On Cruise Missiles and White Elephants


As Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine and augment its military presence along NATO’s eastern border, the conversation in the West about how to deter Russia from a potential attack against NATO has grown increasingly earnest. Understandably, much of the focus has revolved around the nuclear dimension. In fact, senior Defense Department officials have in recent months begun to tout the nascent effort to modernize America’s aging nuclear forces as part of the U.S. response to Russia’s assertive actions.

Against this backdrop, the greatest amount of debate has focused on the Air Force’s proposed Long Range Stand-Off Missile (LRSO), a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) designed to replace the current AGM-86B ALCM, which is nearing the end of its service life. The LRSO, to quote the Department of Defense, is designed to be capable of “penetrating and surviving advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) from significant standoff range.”.

Though Russia and China both have invested heavily on robust air defense systems, both have very different nuclear postures. Unlike Russia, China does not field a nuclear force that is designed for nuclear warfighting. Instead, it maintains a nuclear force focused on assured second strike, and one that up to this point has never gone on alert. (For more, I recommend Jeffrey Lewis’ The Minimum Means of Reprisal or his most recent book, Paper Tigers.)

Russia, on the other hand, has thought extensively about the use of nuclear weapons, and abandoned their “no first-use” nuclear policy decades ago. It is this fact, combined with their nuclear arsenal, that has led to discussions of the LRSO to largely focus on Russia and not China.

What is lost in this discussion, are two key questions: First, does replacing the AGM-86B with a new nuclear-armed ALCM actually stand to alter the deterrent balance between the United States and Russia to any significant degree? Second, though the LRSO is intended for use globally, if we’re prioritizing the deterrence of Russian aggression, are there better ways to spend money than on the LRSO?

The LRSO and the U.S.-Russian Nuclear Balance

Broadly speaking, nuclear-armed ALCMs, which were first fielded in the early 1980s, have had three major justifications.  First and foremost, these weapons were designed to better enable penetration of Russian airspace at a time when the United States did not have stealthy bombers or conventional ALCMs. Rather than an aircraft having to pass near or over a target to drop a nuclear weapon, a nuclear ALCM could both destroy key air defense sites and strike vital strategic targets on the Russian periphery.

Second, the combination of high accuracy and lower-yield made nuclear ALCMs useful in performing counterforce missions (attacking Russian nuclear and conventional forces) against both Russian nuclear delivery systems and massed Russian ground formations while minimizing civilian casualties. Third and finally, these weapons also complicated the mission of Russian air defenders.  It is one thing to defend against bombers carrying nuclear warheads, and quite another to have to defend against both bombers and large numbers of cruise missiles, especially if those cruise missiles are potentially targeting air defense systems.

While these rationales may have been compelling in the 1980s, they no longer justify purchasing a new ALCM.

First, if the intent behind the LRSO is to enable the United States to penetrate a near-peers’ airspace, the Department of Defense already maintains two long-range precision cruise missiles: the Navy’s Tomahawk Block IV, and the Air Force’s JASSM-ER. During the Cold War, nuclear ALCMs were seen as the most ideal tools to destroy enemy air defense systems and allow bombers to deliver nuclear weapons to follow-on targets. Given the comparatively limited accuracy of these ALCMs, it was difficult to ensure that a given target would be destroyed by a given strike. Arming these missiles with nuclear warheads ensured that even a near miss would still succeed in neutralizing or destroying their target.

Today, however, conventional land attack cruise missiles possess far greater accuracy, ensuring they can destroy their targets without needing the excessive explosive power of a nuclear warhead.  These missiles can be used to either suppress or destroy enemy air defenses, allowing other strike assets to more easily penetrate enemy airspace and deliver conventional or nuclear weapons to their targets.  In short, a nuclear warhead is no longer needed to ensure a given air defense site is destroyed. Even better, because these systems do not carry a nuclear warhead, they are far more affordable.

Further, these conventional ALCMs are designed to keep apace of anti-access/area-denial systems. The JASSM-ER combines stealth with 1000 kilometer range, allowing it to outrange most surface-to-air missile systems currently in use. The Tomahawk Block IV combines a 1,700 kilometer range with an ability to have its target adjusted mid-flight.  These improvements allow these systems to successfully engage and destroy mobile surface-to-air missile systems into the future. Even if future air defense systems are able to engage and destroy these cruise missiles, the LRSO would be equally vulnerable, thus adding little in added benefit.

Second, a nuclear-armed LRSO is also not necessarily useful in a counterforce role. Russian land-based forces, at least those in fixed locations, can just as readily be targeted by conventional precision munitions, and again at a far lower cost.  Indeed, this appears to worry Russia far more than the United States. The Russian military fears that these conventional munitions could degrade their nuclear forces to such an extent that it precludes a credible second-strike capability.  Even so, however, Russia maintains much of its nuclear force in a road-mobile configuration, and road-mobile missiles are exceedingly difficult to locate in the first place.

