Why We Still Need a Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missile

October 26, 2015

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“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.

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5 thoughts on “Why We Still Need a Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missile

  1. Great article! I agree that the U.S. needs to maintain a nuclear-armed cruise missile. First and foremost it gives us flexibility in that in the event of a limited nuclear exchange. I know many would argue that there could never be a “limited” nuclear conflict, but the development of small numbers of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea, as well as the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons by others in the Middle East in response to Iran’s ambitions means that there is the possibility of just such an exchange. In reaction to the use of a small number of nuclear weapons by an adversary, there is always the possibility of a US reaction using ICBMs or SLBMs, but it comes at the price of a brief period of targeting uncertainty for peer or near-peer nuclear nations. The launch of missile-based nuclear weapons may provoke a knee-jerk reaction (especially if launched by submarine) that could lead to an all out nuclear war. Using cruise missiles negates this danger (in most cases) providing an option between a conventional response and total nuclear war.

    In addition, just by having nuclear-armed cruise missiles puts a burden on our potential adversaries to develop defenses against just such an attack. The recent focus by Russia and China has been to defend against attack from ballistic missiles, as well as conventionally armed stealth aircraft. A new generation of stealthy, intelligent cruise missiles (with nuclear capability) will force potential foes to spread out funding and development resources to counter many possible avenues of attack. China’s current A2/AD strategy focuses on keeping the US Navy and it’s carriers at a long enough distance to negate many of its weapons or make an attack or response extremely costly. The B-2/LRSB with a new nuclear capable cruise missile would go a long way into throwing a wrench into their plans.

    1. Additionally the US is already investing significant amounts of R&D into ALCM development, and thus could leverage the work already completed or ongoing with the JASSM family (JASSM-ER, LRASM). A 1,000~2,000 nm ranged stealthy ALCM would be of immense value utilised with conventional warheads in a conventional conflict with a peer adversary.

      As for a nuclear engagement, whether used in a limited tactical role or in a counter force strike, the ALCM provides the possibility for surprise that really is only possible with the B-2 at the moment. With heavy ECM the B-1B could achieve a similar results with a stealthy ALCM.

  2. “…the two make the statement that dual-capable cruise missiles are inherently destabilizing. History does not support this claim…”

    Yes, but none of these conflicts have been against nuclear states, which is where these misinterpretations become relevant. I don’t think that anyone was worried about us carrying out a nuclear first-strike against Iraq or Afghanistan. In a hypothetical conflict with Russia or China, the ambiguity of cruise missiles becomes much more destabilizing.

    “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.”

    And how would they do that, exactly? I’ve seen no indication that land and sea-based ICBMs plus bombers, in the quantities that we currently possess them, are anything less than an assured threat. No missile defense system that exists or could plausibly exist could prevent an attack by hundreds of ICBMs from being anything other than catastrophic. Adding cruise missiles to the mix doesn’t improve deterrence – it only creates ambiguity.

    1. Mark. I think I understand your point, but should the United States not continue to advance it’s cruise missile technology? Obviously Russia and China aren’t worried about the ambiguity of dual-capable cruise missiles. The Russians are developing the long-range (dual-capable) Kh-101/Kh-102 series of missiles, while the Chinese are beginning to equip their H-6K bombers with the KD-20 (not to mention ship/sub launched versions of the same missile).

      Would a nuclear cruise missile not be useful in the case of a nuclear confrontation against an enemy with a small number of nuclear weapons? I mean, if you have to shoot a ballistic missile toward Iran or North Korea, it might make the Russians and Chinese initially fear a launch against them. Do you think they’d ride it out until they are certain that they are not the intended target? Additionally, if we end up in a direct conflict with China or Russia, I don’t think it really matters about the cruise missile threat. All sides will have them and each nation will have to try and defend against them. If a nuclear exchange happens, it will be a total nuclear war, but I don’t think we’d see that unless there was a direct invasion of the soil of one of the belligerents.

      I do agree that the real deterrent comes from massive numbers of ICBMs, but since that is the case I don’t think that “uncertainty” caused by cruise missiles create any more instability. Both Russia and the US have ballistic missile subs that would be capable of providing second-strike capability. China will have this capability in the very-near future. A cruise missile attack (even if a surprise) would be able to be countered.