The Air Force may accelerate its now in development nuclear-armed Long Range Stand-Off Weapon (LRSO) cruise missile, a new weapon slated to hold enemies at risk of nuclear attack from previously impossible ranges for an air-launch of a nuclear weapon.
The weapon, expected to emerge quite possibly by the end of this decade, will introduce a new avenue to the U.S. nuclear deterrence posture by introducing an option to launch a nuclear attack from air, without having to be in the vicinity of dangerous high-tech modern air defenses such as the Russian S-400s or Chinese HQ-9 Systems.
“SASC (Senate Armed Services Committee) support for the LRSO is strong, and programmatic impacts have not taken us out of the game. We do have the ability to stay on time or go faster,” General Timothy Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command Commander told reporters at the 2021 Air Force Association Symposium.
Despite the age and obsolescence of the 1980s-era AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), the weapon the LRSO is replacing, there has been some debate and even controversy about whether an air-launched nuclear capable cruise missile should exist. The principal concern, articulated by some members of Congress, has been that it could lower the threshold to possible nuclear war exchanges by encouraging commanders to consider the merits of a possible “limited” or “tactical” nuclear engagement of some kind. In effect, this concern maintains that the existence of a weapon like this could make nuclear weapons easier to use.
Also, critics raise the concern that a dual-use conventional-nuclear cruise missile such as the LRSO, could lead adversaries to mistake a conventional strike for a nuclear one, therefore inadvertently setting off a catastrophic nuclear exchange.
At the same time, in the event of some kind of nuclear scenario, an operational LRSO may be one of the few weapons capable of responding to a crippling nuclear attack. Should air defenses and a lack of air superiority make it difficult for closer-in bombers to strike, or there be a scenario where U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles or nuclear-armed submarines able to retaliate. The more options a commander has regarding any kind of nuclear counterattack, strategic deterrence thinking goes, the less likely an actual attack becomes, as a destructive response is assured. In this respect, a new LRSO weapon could function as an essential deterrent against a first-strike nuclear attack. The idea with deterrence is not so much to use nuclear weapons under threatening circumstances, but rather to provide commanders and decision-makers with a range of options with which to prevent escalation.
Kris Osborn is Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.