war on the rocks

This Debate Over a New Cruise Missile Has Gone Nuclear

April 5, 2016

Should the United States build a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile (ALCM)? The question has become the most controversial part of the U.S. government’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar plan to replace the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure. This is as it should be, given the security and financial stakes involved.

I thus read Al Mauroni’s rebuttal (“A Necessary Weapon”) to my argument against building the weapon with great interest and thank him for engaging with the arguments. However, he fails to make a persuasive case for why a new ALCM provides a unique or necessary contribution to deterrence.

First, Mauroni claims I failed to put the cost of the Long-Range Standoff missile (LRSO) in context with other defense programs or the defense budget in general. However, as I noted in my original article (“Cruise Control”), it seems unlikely that there will be enough money to fund all of the military’s nuclear and modernization proposals in the 2020s. Or as former DoD Comptroller Robert Hale put it earlier this month:

Since DoD plans its budgets five years in advance the next president’s team will have to start immediately to shape their policies and programs to accommodate the bow wave. How will they do that? Given current threats to national security, I think there is a realistic prospect for increases in defense funding. That may meet some, but not all, of the bow wave needs.

In other words, I do put the costs of the impending nuclear modernization bow wave, of which the LRSO is a part, into the context of other defense programs. And I argue that $20 to $30 billion to buy the LRSO and W80-4 would be much better spent on other parts of U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear mission areas. What could even $20 billion buy? That is roughly one year of the Navy shipbuilding budget during the 2020s, or about the cost of an aircraft carrier, two attack submarines, a destroyer, two large surface combatant ships, three small surface combatant ships and four logistics ships.

Second, I don’t argue that the LRSO is redundant because of the B61 mod 12 as Mauroni claims. I argue the LRSO is redundant because of the mod 12, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and advanced air- and sea-launched conventional cruise missiles. What specific targets cannot be held at risk by these weapons that could only be held at risk by the AGM-86B and later, the LRSO? How big and unique is that target set?

Yes, stealth does not mean invisibility, as Mauroni notes. Which raises a question about the LRSO: How much more survivable will this missile be than the B-21 against the most advanced anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environments? Has the Department of Defense conducted any studies that attempt to answer this question? The public argument is that ALCMs enhance the number of penetrating targets each bomber presents to an adversary, making them more difficult to defend against. But if multiple LRSOs would need to be fired to ensure reliable penetration of adversary air defenses to strike a target only a nuclear weapon could destroy, how is that not redundant with what ICBMs or SLBMs already provide? Are there not enough ICBM or SLBM warheads for this purpose? (I’ll get to how having to fire multiple LRSOs undermines the limited nuclear escalation argument below). Perhaps Mauroni is concerned that ICBMs are useless outside of a strike against Russia due to the fact the missiles have to overfly Russia to strike other potential adversaries such as China or North Korea? This is a legitimate worry, but the potential counterforce target set in those countries is far smaller than in Russia.

And speaking of adversary A2/AD capabilities, why can’t the JASSM-ER (which, as I noted in my article, could soon be outfitted with an advanced technology that would provide the missile with an electromagnetic pulse-like capability), Tomahawk, or other relevant conventional munitions blow holes in adversary defenses, thereby reducing the risk they pose to the B-21 and B61 mod 12?

Third, Mauroni argues that the LRSO will be ready in 2025, well before the B-21 will be able to sufficiently undertake conventional operations and contribute to the nuclear mission with gravity bombs, meaning that the U.S. military will need to continue to use B-52s armed with LRSOs until as late as 2045. My understanding is that LRSO production is slated to begin in 2026 and reach initial operating capability by 2030, with full operating capability presumably coming some years later. Meanwhile, the B-21 is slated to achieve an initial operating capability in 2025, with nuclear certification to follow two years later. Assuming the United States continues to deploy no more than 60 nuclear capable strategic bombers as it currently plans to do under the New START treaty, the B-52 may need to be removed from the nuclear mission as soon as the early 2030s in order to accommodate the B-21.

Fourth, Mauroni says ALCMs are not “back-ups” in the U.S. nuclear war plan and that I claim the LRSO would be more destabilizing than the nuclear cruise missiles being developed by Russia and China. As I have reported previously, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon publicly stated early last year that the reliability of the AGM-86B is not assured over the next ten years. Another source who has been briefed on the AGM-86B told me there are serious restrictions on the current use of the ALCM due to reliability issues. Perhaps there are different views within the U.S. government on this matter.

In addition, in September 1991, shortly before George H.W. Bush took U.S. strategic bombers off alert, Strategic Air Command concluded in a major force structure study that the declining importance of the bombers had created a “Twin Triad” posture that “places the day-to-day deterrence burden on the two ballistic legs.” Has that determination changed?

At no point in the article do I argue that the LRSO would be more destabilizing than the Russian Kalibr or KH-102 cruise missiles.

Which brings us back to Mauroni’s emphasis on the importance of the LRSO for limited nuclear escalation scenarios. Mauroni doesn’t respond to my contention that ICBM or SLBM warheads could also be configured to produce limited effects. Elsewhere he has argued that any launch of a nuclear ballistic missile would unambiguously escalate a conflict (as opposed to the launch of a nuclear cruise missile, which apparently would not). This is an interesting statement. On what evidence is it based? Under what scenario has the intelligence community concluded that an adversary might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using an ICBM or SLBM if necessary?

And even if Mauroni’s claims regarding escalation were true, does he think one or two LRSOs could reliably circumvent the most sophisticated near-peer A2/AD capabilities and reach a target or small number of targets a B-21-borne gravity bomb or conventional cruise missiles could not? If not, and the United States needed to launch more LRSOs to ensure penetration, how would doing so not unambiguously escalate a conflict?

Finally, Mauroni ends his response by insinuating that the current U.S. nuclear arsenal is not excessive and that I misstate the number of U.S. warheads.

The president and the Department of Defense have repeatedly stated that the United States currently has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security policy. The 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy states that the United States could meet its national and international security commitments with up to one-third less deployed nuclear weapons than planned under New START. Does Mauroni disagree with this judgment?

According to a U.S. government fact sheet, U.S. stockpiles in late-2014 included 4,717 active and inactive nuclear warheads plus several thousand additional warheads that are retired and awaiting dismantlement.

Which brings me back to the original argument I made in my article that the LRSO is an unnecessary hedge on a hedge: not essential but redundant for limited-use scenarios, a waste of resources that could be better spent on other U.S. nuclear and conventional capabilities, and potentially destabilizing.


Kingston Reif is the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @KingstonAReif.


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