The Buzz

America’s Security Dilemma: Do We Need a New Nuclear-tipped Stealth Cruise Missile?

There is a growing controversy in Washington over the Pentagon’s plans to develop a new nuclear-armed cruise missile.  The new missile, termed the Long Range Stand Off weapon (LRSO), is intended to replace the Air Force’s existing air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) that currently equips its B-52 strategic bombers.  The initiative is part of the Obama administration’s broader plans to recapitalize the nation’s triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems consisting of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and manned bombers over the next three decades.

The ALCMs first entered service in the early 1980s as part of an effort to prolong the life of the 1960s-era B-52s, which were no longer survivable in contested air space.  With a range of 1,500 miles, the ALCMs could be launched by the ageing bombers from well outside the reach of Soviet air defenses.  While the service life of these missiles has been extended through refurbishment programs over the last twenty-five years, the Air Force has stated that they will have to be retired by 2030.  The LRSO will then be needed as a replacement if the U.S. is to maintain its nuclear stand-off capability. 

The debate about the LRSO centers on the question of whether or not such a capability is necessary or appropriate.  Opponents argue that dual-use cruise missiles capable of delivering either conventional or nuclear weapons are fundamentally destabilizing.  Once one is fired, it would be impossible for an opponent to know what kind of warhead it is carrying.  Under such circumstances, an adversary might assume the missile to be nuclear-armed and decide to respond in kind.  Arms control advocates say that it therefore makes sense to not only abandon plans to develop the LRSO but to go ahead and dismantle the existing arsenal of ALCMs as wellMany believe that by doing so the U.S. could set a precedent for a global ban on such weapons.  

However, these arguments are problematic.  If dual use cruise missiles are destabilizing, then so are the bombers that carry them.  An adversary would have no ability to determine beforehand whether a penetrating U.S. bomber was armed with conventional or nuclear bombs.  To the extent that arms control advocates believe that dual use weapons undermine nuclear stability, it would make sense for them to call for getting rid of the bomber leg of the nuclear triad entirely.  Indeed, a thoughtful case can be made for doing so, but LRSO opponents do not make this argument.  In addition, while achieving an international ban on nuclear cruise missiles would be a worthwhile goal, canceling the LRSO program unilaterally would deprive the U.S. of a much needed bargaining chip in the negotiation process.   

The controversy over the LRSO encompasses much broader issues, however.  Fundamentally, it is about the nature of nuclear deterrence and the role nuclear weapons should play in U.S. national security.  Observers on both sides of this issue agree that the U.S. will have more nuclear warfighting options if it produces the LRSO than it will if it retires the current ALCMs without replacement.  Because the new missile will be stealthier and more accurate than its predecessor, it will actually provide the U.S. with new capabilities that it does not currently possess.  Moreover, like the current ALCM, the LRSO will utilize a variable nuclear warhead whose yield can be adjusted from as high as 150 kilotons – the equivalent of 150,000 tons of TNT, or ten times the size of the Hiroshima bomb – to as low as 5 kilotons.  This “dial-a-yield” capability, combined with its more advanced features, could make the new missile seem like a relatively usable weapon