Why We Still Need a Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missile
“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” Mark Twain is reported to have said. Two years ago, also at War on the Rocks, Elbridge Colby responded forcefully to an op-ed calling for the elimination of the Air Force’s nuclear-armed Long Range Standoff (LRSO) missile that is to replace the existing nuclear-equipped cruise missile, the AGM-86 (also known as an air-launched cruise missile or ALCM). Today, it appears we need yet another defense of the LRSO, a program vital to U.S. national security and deterrence posture. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former defense acquisition official Andrew Weber called on President Obama to defund the LRSO, reiterating many of the talking points of two years ago. The strategic environment has only worsened since then, making the need for LRSO even more acute.
Perry and Weber believe that stealth bombers with direct-attack nuclear munitions are sufficient for the bomber leg of the nuclear triad, and that stealth bombers negate the need for cruise missiles. They make an unsupported claim that developing a nuclear cruise missile is not affordable in today’s budget environment. Finally, echoing previous arguments, the two make the statement that dual-capable cruise missiles are inherently destabilizing. History does not support this claim.
Since the Gulf War, the U.S. military had possessed a dual-capable version of the AGM-86. In fact, all three of the last major air campaigns the U.S. military has engaged in — Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom — began with salvos of conventional dual-capability cruise missiles (the Air Force’s AGM-86 and the Navy’s Tomahawk). No one misinterpreted those actions or the intent of the United States. Furthermore, in each of these conflicts, the United States flew direct-attack sorties with the B-2 stealth bomber — but only after launching cruise missiles against command and control or integrated air defense targets. The reality is that cruise missiles are still an essential part of the U.S. arsenal. No bomber, no matter how stealthy, is completely invisible to radar; expendable, high-volume dual-capability cruise missiles will be critical in the increasingly hostile anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threat environment.
When President Obama made his 2009 Prague speech, he stated, “As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.” Deterring our adversaries and assuring our allies was a central premise of Obama’s message. The nuclear deterrence capability of this nation and its ability to extend that deterrence rests on acquisition of LRSO. The AGM-86 became operational in the early 1980s when the most advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems were focused on America’s pre-stealth fighter aircraft fleet. The second-generation AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile (which incorporated some stealth technology) has already been scrapped. While the AGM-86 will be operational until 2030, its penetration capability against advanced SAM systems will continue to decline.
As the radar cross-section of our aircraft decreased, the systems that sought to target them became more advanced. Today, anti-aircraft (and missile) systems are not only more advanced but have proliferated. Russia recently announced it was giving S-300 SAMs to Iran. Meanwhile, it is important to consider the ages and capabilities of our aircraft. The B-52 is programmed to remain in active service well into 2040; even the B-2’s 1990s-vintage stealth technology will eventually be overtaken. Coupled with this, the Air Force has decided that the next-generation stealth bomber will be fielded with conventional capabilities first and nuclear capability to follow. In the next 10 years, our airborne strategic deterrent will rely on a 1980s missile launched from a 1960s bomber or a 1990s penetrating bomber going against the most advanced SAM systems. All of this happens as the nation waits for the next-generation stealth bomber to gain nuclear capability. This is why the United States needs the LRSO. It will keep the airborne strategic deterrent viable and serve as a capable hedge.
Deterrence and assurance only work if the U.S. military can hold all necessary targets at risk. A2/AD advances make it harder for our forces to reach their targets and our inattention to these limitations makes it harder to convince our allies that we can and will come to their defense in an emergency. Most importantly, dual-use aircraft and missiles allow us the greatest deterrent flexibility. In contrast to the widely-accepted salvos of conventional cruise missiles with which we have begun military operations from the 1990s onward, any ballistic missile launch would unambiguously escalate a conflict.
The LRSO’s attackers also fail to account for its importance as a hedge vis-a-vis submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Should either of these legs be subject to technological failure or decreased capability, a flight of 30 B-52s armed with 20 LRSO missiles each would give the STRATCOM commander 600 warheads at the ready. Furthermore, under New START accounting rules, the 600 warheads would only count as 30 deployed weapons.
“Killing the missile” as Perry and Weber suggest would severely weaken one leg of our nuclear deterrence triad. Without the LRSO, adversaries would only have to defend themselves against submarine-launched or intercontinental ballistic missiles, plus the weakening capabilities of our existing bombers and AGM-86 cruise missiles. Specifically, in cases of limited nuclear escalation scenarios, adversaries might believe that the U.S. government has no realistic course of action if limited to those weapon systems. It defies logic to claim, as Perry and Weber do, that our current bombers and missiles offer sufficient penetrating capabilities. In highly contested airspace, these put more U.S. personnel at risk and do not guarantee a successful strike.
President Obama himself has promised to maintain a credible deterrent and to field forces that will assure our allies. No matter how many recycled arguments its opponents marshal against it, the need for a next-generation nuclear-capable cruise missile make the LRSO a necessity in the face of the aging of our current offensive systems and the proliferation of sophisticated A2/AD defenses.
Dr. Mel Deaile and Al Mauroni work at the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.