WASHINGTON — Top Democratic lawmakers fighting to quash the next-generation air-launched cruise missile suffered a setback this month, but they are signaling the fight’s not over.
Two opinion pieces by opponents — House Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith in Foreign Policy and Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-President Dianne Feinstein in the New York Times — ripped the Long-Range Stand-Off Weapon as expensive, wasteful and dangerously escalatory. The items come as the House rejected a measure to slow down LRSO’s development.
While Smith, in an interview with Defense News, said opponents can continue to target LRSO's funding into the next administration, Feinstein said she plans to raise the issue in hearings of the Appropriations Energy and Water subcommittee, where she is also vice-chair.
“I want to make sure the Pentagon isn’t using the cloak of modernization to hide the fact they are building a new nuclear weapon," Feinstein said in a statement. “The Air Force has not provided a concrete cost estimate for this program nor a description of the military’s need for this new weapon. In our hearing with experts like former Secretary of Defense William Perry, I plan to discover the military and financial justification to build a new nuclear cruise missile.”
The U.S. Air Force, which is still building the acquisition strategy, plans to acquire at least 1,000 of these missiles, and deploy them through the 2060s, doubling the size of the fleet.
Opponents say the LRSO is redundant because the US will have two bombers which are themselves able to penetrate enemy airspace and drop a nuclear bomb on a target, the B-2 and the B-21. Their failed amendment was meant to cut funding and delay the program three years.
Smith said he has heard war scenarios in classified briefings where the military would want the LRSO. He said he supports credible nuclear deterrents, but remains unconvinced LRSO is worth the price.
"I think the better approach—and China has the right approach to nuclear deterrence—is a small number of nuclear weapons, but they have enough so that its a deterrent to anybody messing with them," Smith said. "I think we ought to rethink our approach, and the LRSO is one place to start."
According to Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association, the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the House have voted to either kill or delay the LRSO, and on the Senate side, a growing number of Democrats, led by Feinstein and nuclear disarmament proponent Sen. Ed Markey, of Massachusetts, oppose it.
Opponents in Congress are unlikely to have another crack at LRSO funding now that the relevant policy and spending bills for 2017 fully fund the request for the LRSO and associated warhead.
President Obama still has time to remove the requirement or propose a delay, and the next administration is expected to address it as it conduct its own review of the requirements for nuclear deterrence. Meanwhile, Smith and other lawmakers are laying down a marker against an all-of-the-above nuclear modernization approach.
On June 16, the House voted down an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill co-sponsored by Smith that would have cut $95.6 million in authorization by $75.8 million. The 261-159 vote was largely partisan, though five GOP members voted in favor of the amendment while 26 Democrats voted against it.
The Air Force, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, has continued its push for the LRSO, backed by hawkish lawmakers and strong voices such as the Air Force Association.
In an exclusive interview with Defense News, Gen. Mark Welsh, the outgoing Air Force chief of staff, defended the need for the LRSO.
“Well, that’s not viable. That’ll never be viable. So we need a standoff weapon for the rest of the bomber fleet to use while the B-21 is doing the penetrating work, and the B-21 won’t be fully fielded until twenty, twenty-five years from now,” he continued. “So you need a weapon for the rest of that bomber fleet to use and the LRSO is the ideal choice unless you make the assumption that we can extend the ALCM another twenty years past this ten year life. That’s just a dangerous assumption.”
Speaking hours before the June 16 vote, Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force vice chief who has been nominated to replace Welsh, also defended the need for the LRSO during his confirmation hearing. A Milestone A decision is expected on the weapon in the coming weeks, he said.