Five Facts About a Controversial Nuclear Weapon

August 10, 2017

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According to the original plan, air-launched nuclear cruise missiles should no longer be with us. Conceived as a stop-gap measure to keep the B-52 relevant to the nuclear mission, the air-launched cruise missile was supposed to be retired when the stealthy B-2 bomber entered into service in the early 1990s. That never happened. The B-2 buy was slashed from 132 aircraft to 21, far too few to replace the B-52-cruise missile combination on a one-for-one basis. So, this weapon remains with us today.

After nearly 40 years, the air-launched nuclear cruise missile is approaching the end of its service life, and is scheduled to be retired in 2030. When it does, the Air Force wants to replace it with a new and improved air-launched nuclear cruise missile, the Long-Range Stand-Off Weapon, or LRSO.

This is a terrible idea, but one that managed to gain significant traction even among some of the Obama administration’s Prague Agenda promoters. In War on the Rocks, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Frank Rose wrote an article entitled “Five Myths About a Controversial Nuclear Weapon.” In this article, he purports to debunk the research of analysts who oppose the LRSO, including former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Andy Weber, and myself.

But there is nothing mythical about our arguments and I stand by my previous research on the LRSO. Rose’s arguments do not pass muster and rely, in part, on some misleading math. So, let’s run through each one:

Fact #1: The LRSO is Not Necessary to Meet U.S. Military Requirements

The air-launched nuclear cruise missile was conceived as a solution to the vulnerability of the B-52 to sophisticated air defenses. During the Vietnam War, 31 B-52s were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, raising questions about the bombers’ ability to penetrate enemy airspace to deliver their nuclear gravity bombs. Until a new, stealthy bomber could be built, the missile was the perfect interim solution. Armed with multiple nuclear cruise missiles, the B-52 could fly right up to the edge of the reach of an enemy’s air defenses and fire their nuclear payload from a safe distance.

This problem was solved when the United States began production of 100 B-1 strategic bombers in 1981. The B-1 incorporated radar absorbing skin and was able to fly at high speeds at altitudes as low as 500 feet, making it almost impossible to target with surface-to-air missiles. Less than a decade later, the Air Force added what continues to be the most sophisticated stealth bomber in the world to the force, the B-2. This is a $3.4 billion airplane that was specifically designed to pass through the world’s most sophisticated air defenses untouched. In 1994, the Department of Defense decertified the B-1 as a nuclear bomber. Only the B-2 and B-52 were needed to carry out the nuclear mission.

But as Rose points out, times are changing. Air defenses are becoming ever more lethal and have far greater range than they did almost 30 years ago when the B-2 entered the service. The B-2 will eventually become unable to penetrate contested airspace and be retired. That is why the Air Force is planning on spending at least $111 billion on 80 to 100 new B-21 stealth bombers to replace the B-2.

Rose claims “opponents generally fail to acknowledge that both Russia and China are rapidly improving their air defense capabilities and accompanying anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies.” He infers that these advances could eventually jeopardize the B-21, thereby making the LRSO a necessary supplement to current and next generation nuclear bombers.

This is the strongest argument in support of the LRSO. It is also the strongest case against the B-21. If the B-21 is indeed unable to deliver on its promise to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses, America needs to have a serious discussion about whether it wants to invest $111 billion in an imperfect platform.

It is also worth noting that nuclear cruise missiles are no longer needed to defeat sophisticated A2/AD air defenses. When the air-launched nuclear cruise missile developed in the 1970s, it was the best tool for this job, but that is no longer the case. Today the Air Force uses the JASSM-ER conventional air-launched cruise missile for that mission, and the Navy also has a significant inventory of non-nuclear cruise missiles that can also take out air defenses.

Even after the B-21 bomber enters the service in the 2030s, Rose suggests that the B-2 and B-52 bombers that remain in the U.S. arsenal should carry the LRSO so that they are “effective nuclear delivery platforms through the 2040s.” This is redundant and unnecessary. New START limits the United States to 60 deployed nuclear capable heavy bombers. Although the treaty is set to expire in 2021, with the possibility of an extension to 2026, it is the current basis for long term planning. With 80 to 100 B-21s available, the treaty quota will be more than filled by the new, state of the art stealth bomber. Keeping any number of the old B-2s or B-52s in the nuclear mission once the B-21 becomes operational would reduce the amount of B-21s available at a given time. This would be detrimental to the capabilities of America’s nuclear strategic bomber force.

Fact #2: Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missiles are Inherently Destabilizing

Rose argues that the LRSO can’t be destabilizing because the nuclear cruise missile has received preferential treatment in the past under arms control treaties. Under New START, bombers are counted as a single warhead, regardless of how many cruise missiles they are equipped with. That argument would be compelling if the LRSO was comparable to its older cousin, the cruise missile set for retirement, but it is not. The LRSO brings a host of new capabilities to the table that make it much more destabilizing.