Third, and finally, if the intent is to stress Russian air defenses, the LRSO is not the ideal choice. Even leaving aside the cost to refurbish the W80 nuclear warhead for the LRSO (the cost of which cannot be separated from any discussion of the LRSO), the entire LRSO project aims to procure between 1,000 and 1,100 LRSOs for a total of $9 billion, giving the weapon a probable price-tag of $9 million-per-unit.  A JASSM and Tomahawk costs $1.3 and $1.6 million dollars respectively.  For every LRSO, the Department of Defense could buy approximately five Tomahawks or seven JASSM-ERs, which would easily allow strike packages to overwhelm the air defenses surrounding their targets.

Even assuming we employ conventional munitions to suppress enemy air defenses and use the LRSO to strike other high-value targets, the LRSO does not further strengthen nuclear deterrence. Under New START, the United States will deploy a maximum of 60 nuclear bombers. Assuming these bombers are able to carry a minimum 10 ALCMs, this would mean the United States would have an additional 600 nuclear warheads that can be launched against enemy targets.  However, if the 2,000 warheads deployed on Minuteman III and Trident I missiles aren’t enough to deter, say, a Russian nuclear attack, it is difficult to see how adding in 600 deployed on ALCMs will do any better. The “more bombs deter more” might feel like a safety blanket for a time, it does not hold up under scrutiny.

These same facts, incidentally, also apply to China.  The same tools to penetrate Russian airspace can also do the same to penetrate Chinese airspace.  Further, the United States maintains a massive nuclear advantage over China, given China likely has fewer than 200 warheads.

The LRSO as a White Elephant

If the aim is to deter Russian aggression, are there better ways to spend the money than on LRSO? To answer this, we must first examine the associated costs a little closer. The Air Force has refused to comment publicly on the tab, but the widely-cited figure for the LRSO is between $9 and $10 billion.  Additionally, the LRSO’s W80 warhead also requires refurbishment, which will cost an additional $8 billion. Given the trends in defense modernization, this number will likely climb. It certainly did the last time the Department of Defense tried to replace the AGM-86B. Indeed, a study by Rand’s Project Air Force determined that, on average, defense acquisition programs grow in cost by 46 percent.

Defenders of America’s nuclear modernization project point out these programs will take up a small chunk of the Department of Defense’s overall budget, totaling approximately 5% of total spending. Further, the spending on the LRSO and W80-4 will be spread over 15-20 years, or an average of just over $1 billion each year.

Even so, this is the wrong lens through which to view the cost – especially the opportunity cost – of America’s planned nuclear modernization project. Indeed, the Pentagon’s flirtation with special accounts to fund nuclear modernization clearly illustrates the tough budget choices ahead.

These tough choices aren’t just speculations, but implicit assumptions underlying nuclear modernization funding, be it through either National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund or the potential “broader nuclear deterrent fund.” These funds take “unobligated funds”, or funds that other programs are planning to spend but haven’t assigned to a given contract. It’s the equivalent of taking money out of one’s checking account because it’s sitting unspent, despite the fact that money is intended to cover a check that’s in the mail to the electric company. Simply put, rather than paying for them by increasing overall defense spending, the LRSO will likely be funded by taking money from other conventional programs.

Of course, many of those modernization programs are just as pressing as the LRSO. As Todd Harrison from the Center for Strategic and International Studies observes, much of defense spending during the last decade was focused on wartime procurements, not overall modernization. Spending on modernization for all systems remained relatively flat, and necessary modernizations of conventional systems were, like nuclear weapons spending, pushed into the future. And unlike the LRSO, these systems are not duplicative, but essential to conventional warfighting, and can no longer be deferred.

However, even assuming that the Department of Defense’s budget is increased to fund the LRSO without raiding unobligated funds, that is still not the best use of that money if the United States seeks to deter Russian aggression.

One is reminded of the old tale of the white elephant.  As the story goes, the King of Siam would have a subtle way of dealing with members of his court he found to be tiresome.  With great fanfare, the King would present the target with a white-colored elephant, a rare and special breed. In being presented with this “gift,” the individual would find themselves obligated to pay the not-insubstantial cost for housing and feeding a large, hungry elephant. Returning the “gift” was not an option, since doing so would cause great offense.  This would deprive the recipients of the necessary funds needed to maintain their position in court and remove them from the king’s sight without the political fallout associated with formally banishing them.

