The New Nuclear-Capable Air Launched Cruise Missile
The Air Force has ordered 1,000+ nuclear-capable advanced cruise missiles as part of the planned trillion-dollar modernization of US nuclear weaponry. The missile is called the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, or LRSO, as it is intended to be launched from bombers up to a thousand miles from enemy borders.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who led the original ALCM program in the late 70s and early 80s, has called on the president to cancel this order and drop the project. The ALCM (air-launched cruise missile) was designed and deployed to extend the viable lifetime of the US B-52 strategic bomber, at a time of increasing sophistication of Soviet air defenses, until the next generation of stealth bombers could be deployed.
“As long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a risk that they could be used- by accident, via a technical failure, or though the evil will of a man, madmen or terrorists. A nuclear-free world is not a utopia, but an imperative. Yet it can be achieved only through the demilitarization of international relations.”
-Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking in Reykjavik, marking the 30th anniversary of the 1986 Soviet-American summit.
When asked by Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Rebeccah L. Heinrichs whether the LRSO is a weapon the US military truly needs for nuclear deterrence, Hyten said there was a “million reasons” for the program, most of which are classified.
The Air Force is on track to replace the aging AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile with modernized weapon capabilities designed for its nuclear bomber fleet, to include the B-21.
Today, the Air Force awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin Corporation and Raytheon Company to mature design concepts and prove developmental technologies for the new Long Range Standoff weapon.
Pressed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who opposes the planned nuclear cruise missile (LRSO), Defense Secretary Mattis told a Senate Budget Hearing June 14 he’s open to rethinking the triad, as well as the LRSO.
Mattis said he would be consulting with former Defense Secretary William Perry, who has advocated eliminating one leg of the triad by phasing out the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. Perry met with Mattis on the day of the hearing, and later tweeted, “Very wide ranging, candid, and productive discussion with Sec Def Mattis at the Pentagon today.”
Perry is also strongly opposed to developing new nuclear cruise missiles, which he says are “uniquely destabilizing” weapons, because an adversary cannot tell a conventional missile from a nuclear-armed version, risking miscalculation in a crisis.
“I register loud and clear the potential destabilizing view that some people see this weapon bringing and I’m taking that on board,” Mattis said. see the Washington Examiner
Note that both ICBMs and the nuclear cruise missiles – the two weapons systems most frequently seen by experts as unnecessary and dangerous, are Air Force systems, and that Heather Wilson, a long time pal of the weapons contractors, is now Secretary of the Air Force.
Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists, writes:
“The Pentagon’s arguments for why the LRSO is needed and why the amendments [to strip funding] are unacceptable are amazingly shallow – some of them even plain wrong.”
Here is a particularly disturbing argument:
“The Kendall letter from March also defends the LRSO because it gives the Pentagon the ability to rapidly increase the number of deployed warheads significantly on its strategic launchers. He does so by bluntly describing it as a means to exploit the fake bomber weapon counting rule (one bomber one bomb no matter what they can actually carry) of the New START Treaty to essentially break out from the treaty limit without formally violating it:
Additionally, cruise missiles provide added leverage to the U.S. nuclear deterrent under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The accounting rules for nuclear weapons carried on aircraft are such that the aircraft only counts as one weapon, even if the aircraft carries multiple cruise missiles.
It is disappointing to see a DOD official justifying the LRSO as a means to take advantage of a loophole in the treaty to increase the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons above 1,550 warheads. Not least because the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy determined that the Pentagon, even when the New START Treaty is implemented in 2018, will still have up to one-third more nuclear weapons deployed than are needed to meet US national and international security commitments. (more at FAS)
See the DOD letter circulated to Congress in May.
By Kingston Reif, Arms Control Association, January/February 2016
“The United States is planning to purchase a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) that will be far more advanced than the ones they are slated to replace, according to members of Congress and other sources, raising questions about the plan’s consistency with a pledge made by the Obama administration not to provide nuclear weapons with new capabilities.
“The development of the new missile also has sparked a debate about whether it could be more ‘usable’ than the existing ALCM, thereby lowering the threshold for when the United States might consider using nuclear weapons.
In a Dec. 15 letter to President Barack Obama urging him to cancel the new cruise missile, also known as the long-range standoff weapon, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and seven other senators wrote that the ‘proposed missile is a significantly altered version’ of the existing ALCM. The letter did not say what specific capabilities the new missile would provide, but claimed the proposal contradicts the policy statement from the 2010 ‘Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report’ that efforts to sustain U.S. nuclear weapons ‘will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.’
Advocates of the new missile argue that it provides a continuing ability to quickly add missiles to bombers. They note that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty does not cap the number of weapons that can be carried on each bomber.
