A New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile?

November 22, 2013

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In an oped last month, Tom Collina argued that the United States should not replace its nuclear air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) because the weapon is unnecessary, too expensive, and destabilizing.  Collina contends that moves to field a new system are evidence of Cold War inertia rather than genuine strategic need.

The truth, however, is that such a replacement is an important part of maintaining an effective nuclear posture, and for this reason the American people and their representatives should support and fund such a weapon.

Contrary to what Collina argues, the replacement ALCM – called the long-range standoff (or LRSO) – is an essential part of our nuclear posture. Since a world free of nuclear weapons appears at best a distant prospect and since there are still genuine and possibly growing strategic risks to the United States, its interests, and its allies, it makes sense for the United States to maintain a sufficiently large, flexible, adaptable, and diversified nuclear force, including through keeping our Triad of effective and capable nuclear delivery systems.

If one accepts that proposition, then it follows that we need to invest appropriately to make our bomber leg of the Triad effective and capable. Collina contends that all we need to do to that end is to invest in a nuclear gravity bomb that can be delivered by our next-generation penetrating bomber. Investments in our gravity bombs and in a penetrating bomber certainly are worthwhile, but Collina significantly underestimates the dangers posed even to our stealthier aircraft by the impressive improvements in our potential adversaries’ air defense systems.  While investing to maintain the U.S. edge in technologies designed to enable penetration make abundant good sense, we must be realistic about how much we can expect from such investments. A realistic assessment compels us to admit that it is very possible that these improving air defense networks may be able to deny or at least seriously diminish or constrain the ability of our bombers to penetrate and deliver gravity bombs.

Indeed, capabilities to counter low-observable heavy bombers and munitions are advancing quickly. For instance, both China and Russia are developing and building exquisitely capable air defense networks, including the S-400 Triumph and the S-500 Autocrat SAM complexes.  These would pose severe challenges to our ability to penetrate enemy air space, especially against targets further inland. These air defenses will increase the risks even for the stealthiest aircraft. And bear in mind that it is likely that an adversary would want to use its most effective air defense systems to create no-go zones around exactly the kinds of most valued targets that the United States would most want its nuclear forces to be able to hold at risk. We therefore would be prudent to be able to hold those targets at risk from standoff distances – exactly the mission LRSO is supposed to perform.

Moreover, forgoing LRSO would simplify our potential adversaries’ defensive problems, allowing them to focus resources only on defending against stealth aircraft or ballistic missile attacks. But why make our potential opponents’ lives easier? Why not instead leverage technologies for the nuclear arena that the United States would use for conventional standoff strike capabilities in any case? Since we are clearly going to be staying in the long-range standoff missile business for use in conventional warfare, why not simply apply that area of U.S. technological prowess to the nuclear realm as well?

Collina is also off base when he argues that the ALCM is particularly expensive. He contends that a new ALCM is a “decision…worth about $30 billion” and that “it has no official price tag, but is expected to cost $20 to $30 billion[.]” This figure is a bit mystifying, especially given that Collina himself just last August reported without comment that Air Force officials believe the LRSO will in total cost only $1.3 billion to produce. Even if that figure is low (as it probably is), on what basis does Collina think it was off by a factor of twenty or thirty? A program that costs in the single billions of dollars over a decade or more seems, given the benefits, like a pretty sound investment.

Finally, Collina miscasts ALCMs as destabilizing weapons. The stability and misidentification challenges of dual-capable systems are real, but the United States and others have been managing these problems for decades – and quite successfully, given that there has never been a serious incident of nuclear confusion over U.S. employment of its conventional missiles. Moreover, the same problem would apply even more to U.S. gravity bombs and stealth aircraft, which Collina approves of. And his hopes for stopping possible Pakistani or Chinese development of nuclear ALCMs by suspending our own program is groundless. Neither country has given the slightest indication it is interested in arms control with the United States, least of all out of simple mimicry.

In an era of tight budgets, we should not spend our defense dollars on unnecessary or counterproductive capabilities. But the LRSO is neither of these. Rather, it is an important component of a future highly effective nuclear deterrent, and it is likely to come at a reasonable price. For these reasons, the American people and their representatives should support its development and deployment.


Elbridge Colby is a defense analyst in Washington, D.C. He previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on nuclear policy issues and on the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. He is a War on the Rocks contributor. His opinions are his solely his own. 


Image: U.S. Air Force

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7 thoughts on “A New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile?

  1. Interesting article, but in terms of long range stand off capability doesn’t an ICBM launched from CONUS due the job better than an ARCM?

    As far as I know, cruise missiles are still vulnerable to S400/S500 and comparable systems. Their slow speed relative to a warhead reentering the atmosphere makes me think they would be much more vulnerable. So if ALCM –essenially a small plane– will get shot down by the advanced air defense systems our potential adversaries are developing, what is the point paying for them?