The current nuclear cruise missile was considered stabilizing because it was carried by the slow, observable B-52. Even after the point of firing, the missile itself is slow and easy to detect on radar. That is not true of the LRSO. Although the Defense Department has not publicly commented on the LRSO’s capabilities, information from a variety of sources indicates that the new nuclear cruise missile will have new capabilities. In a 2015 letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to cancel the LRSO, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and seven other senators wrote that the “proposed … missile is a significantly altered version” of the existing air-launched nuclear cruise missile.

Based on conversations with government officials, the Union of Concerned Scientists has reported that the new cruise missile is slated to incorporate top-of-the-line stealth technology and could potentially receive an engine upgrade that will allow it to travel at hypersonic speeds. The Arms Control Association has also spoken to sources who indicated that the LRSO will also include a new dial-a-yield feature, which will allow the warhead’s explosive force to be set anywhere in the range of 5 to 150 kilotons. This could tempt military planners to see it as a viable tool to conduct “surgical” nuclear strikes early in a conflict. Further compounding the problem, plans call for the LRSO to be equipped on the B-2 and B-21.

In other words, the Air Force wants to put a stealth capable cruise missile, that is tailored for limited nuclear warfighting, on stealth capable bombers for the first time. Both of these platforms are touted as virtually undetectable to sophisticated anti-air defenses. In the eyes of a potential adversary, that makes the duo a highly destabilizing, first strike weapon.

This is the real heart of the issue. It does not matter whether opponents or proponents of the LRSO think that it is a stabilizing or destabilizing weapons system. What matters is how America’s nuclear posture is perceived by potential adversaries.

If China and Russia believe that the LRSO can be used to circumvent their air defenses and put their second-strike capabilities at risk, they will actively pursue measures to counter it. That could manifest itself in increased defensive measures, pursuit of an LRSO of their own, or a completely new offensive weapon to offset the perceived advantage that the LRSO has given the United States.

That is what’s known in the business as an arms race. The United States spent 46 years embroiled in an arms race with the Soviet Union, one that saw a multitude of errors and miscalculations that nearly triggered a nuclear war. That is an exercise in futility that should never be repeated again. As Bill Perry has observed, the only way to win an arms race is to refuse to run.

Fact #3: Canceling the LRSO Would Support Efforts to Convince Other Countries to Eliminate Their Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missiles

As Rose notes there is a common misconception that canceling the LRSO will inevitably cause other countries to surrender their nuclear armed cruise missiles. Nobody possesses perfect information about the future actions of others, and to pretend otherwise is unfair. What can accurately be said, however, is that the United States can lay the foundation for a global ban on nuclear armed cruise missiles by canceling or freezing plans for the LRSO.

There are several compelling reasons that other nuclear-armed states could follow America’s lead. China has yet to develop air-launched nuclear cruise missiles, and until recently has shown little desire to do so. Since entering the nuclear club in 1964, China has demonstrated remarkable restraint in developing its nuclear arsenal, investing just enough to maintain a sufficient nuclear deterrent. This is a radically different way of thinking about nuclear deterrence than the American approach. For perspective, the United States has an inventory of roughly 6,800 nuclear warheads. China has fewer than 300.

This methodology can be traced back to Mao Zedong’s oft-quoted remark that “nuclear weapons are a paper tiger.” They serve a purpose, but that purpose is largely the result of an illusion. In the past, this approach has allowed the government to invest their resources wisely, pouring money into conventional capabilities and economic development. The LRSO threatens to upset that balance. Evidence has emerged that China is in the process of developing a new air-launched cruise missile, which may or may not be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. By offering to cancel plans for the LRSO, the United States can remove a powerful incentive for China to move forward with these plans. Conversely, If America does not, China could see itself backed into a corner with no other recourse than to counter the threat posed by the LRSO.

With China supporting a ban, there would be an incentive for them to exercise leverage over India and Pakistan to do the same. China recently committed to investing $1 trillion in the Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure development program that will connect Europe and Asia. Pakistan has positioned itself to benefit heavily from the initiative, and India will likely one day try to do the same. On the surface, India and China appear to be at odds. The two are engaged in a tense dispute over Doklam, and India recently declined to send a delegation to the Belt and Road Forum in May. One of New Delhi’s main complaints is that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a sub-project of the Belt and Road Initiative, runs through the disputed Kashmir region that India claims sovereignty over.

This is largely an issue of optics. India cooperates fully with China in other fora, but as equals. The Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese project, and India does not want to be seen as subordinate to China. These are not insurmountable obstacles. India stands to gain significantly from participating in the Belt and Road Initiative. It is likely only a matter of time before India seeks to resolve these issues and signs on to the project.

