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

Supporters of the LRSO believe that it is necessary for the U.S. maintain a variety of nuclear options in order to ensure the credibility of its nuclear deterrent.  There is a particular concern among many in the national security community that if the U.S. were to find itself in a conventional war with another nuclear power, its opponent could be tempted to escalate with limited nuclear strikes rather than accept defeat at the hands of the U.S. military.  According to this line of thinking, the new cruise missile can help deter such escalation by enhancing the U.S. capacity to respond with limited nuclear strikes of its own without having to resort to all out nuclear war.  In this way, LRSO supporters make a seemingly counterintuitive argument: By strengthening the U.S. ability to fight a nuclear conflict, it will actually reduce the likelihood that one will occur. 

Opponents completely reject this idea, believing that the LRSO will raise the risk of nuclear war rather than lower it.  They correctly point out that there is a logical contradiction in the Pentagon’s insistence that the new missile would enhance U.S. warfighting options without lowering the nuclear threshold.  To the extent that the LRSO is seen as a more usable weapon than those carried by U.S. ballistic missiles at sea and on land (which possess much larger warheads), it is one that is therefore more likely to be used in the event of a crisis or conflict.  As a result, its critics fear that it will erode the long-standing taboo on the use of nuclear weapons and make the unthinkable seem thinkable. 

Arms control advocates also emphasize that the LRSO’s development would be contrary to the Obama administration’s stated policy of reducing the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons.  It would, in their view, signal to other countries that the world’s only superpower continues to see nuclear arms as legitimate tools of warfare and undercut U.S. efforts to promote global nuclear disarmament.  LRSO critics note that the increased accuracy of U.S. precision-guided munitions means that targets that previously could only be eliminated with nuclear weapons can now be neutralized through conventional means.  They argue that it would be better to use the funds intended for the LRSO to purchase greater numbers of conventional air-launched cruise missiles.

This debate is simply one aspect of a much larger one about the role of nuclear weapons in ensuring the security of the United States and its allies.  Those in the U.S. arms control community want to minimize that role as much as possible by limiting U.S. nuclear warfighting capabilities.  They believe this is the best way to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war.  Many arms control advocates would like to take further steps in this direction, such as abolishing all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and delaying the introduction of the new strategic bomber.  However, there is little public appetite for such moves in light of Russian expansionism, China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia Pacific, and an increasingly belligerent North Korea.  Killing the LRSO, on the other hand, is something that is politically feasible, and that is the main reason why arms control advocates are focusing on it. 

Richard Purcell is a freelance writer and a researcher at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm. He has also written for World Politics Review, the SAIS Europe Journal, and SAIS Review.  He holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and previously worked as a legislative staffer for Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) for seven years. You can follow him on Twitter at @SecurityDilems

​Image: U.S. Air Force