The source said the technical characteristics of the new missile are still being defined because the program is still in the early development stage but that the goal is to increase the range and accuracy of the missile. The source said another goal is to incorporate the latest stealth features, making the missile much more difficult for adversary air defense systems to detect.
Regarding the proposed life extension program for the ALCM warhead, known as the W80-4, the source who has been briefed said a goal of that program is to permit ‘greater flexibility in actually picking’ the desired yield. The ALCM warhead is believed have a built-in option to allow detonation at lower or higher yields.
According to the source, increasing the accuracy of the missile allows for more flexibility in the warhead yield, thus enhancing the overall capability of the weapons system.
The source said the briefings made it clear that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond ‘the original mission space’ of the ALCM.
For example, the source said that, in the event of a major conflict with China, the Pentagon has talked about using the new missile to destroy Chinese air defenses as a warning to Beijing against escalating the conflict further.”
“Franklin Miller, a veteran nuclear strategist now at the Scowcroft Group, points out that Mr Obama would never have persuaded the Senate to ratify the New START treaty in 2010 had he not pledged to renew America’s nuclear weapons on land, sea and in the air. That agreement allows for what is known as the ‘bomber discount’, which counts an aircraft carrying several bombs as a single warhead. The LRS-B (the upcoming Long-Range Strike Bomber) will be able to carry internally a payload of cruise missiles, the new B61-12 bombs or a smaller stand-off missile with a conventional warhead. It is improbable that any president would forgo that option while Russia retains it.”
The open letter that kick-started the debate:
Former Secretary of Defense Perry and Former Ass’t Secretary of Defense Weber to Obama:
“Because they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants, cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon.
Two years ago, when Britain decided not to pursue a sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, Philip Hammond, then-British defense secretary and now-foreign secretary, explained the problem well: ‘A cruise-based deterrent would carry significant risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead. Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension.
One of us (William J. Perry) led the Defense Department’s development and procurement of the current air-launched cruise missile and the B-2 stealth bomber in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time, the United States needed the cruise missile to keep the aging B-52, which is quite vulnerable to enemy air defense systems, in the nuclear mission until the more effective B-2 replaced it. The B-52 could safely launch the long-range cruise missile far from Soviet air defenses. We needed large numbers of air-launched nuclear cruise missiles to be able to overwhelm Soviet air defenses and thus help offset NATO’s conventional-force inferiority in Europe, but such a posture no longer reflects the reality of today’s U.S. conventional military dominance.
With the updated B-2 and B61 expected to remain in service for many decades, and the planned deployment of new B-3 penetrating bombers with B61 bombs starting in 2025, there is scant justification for spending tens of billions of dollars on a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile and related warhead life-extension program.
We therefore urge President Obama to cancel the current plan to develop and buy 1,000 to 1,100 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles. Such strong U.S. leadership, coupled with a challenge to the other major nuclear powers to eliminate or, in the cases of China and India, forgo deployment of this extremely destabilizing class of weapons, would reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use and be a historic practical step in the direction of a world without nuclear weapons.”
– William J. Perry and Andy Weber from Mr. President, Kill the New Cruise Missile
William J. Perry was U.S. secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997. Andy Weber was assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009 to 2014.
“Those four cruise missiles that crashed in Iran could’ve been carrying nuclear warheads- which is why the US should ban them, not renew them.”
…inherently ambiguous… can add major risks to a crisis… In 2007, six nuclear-armed cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber and flown across the United States. Because nuclear-armed cruise missiles are virtually indistinguishable from conventional ones, the error went undetected for 36 hours..”
-Tom Collina and William Saetren, Ploughshares Fund.
Jan. 13: Just How New is the New, Nuclear-armed Cruise Missile?
“Deploying the planned new nuclear-armed cruise missile will actually make the United States less secure. Known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, or LRSO, it will be significantly more capable than the existing nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). And for just that reason, by demonstrating that the United States sees this weapon as a valuable military tool, it will undermine higher priority U.S. security goals. Specifically, pursuing the LRSO ignores the reality that nuclear weapons are no longer a security asset for the United States, but a liability that should be constrained.” –Stephen Young, Sr. Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists
Dec. 15: Eight Senate Democrats, including three members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to terminate the Air Force’s plans for its next-generation air-launched cruise missile. Read More
“It seems clear from many of these statements that the LRSO is not merely a retaliatory capability but very much seen as an offensive nuclear strike weapon that is intended for use in the early phases of a conflict even before long-range ballistic missiles are used.” – Analysis by FAS/Hans Kristensen
- Who Needs a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile Anyway?- Steven Pifer, Brookings
- Overkill: The Case Against a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile- Kingston Reif/ACA
- You’re NUTS: New Nuclear Cruise Missiles are Inherently Destabilizing
- New Nuclear Cruise Missile Won’t Control Escalation, Will Erode Stability