A New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile?


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