  2. Nukes can be made very, very much smaller than the public thinks. Ted Taylor at LANL designed the first “suitcase nuke,” the W54 (“Davy Crockett”) at 23kg, which in turn caused a tiny-arms race with the former Soviet Union–does anyone know where all theirs are now?

    A sub-kiloton nuclear warhead could be fitted to a weapon fired from a drone, no problem. But very scary.

    Highly recommended old book: “The Curve of Binding Energy,” by John McPhee. About Taylor the designer, and Taylor then the advocate for control of Special Nuclear Materials.

    1. What would the performance of a sub-kiloton or single-digits kiloton warhead be like, in terms of kinetic threat (blast radius, CEP, damage estimates etc)? Would it be clearly identifiable as nuclear (with all the inevitable diplomatic and media fall-our that would entail)?

    2. I fully agree with you here, but playing devil’s advocate I could imagine an argument for survivability and flexibility. ALCMs can be based and launched from nearly anywhere, while ICBMs are probably not going to be located anywhere OCONUS

  3. Ok going to explain this out really easy in as simple terms posable.
    Gravity Well Bomb (GWB) For minning.
    Dont even bother reading this unless you understand advanced math.

    Ok going to explain this out really easy in as simple terms as able to.

    First off triangle. The strongest shape going. So a 1 foot triangle with three rods, one in each corner. On each rod 3 dumb bell shape weights hooked up to a gear on each. Made so the weight can spin around while on the rod. Maybe a foot tall for each rod. One weight near the bottom close to the triangle. One weight in the middle of the rod and one weight near the top. Maybe abec bearings to make the weights spin faster.
    Top and bottom weight must spin the same way and middle weight must spin the other direction. Otherwise you have a completely different device.
    Hook up gears on weights to a means to make them spin. Either a bike chain hooked up to a small engine or use other gears hooked up to a small engine. May want to use three small engines, one for each tier of spinning weights. Each tier will have three weights. So you will have a total of 9 weights spinning. Also you will want to run a current of electricity threw the rods.
    In the center of the triangle raised up to the level of the middle weights put a ruby with a way to strike it with a needle very hard and fast. So the ruby fractures and makes the desired sound.
    Ok Currents causes a electromagnetic field.
    Weights cause a gravity well
    Ruby cause the vibration inside the well.
    So spinning weights explained. Getting them to spin at about the power of 1 will give you a total power of 3 in the center.
    Look at it this way. if you take a pal of water and put it on its side the water falls out
    But if you spin the same pal of water around faster and faster slowly bringing it up the pal will be at its side and the water will not fall out.
    So basicly you are looking at you arm to the end of the bucket being the length.
    Then the weight of the water.
    The rpm that it takes to spin it around and keep it in the bucket.
    now doing this with the weight works the same way but no water. The ends of the weights have the gravity force of 1 ok. You can’t see this force but it is there.
    Now with all three weight spinning you have a total of 3 on top and 3 on the bottom holding in the 3 in the middle. The top and bottom will run off up and down but will keep pressure on the one in the middle. The well in the middle will become stable.
    So if you have a 1 foot well that would be from the center of the weights to the center of the triangle.
    Ok so maybe you have already learned the take a 1 foot balloon into the water thing but I will explain it again. If you blow up a balloon to 1 foot in size and take it down 33 feet of water it will be 1/2 its size due to the pressure. Another 33 feet and its a 1/4 its size. so yet another will make it 1/8 its size.
    So 1, 1/2 2, 1/4 3, 1/8 4, 1/16 5, 1/32 6, 1/64 7, 1/128 8, 1/246 9, 1/542 10, 1/1082 11, 1/2164 12, 1/4328 13, 1/ 8656 14, 1/17312 etc etc. you see how its builds up.
    If there are 5280 feet in a mile then at 14 atm thats over 3 miles. that little 1 foot balloon would want to grow to the size of.

    You are now pushing in on the center well with 3 atm like this. So that 1 foot gravity well will want to expand to 8 times its size.
    The current will charge the atoms.
    Striking the ruby in the center will cause a tone that it takes to fracture a lv ten stone. Different sounds different results. Very usable for mining to remove lesser stones. A level 8 stone will leave behind all level 9-10
    After the stone is stuck the sound wave given of from it will shake the atoms in the given space going back and forth over and over till in the weights and rods break apart. The electric charge will demagnetize the atoms. The rods will shatter and the well will be released. Everything in a 8 foot area will be shaken apart to a single atom state in a perfect circle from the center of the triangle.
    Atoms take a short time to repolarize and reform material.
    Putting a faster spin on things will give larger results.
    Do not use light instead of sound. Sound at least stops at space. Light dose not and burns the atoms.