The Obama administration wants to build a new aircraft-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile — the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon — which will be significantly more capable than the nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) scheduled for retirement in 2030.
The Air Force plans to buy 1,000 to 1,100 of these new missiles, roughly double the 572 ALCMs now in its stockpile, with a price tag of $20 billion to $30 billion.
The question is: Why is the Obama administration promoting the LRSO? A straightforward analysis suggests that the main reason is to make it easier for the United States to use nuclear weapons. In particular, the LRSO is designed for nuclear war fighting. Unfortunately, for that very reason, deploying this weapon will actually make the United States less secure.
Does the Pentagon need this cruise missile? It certainly has enough nuclear systems in the pipeline. For example, it is developing a new, long-range, stealthy nuclear-armed bomber and redesigning the existing B61 nuclear bomb. The new bomber is designed to penetrate enemy air defenses while the remodeled B61 has increased accuracy and range, making it a highly capable combination.
And even if the new bomber is unable to penetrate air defenses, the United States also has hundreds of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles. To maintain that capability, the United States is building a new fleet of 12 submarines loaded with nuclear-armed missiles and is preparing to rebuild its fleet of 400-450 land-based nuclear-armed missiles. Taken together, these weapons create an overwhelming nuclear deterrent.
So why is the Obama administration pursuing the LRSO as well? One way to answer that question is to look at the likely capabilities of the system.
Looking at the table, the new LRSO will be substantially more capable than the existing cruise missile. Indeed, a former Hill staffer indicated that the LRSO will be "a hundred times more capable" than the existing ALCM.
The War-Fighting Trap
What is the motivation for developing a more capable nuclear cruise missile? As noted above, it is not needed for deterrence. Frank Kendall heads the Pentagon's weapons acquisition programs and serves as chair of the Nuclear Weapons Council, which plays a major role in deciding nuclear weapons development questions. He offered an explanation for the LRSO in a June 2014 letter to the then-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, in which he highlighted the "flexibility" the new cruise missile would provide, including the ability to "signal intent" and "control escalation."
Federation of American Scientists analyst Hans Kristensen has collected a number of similar statements, including Assistant Secretary for Defense Robert Scher's testimony that the LRSO is for "controlling and limiting escalation throughout all stages of a potential conflict."
In short, the administration is proposing to develop a more capable nuclear-armed cruise missile that is designed to be used in what can only be called nuclear war-fighting scenarios.
This type of thinking is dangerous and, for the United States, counterproductive. US.interests are best served by ensuring that all conflicts remain non-nuclear. US conventional forces are superior to that of any potential adversary. However, once any country crosses the nuclear threshold, the calculus changes dramatically. As President Ronald Reagan made clear, "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."
In this light, it is clearly in the US interest to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in security policy, a goal President Obama articulated in his 2009 Prague speech. This is reinforced by what the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) identified as the fundamental role of US nuclear weapons: to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. Deterrence does not rely on war-fighting capabilities.
The NPR elaborates that, to reduce the role for nuclear weapons, the United States "will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attack, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons."
The LRSO does exactly the opposite. By being more "usable," it increases the role that nuclear weapons play in US security policy. It lowers the threshold for when the United States might consider the use of nuclear weapons. It demonstrates clearly that the United States believes nuclear weapons retain significant war-fighting value. Those are not messages the United States should want to send.
Finally, given the significant advances listed above, it is worth asking whether the LRSO complies with the Obama administration's policy that it will not develop new nuclear weapons and that warhead life-extension programs "will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities," as declared in the NPR.
I would argue it does not comply, thereby undermining the administration's efforts to stop more countries from pursuing nuclear weapons.
For all those reasons, the United States would be better off if the Obama administration canceled the LRSO. It does not enhance our security.
By Stephen Young, a senior analyst in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.