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Nuclear Cruise Missile Survives Challenge in House

June 16, 2016 (Photo Credit: US Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The House today defeated an amendment to defund a new nuclear cruise missile program for the Air Force, despite a slowly rising chorus of influential voices arguing against the weapon.

Proponents of the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile say it is a vital part of US strategic posture for the future. The LRSO will replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) program with 1,000 to 1,100 cruise missiles, representing the Air Force’s stand-off nuclear delivery capability. The ALCM program is scheduled to age out in 2030.

However, critics of the US nuclear modernization strategy have zeroed in on the LRSO as a potential cut, arguing that its similarity to existing US weapons such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range mean it could be cut without dramatically altering America’s strategic posture.

In its budget request released in February, the Pentagon requested $95.6 million for the weapons in its fiscal 2017 budget, and $2.2 billion over the next five years. But since then, some in Congress have grown increasingly vocal in questioning the necessity of the weapon.

An amendment to cut $75.8 million from the LRSO program, introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Il., fell 159-261. The vote was largely partisan, although five GOP members voted in favor of the amendment while 26 Democrats voted against it.

But the fact that more than a third of the House voted against a weapon the Pentagon and administration have both described as key to strategic deterrence could signify that the weapon is vulnerable as budgets tighten.

Notably, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wa., was a co-sponsor on Quigley’s amendment. Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, is an influential voice on defense issues. Another influential Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, has said she will try to block funding in the Senate for the weapon.

The ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on energy and water development, which has oversight over Department of Energy nuclear weapons funding, Freinstein said in April that she believes the long range standoff (LRSO) cruise missile "is unaffordable, and may well be unnecessary."

In an exclusive interview with Defense News, Gen. Mark Welsh, the outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff, defended the need for the LRSO.

“ALCM is already twenty years past its design life and very, very difficult to maintain. We just can’t keep maintaining this fleet of missiles for any period of time. So once ALCM dies on the vine, let’s say 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we are just beginning to field the B-21 [bomber] and we have a whole bunch of B-52s that are now going to have to fly over a target with a gravity bomb,” Welsh said June 13.

“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 vote, Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force vice chief who has been nominated to replace Welsh, also defended the need for the LRSO, noting that a Milestone A decision is expected on the weapon in the next two weeks. 

Joe Gould contributed to this report.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

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