Russia already has air launched nuclear cruise missiles, but they are nowhere near as sophisticated as the LRSO is projected to be. This is a microcosm of a larger picture. The United States will spend about $350 billion on its nuclear forces over the next decade, while Russia is projected to invest only $50 billion. Russia stands to benefit greatly from trading its inferior cruise missile force if the United States agrees to abandon plans for the LRSO.

Fact #4: U.S. Allies Will Support a Nuclear Cruise Missile Ban

America’s allies will almost certainly support a U.S.-led effort to eliminate nuclear armed cruise missiles. As Rose points out, countries like Japan and the Netherlands are under immense domestic pressure to further support nuclear disarmament proposals, but it is difficult to understand his reasoning that supporting a ban on nuclear cruise missiles would do little to alleviate these pressures.

The social forces Rose refers to are frustrated by a perceived lack of movement towards nuclear disarmament. This is the same reason that 122 countries recently signed on to a global treaty to ban nuclear weapons. By eliminating the LRSO and supporting a ban on nuclear cruise missiles, we are talking about eliminating an entire class of nuclear weaponry and increasing deterrence stability. It is a move that falls short of the end goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, but it is a step in the right direction.

The elephant in the room is that the LRSO is tailored for one specific purpose: limited nuclear war fighting. Frank Kendall, who served as the Pentagon’s acquisition chief from 2012 to 2017, stated that “an LRSO-armed bomber force provides the President with uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis, particularly the ability to signal intent and control escalation.”

This type of thinking has not gone over well with America’s allies in the past. During the Cold War, a host of small, “usable” nuclear weapons was introduced to the European theater, including nuclear artillery, landmines, and bazookas. These weapons were designed to be used in the event of a Soviet invasion of NATO’s eastern flank. However, for that exact reason, they made America’s European allies extremely nervous. Any nuclear use against the Soviet Union would have invited in kind retaliation that would have seen Europe become an irradiated wasteland. To reduce this risk, all of these low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons systems were eliminated, culminating in the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which removed all tactical nuclear missiles from the European theater.

The LRSO represents a return to this way of strategic thinking. The idea that low yield weapons can be used to deter further escalation was firmly rejected during the Cold War. Yet that is precisely the mission the Air Force wants for the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile. So, while Kendall and Rose suggest that fielding the LRSO would reassure U.S. allies, history tells a different story.

Fact #5: The United States Can Save a Lot of Money by Canceling the LRSO

Rose claims that canceling the LRSO will fail to generate significant savings. To illustrate his point, he cites that between 2016 and 2020, the Pentagon is slated to spend $94 billion on nuclear modernization. Only $1.78 billion of that is earmarked for the LRSO. In total he says, the LRSO will cost $8.3 billion.

This math is extremely misleading.

To determine the cost of the LRSO, one has to evaluate the entire program from beginning to end. This figure includes the cost of research and development, of both the warhead and the missile, acquisition costs, and the costs associated with maintenance for the duration of the LRSO’s lifespan. That cost is estimated to lie somewhere between $20 to $30 billion. Given that Department of Defense calculates its cost estimates at a mere 50 percent confidence level (meaning that there is a 50 percent chance that the program will exceed its estimated cost), that figure will likely be much higher. Canceling the LRSO program now, in 2017, could generate anywhere between $15 billion and $30 billion in savings.

That is a lot of money. For perspective, the unit cost of the new Ford-class supercarriers is $8.5 billion, while the cost of the Navy’s new Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer, designed to incorporate railguns and laser weaponry, is about $4 billion.

The LRSO: A Ghost of the Cold War

The air-launched nuclear cruise missile has outlived its relevance to America’s national security strategy. Once a means of enhancing the reliability of the airborne leg of the nuclear triad, it has become a liability.

Replacing and modernizing America’s nuclear weapons complex will cost $1.2 trillion over the next three decades. Although the plans are in place, the money to pay for all of it is not. Last year, Brian McKeon, who was then-principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, commented that the Pentagon was “wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it.” Canceling the LRSO is not going to solve that problem, but adding up to $30 billion to an unaffordable price tag is simply bad economic planning.

Canceling the LRSO is an opportunity that is too good to pass up. The United States can demonstrate leadership and make the world a safer place at zero cost. Doing so won’t degrade U.S. military capabilities and will conserve valuable resources. If other nuclear armed states wish to waste their resources on an outdated relic of the past, so be it. It is to their detriment and America’s gain. However, it is far more likely that they will follow America’s lead. Not out of naive desire for world peace, but because it’s the smart thing to do.


Will Saetren is a Research Associate at the Institute for China-America Studies, where he specializes in nuclear weapons policy. He is the author of Ghosts of the Cold War: Rethinking the Need for a New Cruise Missile and is an alumnus of the Roger L. Hale Fellowship at Ploughshares Fund.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Sahara L. Fales

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