The Buzz

Nuclear Tipped Cruise Missiles are a Relic of the Past

Earlier this week The New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton has confirmed what arms control experts have known for a very long time. Nuclear armed cruise missiles are antiquated relics of the past that should be retired.

Speaking at a private fundraiser the former secretary of state told the audience that she would be inclined to cancel the plan for a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile if elected president. “The last thing we need,” she told the audience, “are sophisticated cruise missiles that are nuclear armed.”

But why wait until the next administration to make this common sense reduction to America’s nuclear posture? In the coming weeks President Obama will reportedly make a decision on whether or not to pursue additional cuts and shore up his credentials as a nuclear disarmer. Although several measures are on the table, perhaps none is more politically feasible, and would have a greater short-term impact than canceling the new cruise missile.

Internal Competition

The new air-launched cruise missile, referred to by the Air Force as the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO) is a redundant and destabilizing weapons system that offers no clear strategic value. The current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) was developed in the 1970s as a stop gap measure to protect vulnerable B-52 bombers from advances in anti-aircraft technology. Rather than take on enemy air defenses and risk being shot down, the non-stealthy B-52 could fire its nuclear cruise missiles from afar. When the stealth capable B-2 bomber came online in the late 1980s, the B-52 and its cruise missiles were supposed to be retired.

But history had other plans. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and the enemy that the B-2 bomber had been built to defeat ceased to exist. As a result the B-2 buy was reduced from 135 to 21 aircraft, far too few to replace the B-52 force on a one-for-one basis. It is through an accident of history, rather than by design, that the cruise missile and the B-52 remain with us today.

This mishap should be corrected when the ALCM comes to the end of its life expectancy in 2030. The successor to the B-2, the highly sophisticated B-21 stealth bomber, will start rolling off the assembly line in 2025, and the Air Force plans to purchase between 80-100 of them. Once they do, the B-52 will finally be retired. But rather than shelf the cruise missile for good, the Air Force wants to put a new, stealth capable cruise missile on its new stealth bomber to the tune of $30 billion.

Putting cruise missiles on stealth bombers is an unprecedented move. They are inherently competing platforms, not compliments to each other. This is a reality that the Air Force is well aware of. In 1968, Lieutenant General Glenn Kent, who was in charge of cruise missile development at the time, described the decision to develop cruise missiles as a “catch 22” for the Air Force. “People were afraid that if we went to Congress and said we wanted both the missile and the bomber, Congress would say, ‘O.K., here’s the missile but you can’t have the bomber.’”

Controlling the Uncontrollable

In addition to incorporating stealth technology, early indicators suggest that the LRSO will include a supersonic engine with a greater range than its predecessor. It will also incorporate a dial-a-yield warhead whose explosive force can be adjusted anywhere in the range of 5 to 150 kilotons by the pilot. These enhancements, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top acquisition chief has said, are needed to provide the president with “uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis, particularly the ability to signal intent and control escalation.”

The problem is that these added capabilities also lower the threshold for nuclear use. As U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein recently observed, “the so-called improvements to this weapon seemed to be designed, candidly, to make it more usable, to help us fight and win a limited nuclear war.” With the LRSO in the American toolbox military planners would be more likely to recommend using the LRSO to “surgically” strike high-value military targets and convince adversaries to back down from head-on confrontation.