Long-Range Stand-Off Missile: The Indispensable Weapon

A Long Range Anti-Ship Missile launches from an Air Force B-1B Lancer​. Wikimedia Commons/DARPA

Here’s why the critics are wrong.

In recent months, opponents of the long range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) have taken to the pages of the nation’s newspapers to press for cancellation of the program. Unfortunately, article after article has offered a number of assumptions, half-truths, and inaccurate information.

In challenging the utility and wisdom of replacing the U.S. Air Force’s AGM-86 nuclear air launched cruise missile (ALCM) with the long range standoff cruise missile, which is expected to be stealthy, able to evade advanced integrated air defenses (IADS), and far more accurate, detractors repeats a number of arguments that lack understanding of adversary capability and how the United States plans to employ nuclear weapons in a conflict—which is central to convincing an adversary (Russia or China) that a nuclear conflict should never be fought.

Detractors make four basic arguments. First, they argue LRSO is a redundant capability that the B-21 stealth bomber and its B-61 gravity bombs can perform. Second, they suggest LRSO does not enhance warfighting capability. Third, they assert fielding LRSO will destabilize the strategic balance. Fourth, they suggest the cost of acquiring LRSO is “indefensible.”

Each of these arguments is deeply flawed and deserves a response if for no other reason than to provide an operational perspective that explains why LRSO actually matters to warfighters and why it contributes to a stable deterrent.

Redundant Capability?

Opponents of a replacement for the 1970s-era air launched nuclear cruise missile (AGM-86) often argue that the LRSO is an unneeded capability because the B-2 and B-21 bombers will carry the B-61 mod 12 nuclear gravity bomb. Thus, opponents argue that nuclear cruise missiles are redundant. The flaw in this argument is that it is largely an argument focused on the politics of nuclear weapons, not any actual operational employment of the weapons. Let me explain.

There is a widespread misconception that the probability of arrival of a nuclear weapon to its designated target is a one-hundred percent chance of arrival. The reality is much different. Regardless of the specific delivery vehicle, the probability of any nuclear weapon arriving at its designating target—not to mention detonating and destroying the target—is calculated for each weapon and exists within a range below one hundred percent. In other words, the notion that any nuclear delivery system is “redundant” is a foolish notion that fails to account for the fact that getting a warhead to its designated target is far harder than detractors state.

Opponents of LRSO assume that Clausewitz’s “fog and friction of war” do not apply to the nuclear realm. Because of an assumed perfection of “delivering weapons on targets,” detractors suggest that very few nuclear weapons with minimal delivery types are sufficient to maintain stable deterrence. They assume away all past experience in war warfare.

For example, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report notes that the United States expended an estimated twenty-five thousand rounds in Iraq and Afghanistan for every insurgent killed during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The GAO also notes that American forces expended more than fifty thousand rounds for every enemy killed during the Vietnam Conflict. Yet for some reason opponents of LRSO believe that only one bullet fired from one gun is required—one shot, one kill.

They also presume that the B-2 and B-21 are somehow guaranteed to fly through heavily-defended enemy airspace unmolested, drop a B-61—perfectly destroying target. Sadly, this view of air warfare does not fit reality. Stealth aircraft are neither invisible nor invincible. Both the B-2 and B-21 achieve survivability by producing a reduced radar cross section. This is achieved by directing radar returns in predictable directions—away from the receiver. This predictability allows for mission planning against known threat (IADS) locations. Against mobile threats whose location is unknown, radar returns could give away the location of a stealth aircraft. This increases the risk of detection by mobile surface to air systems. To overcome the limitations present in stealth aircraft, American systems employ tactics and techniques that maximize stealth’s attributes.

In short, some well-defended targets are unavailable to stealth aircraft because they have radar signatures that are too large. This means a stealthy cruise missile, which is only a fraction of the size of a stealth bomber, has a much greater probability of arrival at the designated target. Given that there are targets which neither a submarine launched (SLBM) nor intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) can hit—because either their reentry angle will not allow it or they will overfly a hostile country that is not the target—the air leg of the nuclear triad is critical.

To rely solely on the B-61 open the nation to creating a single point of failure, which decreases the president’s options and reduces the credibility of the American deterrent in the mind of an adversary—where it matters most.

Destabilizing ALCMs?

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Andy Weber suggest that cruise missiles are destabilizing weapons. The challenge with this assertion is that it lacks empirical evidence to support the argument. The simple fact is there is no historical evidence to suggest that nuclear cruise missiles are more destabilizing than other nuclear weapons.