war on the rocks

A Necessary Weapon: The Nuclear Enterprise Strikes Back

April 1, 2016

Kingston Reif says nothing new in his recent article at War on the Rocks, in which he argues that the United States should not invest in a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile. We’ve heard this all before from the disarmament community’s view. Unfortunately, Reif distorts the realities surrounding the military’s development of a necessary capability for nuclear deterrence. In Reif’s article, advocates for a robust nuclear deterrent are reduced to rabid planners who “make a hoarder seem frugal” with their nuclear funding demands, supporters of a weapon system rather than defense professionals within the Pentagon’s acquisition program. We are dismissed as “devotees” of the missile, as if we were worshipers of a South Pacific cargo cult and not serious defense analysts.

Reif argues that funding the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) missile is “redundant, recklessly expensive, and potentially destabilizing.” As is the case with most every weapon system, as one system ages, the Department of Defense will develop a replacement system. In this case, the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile is due for replacement. As Reif notes, it’s been in the system for 30 years and will have to do the job for another 13 to 14 years. There once was a replacement, the Advanced Cruise Missile, but it suffered operational problems and that system isn’t around (it was prematurely retired in 2012). Given that the requirement is still valid and based upon senior approvals, yes, the Department of Defense is going to try to develop a new cruise missile that is more capable than the old version. What a shock.

Reif says that LRSO costs are “excessive.” He refuses to put the cost of this single weapons program in context with other defense programs or the defense budget in general. Nuclear weapons programs have to compete today with other defense programs, and the funding, as approved by the Air Force, Department of Defense, White House and Congress, is not seen as excessive, but rather necessary. Is the LRSO missile redundant because we also have a nuclear gravity bomb, the B61 mod 12? The nuclear deterrence community doesn’t think so. Two reasons: First, the B61 mod 12 gravity bomb supports “nonstrategic nuclear weapons” stockpiles in Europe and provides a constrained nuclear deterrent against smaller nuclear powers. Second, using a gravity bomb means you have to fly over the target. Even with “stealth bombers” (reminder, “stealth” does not mean “invisible”), the Air Forces tries to avoid flying over heavily defended high-value targets. Using standoff capabilities is vastly preferred given expected advances in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) technologies.

In addition, the next generation bomber may not be ready in the numbers required for nuclear deterrence and conventional missions in 2025, when the LRSO will be ready. There’s a gap of 10 to 20 years in which the U.S. military will need to continue to use B-52s in a nuclear role against advanced A2/AD threats. By deploying the LRSO missile on the B-52, the old bomber can continue to play a valuable role in supporting the nuclear deterrent as the next-generation bomber is developed. Reif continues his strawman by arguing that nuclear advocates are “ignor[ing] the other two legs of the triad altogether.” That’s just untrue. The Department of Defense counts on the triad to provide multiple, complementary capabilities to deny any adversary the comfort of thinking that a nuclear first-strike against the United States is ever possible. The one existential threat that could destroy the United States in a day does deserve some “no-kidding tough” capabilities.

This is all “head-scratching” hard mental work to Reif, but not to other defense analysts. No one in the nuclear enterprise views cruise missiles as a “back-up” to the current U.S. nuclear war plan, as he claims. It’s a vital component that provides options to the president for both near-peer nuclear powers and emerging nuclear powers. It isn’t as if this weapon system hasn’t been extensively discussed within the U.S. government. The LRSO works within the New START treaty limitations, and both Russia and China are developing cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. So is this U.S. cruise missile somehow more “destabilizing” than the Russian and Chinese variants? It’s hard to see how.

Reif wants us to believe that conventional weapons such as the JASSM-ER and Tomahawk cruise missile should be included in the conversation. Certainly, the Nuclear Posture Reviews have emphasized “non-nuclear” capabilities to augment the nuclear mission. Still, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. military can abandon its quest it field low-yield, highly accurate nuclear weapons. Strategic deterrence writ large will always include discussion of every military and political option. In some cases, the U.S. government will have to respond to a nuclear threat with a nuclear capability. Possession of both nuclear-capable cruise missiles and gravity bombs is a requirement of future military operations. No one outside of the disarmament community argues with this. No one in the Defense Department views nuclear weapons as displacing conventional weapons.

Reif ends this article with his favorite statement about the “bloated U.S. nuclear arsenal of approximately 4,700 weapons” as being “largely irrelevant to the most pressing national security challenges the United States faces.” Sorry, I thought Russia’s nuclear rearmament and its flying of nuclear-capable bombers over Europe and off the West Coast of the United States might register as one of those “most pressing” challenges. And, for the record, the U.S. military doesn’t have 4,700 nuclear weapons in an operationally ready status. Many remain in reserve, and not in a state that would allow operational use in any crisis situation. Staying within the New START treaty requirements and maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent requires new delivery systems such as the LRSO for the future operating environment.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Senior Airman Benjamin Wiseman, U.S. Air Force