This Debate Over a New Cruise Missile Has Gone Nuclear

April 5, 2016

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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

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3 thoughts on “This Debate Over a New Cruise Missile Has Gone Nuclear

  1. I appreciate Kingston’s willingness to debate this serious issue – this engagement between the nuclear enterprise community and the disarmament community does offer an opportunity to clarify serious points of defense policy for the American public as well as the national security community. Unfortunately, I feel that this particular exchange through War on the Rocks (now on its third round of exchanges) has caused some of our points go to past each other. I will offer a few comments to this above post and then I think this topic has more than run its course.

    Reif says that I haven’t made a case for why a new ALCM provides a necessary contribution to deterrence in my last article (“A Necessary Weapon). That’s because my first article (“Why We Still Need a Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missile” on October 26, 2015, delivered that case (

    Reif says that he is putting the LRSO costs in context of other defense programs by quoting DoD Comptroller Robert Hale’s concern that there is a big bow wave of defense funding in the 2020s that imperils modernization proposals. I don’t see that as putting cost in context. During the “bow wave,” the nuclear modernization cost to DoD will rise from about 3.5% to 5% of the total DoD budget. So what conventional threats can DoD not address with 95% of the budget? Quoting the billions that LRSO may cost is not relevant unless you’re using the context of the trillions of dollars that will be spent by DoD over that same timeframe.

    Reif argues that DoD should consider using the $20-30 billion to procure additional conventional weapon systems instead of the LRSO. I would counter that this conventional capability does not substitute for the requirement to offer a nuclear option against countries with sophisticated A2/AD defenses. Reif is mixing different missions (penetrating A2/AD, defeating A2/AD, limited proportional response, strategic deterrence) into one discussion in an effort to discredit the valid requirement for a nuclear cruise missile.

    Reif says that his point (today) is that the LRSO is redundant because of the other nuclear weapons in the US stockpile. In his first article (Why the US Should Not Buy [the LRSO]) on March 21st, his paragraph on this topic focuses on the B61 mod 12 and conventionally-armed stand-off missiles. He has one sentence that says basically “oh and we still have the other nuclear weapon systems.” I am unclear as to whether Reif is reading into other sources when he talks about using “multiple LRSOs … to ensure reliable penetration of air defenses” as being redundant with ICBMs or SLBMs. But no one should assume that a low-yield nuclear weapon’s use could be replaced by a high-yield nuclear weapon’s use. While proponents of minimum deterrence may believe that the threat of retaliation against cities using high-yield nuclear weapons is the only necessary nuclear mission (and therefore we only need SLBMs), that goes against the military’s practice of developing executable options that meet varied political objectives.

    Reif’s criticisms of my procurement discussion are unwarranted. If the nuclear-capable B21 is available in IOC beginning in 2027 – an early estimate at best – one has to ask, how many nuclear-capable bombers will be ready to go. The Air Force received about 5 bombers a year under the B2 program. Maybe the Air Force will be building conventional B21s at the same time as nuclear B21s, or maybe the conventional bombers will be built first. I’m willing to bet that there won’t be 60 nuclear-capable bombers that are operationally ready within ten years of IOC. There will be a graduated period of time over which the B1s, B2s, and B52s are retired, if past DoD and Congressional practices are indicative of the future. There will still be nuclear-capable B52s that will be able to carry the LRSO. Reif is either deliberately ignoring these facts or doesn’t understand defense procurement practices.

    I misstated my point when I suggested Reif thought the LRSO was more destabilizing than the Russian or Chinese nuclear cruise missiles. My point was to say that the LRSO is not a destabilizing factor, any more than other nations that have invested in the same capability. It’s a known military factor that cruise missiles exist, and that they can have nuclear or conventional warheads. The use of either warhead depends on the particular military scenario being played out. Strategic stability suffers when one major power has a capability that the other major power doesn’t have or cannot counter.

    Last, I don’t believe that I said the use of a nuclear cruise missile would not escalate a conflict. But you cannot seriously claim that the escalation scale for launching multiple ICBMs is the same as launching a few cruise missiles. There are lots of academic studies on the issue of nuclear self-deterrence. And I don’t believe that I said that Reif misstated the number of nuclear warheads. Rather, I took offense at his term “bloated.” Confusing readers by suggesting the total number of active stockpile and inactive reserve weapons is the same as the number of operationally-deployed weapons is fuzzy logic. If Reif wants to say that 1,550 operationally-deployed warheads is “bloated” as compared to 1,000 operationally-deployed warheads (a number that’s been floated around), well, I guess we have different opinions of what “bloated” means.

    I suggest that there is a “third way” here. Instead of focusing on absolutes, we ought to be able to agree that 1) the nuclear mission will continue to exist into the future; 2) some level of modernization of a 20-30 year old capability is required for successful deterrence in the 21st century; 3) continued reductions in the US nuclear stockpile are possible, concurrent with commitments from other nuclear-weapons states. I think the US nuclear enterprise accepts. If we could get the disarmament community to agree, we could make real progress toward both sides’ agendas.

    As usual, this diatribe represents my personal views and not that of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.

  2. A cruise missile is a cruise missile: any design with a large enough warhead can carry a nuclear payload as well. Even if we know we don’t have the warheads to nuclearize a given ALCM design, our enemies don’t know that, designing separate conventional and nuclear ALCM lines would be a waste of money.

    If the argument is that we’ll never need new ALCMs, including conventional ones, then that is foolish.

  3. The LRSO/W80-4 is a necessary nuclear weapon. It will give the B-21 the ability to attack and destroy mobile icbms. Icbm and slbm warheads cannot destroy mobile icbms on the move. The JASSM-ER is not accurate enough to destroy mobile icbms on the move. The B61-12 cannot destroy all mobile icbms because we would have to have one bomber per mobile icbm, and then the costs would really be prohibitive. Kingston Reif does not offer any plausible argument for not building the LRSO/W80-4. Every so often he takes every nuclear weapon and delivery vehicle and says that we have to eliminate it. He is only promoting a total disarmament agenda to the United States which only puts our country at great risk.