war on the rocks

Nuclear Cruise Missile Opponents are Pushing a Dangerous Line

January 14, 2016

It has become popular to oppose plans for a new U.S. nuclear-capable cruise missile. They are immoral. They needlessly risk nuclear war. They stoke “arms-racing” and greater nuclear proliferation. And the United States has plenty of alternatives to dual-use delivery systems — cruise missiles in particular — making them unnecessary. These various arguments have been made by credible voices, including former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Andy Weber. Tom Nichols has also endorsed their position. A close reading of oppositional arguments, however, reveals logical inconsistencies, flawed assumptions, and an implicit attempt to constrain the options available to future presidents dealing with national security threats. Above all, opponents of nuclear-capable cruise missile plans neglect the importance of this capability for tactical surprise, generating battlefield friction, and even deterrence itself.

Nuclear-capable cruise missile opponents claim that cruise missiles are a “uniquely destabilizing” weapon in part because they can be launched without warning and can carry conventional or nuclear weapons. But opponents neglect the fact that most, if not all, weapons systems that have been associated with nuclear weapons can be launched without warning. In particular, gravity weapons such as the B61 variants, which Perry and Weber in particular praise, can be dropped with little to no warning by bombers. In some cases, enemy leaders might not realize that U.S. nuclear weapons had been launched towards their territories or forces until the weapons detonated over their targets.

Curiously, Perry and Weber also praise the low-observable features of the currently operational B-2A bomber and its planned successor, the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B). These features, however, if they were to prevent enemy detection of the aircraft as they entered and flew through enemy airspace, would actually facilitate U.S. gravity weapons strikes without warning. Thus, Perry and Weber implicitly recognize the military benefits of achieving tactical surprise in combat operations, but they fail to see the logical inconsistency between their advocacy for low-observable aircraft conducting strikes with gravity weapons and their opposition to a nuclear-capable cruise missile.

The military benefit of tactical surprise is that the attacker will be engaging with an opponent who has degraded or sub-optimal defenses. It is one reason that “stealthy” F-117 fighter aircraft were employed in the opening air strikes of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 against key nodes of Iraq’s air defense system. If the Iraqis had obtained tactical warning of the imminent U.S. air strikes, they might have taken measures to defend against the U.S. strikes and to mitigate the effects of their success. Achieving tactical surprise in combat operations is a force multiplier, which is why commanders strive for it.

Despite the operational military advantages of cruise missiles, opponents believe that dual-capable platforms and delivery vehicles are problematic and could lead to inadvertent nuclear war. However, the B-2A and the air-launched cruise missile can carry conventional or nuclear weapons and they have been employed in combat using conventional weapons against states in Europe and the Middle East without triggering adversary concerns that the United States was bringing nuclear weapons to bear. Moreover, dual-capable bombers and cruise missiles alone would not be sufficient to destroy the launch capabilities of all Chinese or Russian long-range nuclear forces. The bombers and cruise missiles are too slow and there are not enough of them to achieve surprise against all of the nuclear forces deployed in those countries during heightened tensions. A more effective U.S. nuclear attack designed to disarm China or Russia of its nuclear forces would require the use of ballistic missiles. Their use would reduce the time by which enemy nuclear forces could either respond with a counterattack or take action to ensure their survival against the U.S. strikes.

Opponents of investing in nuclear-capable cruise missiles also make a critical assumption: that the U.S. conventional military advantages that came to fruition in the 1990s and in the 2000s vis-a-vis China and Russia are fixed across time. If only this were so. Military balances between the United States and its competitors are dynamic and have changed because of differences in qualitative and quantitative inputs over time, such as differences in military procurement and training foci, differences in overall military spending, and differences in who innovates and exploits technological breakthroughs. One need only study the history of the military balance between the United States and China since 1995 involving China’s potential military aggression against Taiwan to see how some U.S. military advantages might have begun to erode. Though China’s amphibious assault capabilities do not appear to have grown significantly over the past 20 years, there are indications — chiefly in the Chinese military’s expanded arsenal of anti-ship and anti-air missile systems, land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles, and counterspace capabilities — that China is better equipped in 2016 than in 1995 to deny U.S. air and naval surface forces access to, or at least delay their full-scale and sustained intervention into, a China-Taiwan theater of operations.

Furthermore, the conventional military balance between the United States and Russia involving a contingency in the Baltic region has evolved since the early 1990s, as U.S. military procurement and training has focused to a significant extent on operations outside of Europe against insurgents and militants that function as light infantry, while Russian procurement and military reform has continued to emphasize European military contingencies involving combat with U.S. and allied forces. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. European Command (EUCOM), stated in 2015 that “forces in Europe over the past 20 years have been sized for a situation where we were looking at Russia as a partner, so we have come down over 75 percent in our forces since the Cold War.” He added that EUCOM sees growing Russian capabilities and significant military modernization. As a result of these developments, Breedlove characterized EUCOM as assuming “significantly greater risk. Our timelines are longer, our preparations are less robust, and our fundamental ability to deter and defeat in a timely and effective manner is less sure than it could be.”

Moreover, the Department of Defense’s effort to formulate a third offset strategy is focused on arresting what Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work described as a “steadily eroding” U.S. technological edge. The two countries that Work identified as deploying “very advanced capabilities at an extremely rapid pace” were Russia and China. Those capabilities have been designed to counter U.S. military advantages and operational concepts.