Fast forward a few hundred years and the LRSO could be a modern day white elephant. More gallingly, it’s a “gift” we’re bestowing upon ourselves. And those conventional programs it draws money from might be far more applicable to preventing a Russian attack on NATO.  Much is made of Russia’s funding of new nuclear delivery systems, to include their own nuclear ALCMs, and even new sea-launched cruise missiles SLCMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). SLCMs, and GLCMs.  But assuming that Russia intends to use them the same way we do is mirror imaging.  Russia has placed great emphasis on the use of nuclear weapons early in a conflict so as to “escalate to de-escalate” and preclude an inevitable conventional defeat.  Rather than large-scale nuclear warfighting, a more realistic scenario involves Russia seizing a limited amount of terrain, and then attempting to consolidate its gains by coercing the United States and NATO through limited nuclear weapons use.

In effect, we find ourselves back in the same place we were in 1960. Throughout the 1950s, the United States had invested huge amounts of time and money building a nuclear force optimized for inflicting maximum damage to Russia at the outset of war.  This doctrine of massive retaliation, envisioned going nuclear early.  Yet, as Gen. Maxwell Taylor and many others pointed out during the Eisenhower administration, such a stance left the United States with only two options should Russia launch a conventional attack in Europe: conventional defeat or escalation to all-out nuclear war.

This is what Glenn Snyder dubbed the  stability-instability paradox.  In creating a force that emphasized strategic nuclear war fighting at the expense of conventional forces, it actually incentivized small-scale tactical aggressions on the part of the Soviet Union. Is Russia, say, seized West Berlin, it could likely do so easily by overcoming the negligible American forces available to resist. After all, if after that the United States only had nuclear forces to respond, would the United States risk countless American lives over West Berlin?

Today, we’re faced with the same security-insecurity paradox. Outside of small, underpowered forces fielded by the Baltic States themselves, NATO forces that can respond to a provocation in the Baltics are few in number and not in position to repel a Russian attack. As such, Russia could very rapidly seize the Baltic States before such forces could get into position to challenge them, and then hide behind its nuclear forces. After all, is the United States really going to risk a general nuclear war over Riga? However, if a sufficiently capable conventional force precludes initial Russian conventional success, such an attempt becomes far less attractive. Launching a conventional conflict that might spiral into a nuclear one at a limited cost to your conventional forces one thing.  It is quite another when that success is neither guaranteed nor cheap.

The Department of Defense is already attempting to compensate for this conventional imbalance. The European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), a U.S. program aimed at bolstering Europe’s conventional defenses against Russia, proposes, setting aside funding for U.S. Army prepositioned stocks in Eastern Europe as well as a permanent rotation of Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT). It includes prepositioning equipment for rotational units deploying to Europe as well as a division headquarters, an armored brigade combat team, a fires brigade, and a sustainment brigade. The cost cited for an ABCT rotation is approximately $391 million to marry that brigade up with prepositioned stocks. The money proposed  on the LRSO could fund the rotation of an additional ABCT at a minimum, and leave room for a possible third or (perhaps more critically) additional enablers such as fire support assets, reconnaissance platforms, or air defense systems to counter local conventional Russian fire superiority.

To be clear, three additional forward-deployed brigades and more enablers are not sufficient to win a conflict with Russia alone. But by having sufficient forces to preclude an easy initial success by the Russian military, NATO is afforded a far improved conventional deterrence by denial. Further, pre-positioned stocks also provide a valuable signaling tool to demonstrate resolve that can be used during a crisis. The more pre-positioned equipment is forward in Europe, the more units the United States can send forward to signal that the United States is prepared to honor its treaty commitments.

Many have argued that in spite of the costs and redundancy, maintaining a nuclear ALCM capability is essential as a hedge against rapid technological change such as a compromise of stealth technology.  That said, given that the LRSO’s survivability is also predicated on stealth, the missile makes for a poor hedge.  Yes, a cruise missile is a far harder target than a bomber.  But Russian air defense system designers have worked diligently to add in an anti-cruise missile capability into their air defense systems. And regardless of how effective a given hedge may be, costs cannot be taken out of the equation.

In spite of the risk of technological change, nobody has seriously suggested bringing back nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), despite their being equally justified as a hedging capability.  Such arguments are not made because there is a recognition that the cost of such a step would be a bridge too far given other requirements.  The LRSO is no different.  And given the fact the LRSO’s funding might very well weaken the very conventional forces that may be called upon to prevent a Russian conventional attack, we would do well to seriously consider if we’re willing to bet everything on a capability that’s simply nice, but not essential, to have compared to other assets.

The next decade is likely to see continued tensions with Russia, which demands modernization programs that can keep pace. The United States would do well to approach this problem wisely, and not invest in redundant systems of dubious utility. With this in mind, we should look very critically at the LRSO. Such a decision might decide the fate of conventional deterrence in Europe.


Luke O’Brien is an Army officer assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground and is currently a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University.  His views are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or the Army.  He can be found on Twitter as @luke_j_obrien.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class J.T. Armstrong