and near-peer adversaries like Russia and China.
Plus, the Air Force argues that it already employs a conventional version of the ALCM, known as the CALCM.
Then there’s the question whether another nuclear cruise missile is necessary. The U.S. maintains a nuclear “triad” of bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles. There’s a broad consensus in Washington to keep all three legs of this triad.
But far fewer politicians have made up their mind about weapons on the fringes, like cruise missiles, which are nice to have but expensive to keep—and not required for the strategic deterrence mission, since most bombers already carry B61 nuclear gravity bombs.
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert for the Federation of American Scientists, said the Air Force needs to make a more compelling case for buying the LRSO than simply arming the president with more “strike options,” as the Air Force describes it.
He said other far-reaching weapons like land- and sea-based ballistic missiles, Tomahawks, and even conventional Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles already cover the mission area.
“Even if there were a unique mission need that cannot be performed with other capabilities, what would be the mission?” Kristensen said in an email.
“Would it be limited use in regional escalation strategies, would it be to counter-deter Russian air-launched cruise missiles or Chinese cruise missiles, or would it be to shoot holes in air-defense systems?”
“There are some who see the LRSO as an ‘in-between’ weapon that gives the president strike options that escalate from use of nuclear gravity bombs but avoid escalating to use of nuclear ballistic missiles,” he added.
“This is a good old Cold War era tit-for-tat escalation scenario that is not essential against Russia and China and not needed against smaller regional adversaries.”
The generals in charge of the U.S. strategic forces, however, argue there is a “capability gap” that only an air-launched cruise missile can fill. The Air Force detailed this gap in a classified review of alternatives submitted to the Pentagon in 2013.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense obviously agreed, since it found space in the latest budget request for LRSO. But the only real argument put forward since the project’s inception in 2011 is that a new air-launched cruise missile could punch through modern integrated air-defense systems, keeping strategic bombers out of harm’s way.
Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said during a January event in Washington that he wants to replace the ALCM, which he described as a “terrific weapon system.”
“It was designed in ’70s, built in the ’80s, and was designed to last 10 years,” Wilson said. “Today, we’ll use the current ALCM through 2030 … At some point we have to be able to design a new standoff missile that provides the president with options.”
“I’m going to need a missile that will be able to penetrate any of the most sophisticated air-defense systems going forward,” Wilson added.
U.S. Strategic Command chief Navy Adm. Cecil Haney argues that the nation’s nuclear stockpile is at a critical point and needs upgrades, and that’s why the Pentagon is pressing so hard for LRSO and a new ICBM the Air Force wants funded in 2016.
“I don’t have an option,” the admiral said at a Feb. 6 event in Washington. “It’s not an area that we can wish away—we have to invest in those kinds of capabilities.”
If the Air Force gets congressional approval, work on the cruise missile could start almost immediately. Four companies — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon—are already involved in technical studies.
In fact, the Air Force planned to begin the project this year, but pushed it back in favor of more spending on a guided tail-kit assembly for the B61 tactical nuclear bomb.
The Air Force wants $37 million in seed money for 2016 to scale up the program and to hold a competition for the first phase of development. The service has solid enough preliminary designs to jump straight into modeling, simulation and early aircraft integration work, according to budget documents.
Wilson confirmed at a Feb. 12 Air Force Association conference in Orlando that LRSO is not tied to the development of the Long-Range Strike Bomber, which the service wants to purchase at $550 million apiece. This is important, because it means the cancellation of one wouldn’t necessarily harm the other.
At the same conference, Air Combat Command chief Gen. Herbert Carlisle said he welcomes the development of a new conventional cruise missile, and has created an office to coordinate those activities with the service’s Global Strike Command.
“I’m often asked whether there will be a conventional variant of that, and I say absolutely,” Wilson said in January.
“Just like we have the CALCM that was a spinoff for the ALCM, we see going forward that there will be a Long-Range Standoff Missile and there will be a conventional variant that will follow to be able to buy it in numbers and reduce the cost,” the general added.
There are more than 1,500 ALCMs and CALCMs in the Air Force’s storehouse. Each B-52 can carry 20 of the weapons—12 under the wings and eight on a rotary dispenser in the bomb bay. The ALCM has a range of 1,500 miles, but is slow and easy to detect.
The Pentagon junked the more stealthy Advanced Cruise Missile in 2012 to comply with the New START Treaty Pres. Barack Obama signed with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.
The Air Force is responsible for the cruise missile “delivery vehicle,” but the National Nuclear Security Administration has responsibility for the warhead. According to the agency, the cruise missile will carry a life-extended version of the W80 warhead used on the ALCM and Tomahawk.
NNSA considered the B61 warhead, but it was too heavy. It looked at the W84 from the decommissioned Gryphon ground-launched cruise missile, but there are too few of those, so last year the agency formally decided on the W80.
The first production unit of the updated W80, designated W80–4, will enter service around 2025. The entire project is worth an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion, according to some analysts.