BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La., and WASHINGTON — The B-52 bomber first flew in 1952, but remains a vital part of America’s nuclear deterrent. Now, to keep the bomber relevant for its nuclear mission, the U.S. Air Force is preparing to spend billions of dollars to develop a new air-launched cruise missile.
The B-52’s nuclear option of choice is the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile, commonly referred to as the ALCM. Fully loaded, the B-52 can carry 20 of the weapons. But like the plane that launches them, the weapons are on the older side, having been produced in the early to mid-1980s.
“A lot of this stuff predates the airmen I have working on 'em,” said Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Abrams-Trust, the cruise missile flight chief for the 2nd Munitions Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Interviews at Barksdale were conducted by journalist and Defense News contributor Jeff Bolton.
“So while it was extremely sophisticated at the time, it’s fallen out of favor. Some of that technology’s requiring service-life extensions where we identify maybe some high-failure areas, things that we need to replace,” Abrams-Trust said.
The ALCM “had an initial service life of 10 years,” Abrams-Trust added. “It was really only meant to go to early to mid-'90s, be replaced by the advanced cruise missile. And while we fielded that, advanced cruise missile had some challenges logistically, maintenance was difficult. So we’ve pushed through the ALCM even further.”
Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are currently on contract for $900 million as part of a four-and-a-half-year technology-maturation and risk-reduction phase to design the new weapon (the full cost of the heavily classified program is unknown). In fiscal 2022, the Air Force plans to choose between the designs. The service intends to integrate the weapon with its nuclear-capable bombers — the B-52, B-2 and B-21 — with initial fielding slated for the late 2020s.
Along with the newly designed ALCM is a newly designed warhead, known as the W80-4, currently in the early design stages with the National Nuclear Security Administration. Because the warhead is being designed at the same time as the delivery system — the first time in 30 years the two projects have been done in parallel — the program faces “unique” risks, according to NNSA’s most recent annual report to Congress.
The first production unit of the W80-4 is expected to be delivered in FY25, with completion of the production run by FY31. Costs are expected to range between $6.7 billion and $10.3 billion between FY18 and FY32; however, the warhead program experienced “a loss of $120 million in productivity due to delays associated with Continuing Resolutions since the beginning of FY 2016,” according to the NNSA report.
For a few years, it looked like the LRSO program might be in for a rough ride from congressional Democrats. But the introduction of even newer nuclear weapon systems through the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review appears to have taken the heat off the new cruise missile. And for advocates of the air-based leg of the nuclear triad, keeping the B-52 as up to date as possible is a good thing.
“When we say nuclear modernization, we are merely replacing the current triad. We are not expanding our capabilities, we’re not violating a treaty, we’re not developing a new capability. It’s a very reasonable response to the threat,” Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, said during the 2019 Defense News Conference.
With Russia and China modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and the U.S. engaged in what the Pentagon has termed as a renewal of “great power competition,” Soofer described the overall nuclear modernization efforts as “sensible," “reasonable” and “affordable.”
But keeping the nuclear deterrent viable doesn’t just involve technology, noted Lt. Col. James Daily, deputy commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale.
“The bomber is that flexible, visible and recallable arm of the triad, and one of the things that we're looking at is how do we do [operations] better everyday based on the environment,” Daily said.
“Back in the day, it was a two-player game during the Cold War. Now you’ve got multiple players, different environments and different considerations to include. We talk about extended deterrents for allies and things like that, so how do we better posture the force, is what we’re look at everyday.”
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.
Jeff Martin is the Associate Editor for Multimedia and the host & producer of Defense News Weekly, airing online and on American Forces Network worldwide. In his role as Associate Editor, he reports worldwide on the military and defense industry and leads a market-leading multimedia team.