NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Air Force’s next-generation nuclear cruise missile appears to be safely ensconced in the Pentagon’s plans, according to a top general.
Gen. Robin Rand, the head of U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters Sept. 19 that he is “very confident” the long-range standoff weapon, or LRSO, will be supported when the department’s Nuclear Posture Review is completed, adding that he sees widespread support in Congress for the weapon.
“I’m not going to pen in our senior leadership. Obviously, the decision will be made higher than me,” Rand said at the Air Force Association’s annual conference. “But right now, all the indicators are that we’re on the right track.”
The Nuclear Posture Review is a government-wide look at America’s nuclear capabilities, which will set the way forward for the Trump administration’s decisions for investments.
The review is on schedule and should be completed before Christmas, Rand said, although comments from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to reporters last week indicated that White House review process may push the final readout on the report to early 2018.
As the U.S. weighs recapitalizing its nuclear triad, including its fleet of submarines, B-21 bombers, updated warheads and new ICBMs, nonproliferation experts have zeroed in on the LRSO as the most vulnerable program. While the LRSO has proved popular on the Hill, a group of Democrats have launched an attack on the program over the last 18 months.
Advocates of canceling the LRSO say it is destabilizing, as it would be impossible for a nation to tell if the U.S. has launched a conventional cruise missile or one that is nuclear-armed in the case of conflict. Proponents, including Rand, argue it is vital for U.S. power projection abroad.
While Rand and others in the U.S. Air Force have been consistent in saying the LRSO is a needed capability, Mattis has been more tempered with his comments, referring to his initial confirmation hearing in January.
Asked last week about an Air Force decision to put Raytheon and Lockheed Martin on contract to compete for the LRSO contract, Mattis said, “That is to maintain it as an option. Okay? That’s to maintain that — that weapon as an option. It is not a decision yet. That will come out of a nuclear posture review.”
Another topic expected to be in the NPR is developing lower-yield nuclear warheads, a controversial move that the U.S. has eschewed for years.
Asked about his opinions on the matter, Rand said, “I’m not really familiar, because I’m not privy with what they’re looking at. So probably best to keep those questions to OSD. I’ll find out some of these things when they put the report out.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.