Who needs a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile anyway?

The U.S. military is about to embark on a modernization program to sustain the strategic nuclear triad. The program will generate a huge “bow wave” of spending requirements in the 2020s. One big problem: The Pentagon has no idea how to pay for it. The Obama administration and Congress should simplify the issue by shelving the Long-Range Stand-off Weapon (LRSO).

On current plans, the United States in the next decade will be building a new ballistic missile submarine, a new strategic bomber, a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and the LRSO. The LRSO will be a new, stealthy, nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile to equip the new strategic bomber, which itself will be stealthy. The program’s goal is to ensure that the United States retains a robust strategic deterrent.

That all assumes the money can be found—which it apparently cannot. The Pentagon comptroller recently called the strategic force modernization “the biggest acquisition problem that we don’t know how to solve yet.”

Shelving the LRSO would eliminate a redundant weapon, save real money, and still leave a powerful deterrent force. 

The triad hasn’t lost its mojo

The United States has long maintained a triad of ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and bombers to deter a nuclear attack on America or its allies. Each leg of the triad has its advantages.

SLBMs on submarines are extremely survivable because they lurk undetected under the vast expanses of the world’s oceans.

ICBMs are relatively inexpensive to operate. Moreover, any adversary considering attacking them would have to calculate that such a nuclear strike on the U.S. heartland would ensure a nuclear response.

Bombers can carry out conventional missions and offer insurance against a potential adversary’s breakthrough in missile defense technology that would negate a significant part of the SLBM and ICBM force.

Insuring the insurance

Having insurance makes sense. But what coverage do we really need, and how much are we prepared to pay for it?

The ability of the U.S. strategic ballistic missile force to hold targets at risk and thereby deter an adversary from nuclear aggression looks secure. The Trident II SLBM has an outstanding record (more than 150 consecutive successful test flights). So does the Minuteman III, though the U.S. Air Force wants to replace it or initiate a life extension program in 2030.

Shelving the LRSO would eliminate a redundant weapon, save real money, and still leave a powerful deterrent force.

Intercepting a ballistic missile warhead moving at more than five kilometers per second poses a daunting technical challenge, especially if the defense must cope with tens or hundreds of incoming warheads. That is why the U.S. military aims to defend America against a limited ballistic missile attack, such as a few future North Korean warheads, but readily concedes that it could not stop a Russian missile attack. For the foreseeable future, in the strategic ballistic missile versus missile defense competition, offense will win.

Bombers nevertheless remain a key element of the triad. One advantage is that, unlike nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, bombers can conduct conventional strikes, as they have over the past two decades in the skies above Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

While some current bombers are expected to fly until 2040, the older B-52s and B-1s would have trouble coping with sophisticated air defenses. The more modern B-2’s stealth gives it the ability to penetrate defenses, but only twenty are in the force.

The Air Force thus plans to build the Long-Range Strike Bomber, likely to be named the B-3. It will incorporate advanced stealth features and carry the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb.

The B-3 does not come cheap: It will cost an estimated $80 billion to develop and procure 100 planes. That assumes no cost overruns, a rather daring assumption given the inflation-plagued histories of recent military aircraft such as the B-2, F-22, and F-35.

The B-3’s ability to defeat enemy air defenses and deliver conventional or nuclear weapons calls into question the need for the LRSO. The Air Force first deployed nuclear air-launched cruise missiles in the 1980s, because it feared that B-52s could not penetrate Soviet air defenses and drop their bombs. The B-52 is not stealthy. The B-3 will be. 

The LRSO program aims to build 1,000 to 1,100 stealthy air-launched cruise missiles plus a refurbished W80-4 nuclear warhead, at an estimated total cost of $15 to $20 billion. Some expect the price tag ultimately to reach $30 billion.

In nuclear terms, the LRSO thus amounts to an insurance policy for the insurance policy.

The rationale for the LRSO is that, as air defenses improve, the B-3’s stealth may be compromised. In nuclear terms, the LRSO thus amounts to an insurance policy for the insurance policy that the B-3 will provide against a missile defense breakthrough. But if an adversary can develop radars, other sensors and anti-aircraft missiles to track and target the B-3, would it be that much of a leap to detect and defeat the LRSO as well? 

We do not have unlimited defense budgets. The insurance that the LRSO would provide carries a hefty $15 to $30 billion price tag. That is money the Defense Department will not have or, if it does, could be used better to meet other vital defense needs. The administration and Congress should make the Pentagon comptroller’s job easier and shelve the LRSO.