As I outlined in an earlier piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.
The first item on the list is to reduce U.S. long-range nuclear forces to 1,000 deployed warheads.
The third is something I find hard to believe we even need to recommend to this president, but we do: cancel the planned new nuclear-armed cruise missile.
Officially, it is known as the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon. It would replace the existing Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), due for retirement in 2030. According to a Congressional staffer, the new LRSO will be “a hundred times” more capable than the ALCM. Much faster. Significantly more accurate. Stealthy. Longer range.
In other words, a weapon nominally designed to be much better at fighting a nuclear war.
But this program is completely at odds with President Obama’s stated intentions. To remind you, in Prague in 2009, President Obama committed to reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, and to putting an end to “Cold War thinking.” The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) re-affirmed that intent and elaborated on it: The United States “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”
But let me repeat: the Obama administration is proposing to develop a new, vastly more capable nuclear-armed cruise missile.
To me, this is more shocking than the administration’s plan to rebuild the strategic triad of nuclear delivery vehicles, at a cost of up to a trillion dollars over the next 30 years. That decision was made early by the administration, as it negotiated the New START arms control agreement and developed the 2010 NPR. The entire administration agreed, with little debate, to maintain the triad and increase funding for nuclear weapons programs.
But at the same time the NPR specifically punted on the question of whether to build a replacement for the ALCM. It states that the Air Force will assess “whether and (if so) how to replace the current air-launched cruise missile.”
Now is the time for President Obama to answer that question himself.
A Slow Start
The Air Force assessment began in 2011, with the start of an “Analysis of Alternatives.” The FY 2011 budget called for a major increase in funding, to roughly $250 million, in FY 2014, as the weapon would enter full-scale development. The FY 2013 budget postponed the major increase to FY 2016.
In the FY 2015 budget request, the Air Force delayed the LRSO program for another three years, citing “higher Air Force priorities.” Less than $5 million was requested in the budget, just enough to keep the program alive. The balloon in funding, to $145 million, would not arrive until FY 2019.
The reason for the delay was simple: the Air Force could not afford everything, and had to make choices. In the nuclear weapons field, the Air Force prioritized funding for a new tail kit to improve the accuracy of the B61, which is in the middle of the design phase of its life extension program.
Since the slow-down, LRSO proponents have been pressing to speed the program up, trying to regain two years of the planned three year delay. When the FY 2016 budget request is released on February 2, we will see how successful those efforts have been.
But the most distressing part is the arguments that LRSO supporters use. Take Frank Kendall, for example, who 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. On June 24, 2014, he sent a letter to the then-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Barbara Mikulski, in which he highlighted the “flexibility” the new cruise missile would provide, including the ability to “signal intent” and “control escalation.”
Just how, exactly, does using a nuclear weapon “control escalation”? That type of thinking is dangerous.
Worse yet, rather than controlling escalation, nuclear-armed cruise missiles create a real risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation, as our allies the British noted when they considered alternatives to the submarine-based nuclear-armed missiles they maintain. In a February 2, 2013 op-ed in The Telegraph, Philip Hammond, then the U.K. Secretary of State for Defense, noted, “At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead. Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension.”
Here is another reason to worry about the LRSO weapon system: cruise missiles are unreliable in troubling ways. Unlike a gravity bomb, which is carried by a piloted aircraft very close to the target, a cruise missile flies for hundreds of miles without any outside input. To hit its target, it follows a path determined by matching radar feedback of the terrain it is flying over to maps stored in its onboard computers. And it flies quite close to the ground. When the missiles work, they can be amazingly accurate. But when they fail, they are susceptible to a soft landing that can leave the weapon in surprisingly good shape.
And they do fail. During the second Gulf war in 2003, cruise missiles targeting Iraq armed with conventional warheads failed around 1% of the time, and landed in Iran (!), Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. With a conventional weapon, this is somewhat troubling. When what’s left behind is an intact nuclear weapon, it is a whole new problem. While security features on the warhead would almost certainly prevent its use as is, it would still provide whoever found it with a substantial amount of weapons-grade nuclear material, and an advanced design for a variable yield warhead.
The military acknowledges the problem. Here is Dr. William LaPlante, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, earlier this month: “we’ve learned with ALCM and with other cruise missile programs [that] reliability is pretty tough. It’s pretty hard stuff.” (From Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor, subscription required.) Indeed. And when the issue is nuclear weapons, having one more serious complication to consider should give one doubts about the overall value of the system.
And then there is the cost. As you would imagine, a new nuclear delivery system and updated warhead do not come cheap. The estimated LRSO budget is $30 billion; $20 billion for the cruise missile and $8 to $12 billion (in then-year dollars) for the warhead. Of course, given history, these initial estimates are likely to be substantially below the actual costs.
But wait, there is more! The Air Force is already counting on an updated B61-12 gravity bomb and the Long-Range Strike Bomber, the new super-stealthy penetrating bomber. The B61 will cost around $12 billion (including the new tail kit) and the bomber upwards of $70 billion.
Why exactly do we need both a penetrating bomber with a gravity bomb and a long-range cruise missile that would be carried by the same bomber?
Advocates of the new cruise missile have an answer. They worry about improvements in enemy air defenses. But U.S. long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles already can penetrate advanced air defenses.
There is one final benefit to canceling the LRSO weapon program: It would lay the groundwork for eliminating this destabilizing class of nuclear weapons globally. Long-range, stealthy, high-speed nuclear-armed cruise missiles are a nightmare, one that the United States does not need and one the government should do everything it can to prevent other countries from obtaining.
To sum up, here’s the short list of why, before he leaves office, President Obama should cancel the LRSO. It would:
- Be a significant step toward ending Cold War thinking, as the president pledged to do in Prague in 2009.
- Save $30 billion from being spent on an unneeded, redundant weapons system.
- Reduce the risk of unintended escalation.
- Open the door to abolishing these destabilizing weapons globally.
- Diminish the chances of handing an intact nuclear weapon to unknown actors.
Finally, note that the Air Force is simply conducting an assessment of the LRSO weapon. The administration has not yet made a decision to pursue it. Even if the FY 2016 budget request speeds the program up, the president still has the authority and the opportunity to cancel this unneeded weapon. He should take it.