In March, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, submitted a flawed report to Congress on the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile known as the Long Range Stand-Off Weapon, or LRSO. The report includes a telling error, claiming that the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review calls for maintaining a nuclear-armed cruise missile, when it does no such thing.
Particularly since former Secretary of Defense William Perry publicly called on President Obama to cancel it, the new cruise missile has become controversial. Critics, including me, contend that it is a redundant and destabilizing system designed explicitly for nuclear war-fighting and therefore contrary to U.S. interests. Supporters argue that the system merely replaces an existing cruise missile and is required for specific targets that, because they are classified, cannot be identified.
The debate has emerged while the system is still in a relatively early stage of development. The brief Kendall report, requested by Congress out of a desire for more information on the new weapon, is pretty standard fare except for this sentence:
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review committed to maintaining a viable standoff nuclear deterrent for the air leg of the nuclear Triad and noted sustainment challenges for the AGM-86B Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), a system initially fielded in the 1980s.
The emphasis is added because the words emphasized are flat out wrong. Neither of those documents talks about “maintaining a viable standoff nuclear deterrent.”
On the contrary, the 2010 NPR says this about cruise missiles:
In addition, the Air Force will conduct an assessment of alternatives to inform decisions in FY 2012 about whether and (if so) how to replace the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which will reach the end of its service life later in the next decade.
Again, emphasis added, because it does not say what Under Secretary Kendall says it does. The most important word is “whether.” There is no commitment to replace the ALCM in the NPR. None, full stop.
A quick word search of the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review shows it also says nothing about maintaining “viable standoff.” In fact, what it does mention is some “public attack on the need for the cruise missile carrying B-52 force”.
Furthermore, the 2013 report to Congress on nuclear weapons employment strategy does not include anything about a requirement for a standoff capability or the need for a cruise missile. That vital document is the public update on how the Obama administration is implementing the 2010 NPR. It talks about maintaining the triad and keeping heavy bombers, but no mention is made of U.S. cruise missiles.
There is one document to which the Under Secretary might have referred that arguably offered support for the new cruise missile. The 2011 message President Obama sent to the Senate after its 2010 consent to ratification of New START stated:
I intend to (a) modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems: a heavy bomber and air-launched cruise missile, an ICBM, and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and SLBM; and (b) maintain the United States rocket motor industrial base.
That says “modernize or replace” but “replace” does not necessarily mean “build a new cruise missile.” Replace can mean “replace the air-launched cruise missile with a stealthy penetrating bomber and a gravity bomb.” Semantics aside, the president’s 2011 statement was followed, as noted above, by the 2013 nuclear employment strategy and the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review, neither of which committed to a future nuclear air-launched cruise missile.
In a related point, note that the Air Force never conducted the NPR-directed assessment of alternatives to address the question of “whether and (if so) how” to replace the existing nuclear-armed cruise missile. They did conduct an assessment of options for developing a new cruise missile, which led to the design for the LRSO, but they did not look at alternatives to the cruise missile, and whether the nuclear-armed cruise missile could be replaced by other systems.
The lack of such an assessment may be one of the reasons the Under Secretary of Defense has to cite non-existent arguments to try to build support for the program.
Note: Politico Pro reported on this issue, kindly quoting me, but it is behind a paywall.