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.”