Opponents also assume that the future LRS-B will be capable of roaming at will over vast enemy territories to drop gravity weapons on key targets. Though the LRS-B is planned to be capable of penetrating the most well defended airspace through the 2020 to 2030 time period (and perhaps beyond), plans have a way of falling apart when they make contact with the enemy. Technical breakthroughs and surprise happen, and we know that competitors are conducting research and development on counter-stealth sensor networks to detect, track, and engage low-observable aircraft. In addition, an aircraft designed to be stealthy will not always be undetectable to enemy sensors. And the U.S. military establishment and intelligence community have often underestimated the development of foreign military capabilities. As David J. Dorsett, the then-deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, said in 2011, “I think one of the things that is probably true, true from my observation in the last several years, is we have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery and IOC [initial operational capability] of Chinese technology, weapon systems.” Because of these factors, it would be more prudent to hedge against an optimistic assumption of aircraft survivability by developing and deploying a dual-capable cruise missile for use with U.S. bombers to maximize their coverage of targets deep inside the vast landmass of China or Russia, and to minimize the risk each aircraft and aircrew would face flying long distances through defended airspace against multiple targets.

Finally, what is most disconcerting about cruise missile opponents — especially evident in Perry and Weber’s op-ed — is that they denigrate the proposition that U.S. presidents should have available to them a variety of options for conducting military operations, whether nuclear or conventional, as “Cold War thinking,” rather than applaud it as sound military planning and strategic hedging. Their line of thought could lead to presidents being “boxed in” to a narrow range of military options that might be ineffective or sub-optimal given the specific military problem and strategic conditions at hand. Less effective and sub-optimal military options can lead to higher human, financial, and strategic costs for the United States than might otherwise be the case with better military means available in the U.S. arsenal.

The critics’ push to narrow America’s range of available military options is related to a major shortcoming in debates about U.S. nuclear forces: ignoring the linkage between having a broad array of military tools available to deal with military problems and the objective of deterring a wide range of enemy actions. They seek to tie the hands of future U.S. presidents, depriving them of options for dealing with high-end nuclear threats. This ignores the wisdom of a body of work on strategy and deterrence, captured most elegantly by President George Washington when he stated that “if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.” To be deterred from a range of aggressive actions against U.S. interests, the enemy must fear that all of its feasible courses of action, including its measures to deter U.S. military actions, will fail to accomplish their strategic objectives.

At the same time, the critics ignore how some competitors hold a different view of the utility of diverse military options. Russia, for example, continues to deploy a wide array of dual-capable delivery systems, such as the sea-launched cruise missiles it has employed against targets in Syria. The doctrinal concept that informs Russian planning is “de-escalation”: the infliction of tailored damage on an adversary to compel it to accept Russia’s terms to end military operations. Some Russian military exercises and simulations have included “limited” nuclear strikes against military targets in Europe and in the continental United States using long-range air-launched cruise missiles. Though Russia’s current emphasis on nuclear weapons is partly explained by the economic, demographic, and technological constraints that it faces, the doctrinal concept of de-escalation has long existed in Russian nuclear strategy and operational planning. Therefore, it would be unwise to believe that Russia would respond in kind to the elimination of U.S. nuclear-capable cruise missiles, as some of the critics have hoped.

Where opponents see the possibility of inadvertent escalation as an impetus to avoid investments in nuclear-capable cruise missiles, it is that very introduction of risk that is essential to deterrence. The United States must be able to impose greater friction — the accumulation of difficulties, faulty intelligence, and unforeseen incidents that degrades military performance, as Carl von Clausewitz saw it — on the enemy than it could impose on the United States. The threat to impose greater friction in wartime might translate into the actual imposition of costs on a competitor during peacetime, which can yield major advantages for U.S. defense planners. Bombers carrying cruise missiles are a means of imposing friction in several ways. A group of bombers or a single bomber can conduct cruise missile strikes using multiple azimuths to complicate the enemy’s air-missile defense problem. The cruise missiles, too, can also use multiple azimuths to avoid defenses and reach their targets. The ability to divert from straight paths to their targets means that overflight of nuclear-armed third parties can be mitigated, unlike with the use of ballistic delivery systems.

To compound the enemy’s planning problem, bombers armed with cruise missiles can disperse away from their primary airbases and deploy to secondary bases that could support additional flying routes to enemy targets. Furthermore, as standoff delivery systems, cruise missiles decrease the distances that bombers must fly to drop weapons on targets. Reduced flying time leads to a higher sortie generation rate for the bombers, which translates into the enemy having to deal with the potential for a higher rate of U.S. air raids.

It is difficult to plan for all plausible scenarios of enemy military aggression against U.S. security interests, and nobody knows how future presidents might define U.S. interests and judge which ones are vital and worth fighting for. It therefore behooves force planners to allocate finite resources in a way that creates a military arsenal with diverse capabilities that can generate diverse effects. With such an arsenal, future operational planners will be more likely to have at least one tool that offers utility in light of a specific military problem. Bombers and cruise missiles capable of carrying conventional and nuclear weapons are critical ingredients in a diverse toolkit capable of generating military effects, thereby deterrent effects as well, across a wide range of scenarios and military problems.


Bruce M. Sugden is a strategic analyst at Scitor Corporation, an SAIC company, in Arlington, Virginia. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer or clients.


Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II, U.S. Air Force