Questions About The Nuclear Cruise Missile Mission

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During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on March 16, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the ranking member of the committee, said that U.S. Strategic Command had failed to convince her that the United States needs to develop a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile; the LRSO (Long-Range Standoff missile).

“I recently met with Admiral Haney, the head of Strategic Command regarding the new nuclear cruise missile and its refurbished warhead. I came away unconvinced of the need for this weapon. The so-called improvements to this weapon seemed to be designed candidly to make it more usable, to help us fight and win a limited nuclear war. I find that a shocking concept. I think this is really unthinkable, especially when we hold conventional weapons superiority, which can meet adversaries’ efforts to escalate a conflict.”

Feinstein made her statement only a few hours after Air Force Secretary Deborah James had told the House Armed Services Committee on the other side of the Capitol that the LRSO will be capable of “destroying otherwise inaccessible targets in any zone of conflict.”

Lets ignore for a moment that the justification used for most nuclear and advanced conventional weapons also is to destroy otherwise inaccessible targets, what are actually the unique LRSO targets? In theory the missile could be used against anything that is within range but that is not good enough to justify spending $20-$30 billion.

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So Air Force officials have portrayed the LRSO as a unique weapon that can get in where nothing else can. The mission they describe sounds very much like the role tactical nuclear weapons played during the Cold War: “I can make holes and gaps” in air defenses, then Air Force Global Strike Command commander Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson explained in 2014, “to allow a penetrating bomber to get in.”

And last week, shortly before Admiral Haney failed to convince Sen. Feinstein, EUCOM commander General Philip Breedlove added more details about what they want to use the nuclear LRSO to blow up:

“One of the biggest keys to being able to break anti-access area denial [A2AD] is the ability to penetrate the air defenses so that we can get close to not only destroy the air defenses but to destroy the coastal defense cruise missiles and the land attack missiles which are the three elements of an A2AD environment. One of the primary and very important tools to busting that A2AD environment is a fifth generation ability to penetrate. In the LRSB you will have a platform and weapons that can penetrate.” (Emphasis added.)

Those A2/AD targets would include Russian S-400 air-defense, Russian Bastion-P coastal defense, and Chinese DF-10A land-attack missile launchers (see images).

Judging from Sen. Feinstein’s conclusion that the LRSO seems “designed candidly to make it more usable, to help us fight and win a limited nuclear war,” Admiral Haney probably described similar LRSO targets as Lt. Gen. Wilson and Gen. Breedlove.

After hearing these “shocking” descriptions of the LRSO’s warfighting mission, Senator Feinstein asked NNSA’s Gen. Klotz if he could do a better job in persuading her about the need for the new nuclear cruise missile:

Sen. Feinstein: “So maybe you can succeed where Admiral Haney did not. Let me ask you this question: Why do we need a new nuclear cruise missile?”

Gen. Klotz: “My sense at the time, and it still is the case, is that the existing cruise missile, the air-launched cruise missile, is getting rather long in the tooth with the issues that are associated with an aging weapon system. It was first deployed in 1982. And therefore it is well past it service life. In the meantime, as you know from your work on the intelligence committee, there has been an increase in the sophistication and capabilities as well as proliferation of sophisticated air- and missile-defenses around the world. Therefore the ability of the cruise missile to pose the deterrent capability, the capability that is necessary to deter, is under question. Therefore, just based on the ageing and the changing nature of the threat we need to replace a system we’ve had, again, since the early 1980s with an updated variant….I guess I didn’t convince you any more than the Admiral did.”

Sen. Feinstein: “No you didn’t convince me. Because this just ratchets up warfare and ratchets up deaths. Even if you go to a low kiloton of six or seven it is a huge weapon. And I thought there was a certain morality that we should have with respect to these weapons. If it’s really mutual deterrence, I don’t see how this does anything other…it’s like the drone. The drone has been invented. It’s been armed. Now every county wants one. So they get more and more sophisticated. To do this with nuclear weapons, I think, is awful.”

Conclusion and Recommendations

Senator Feinstein has raised some important questions about the scope of nuclear strategy. How useful should nuclear weapons be and for what type of scenarios?

Proponents of the LRSO do not seem to question (or discuss) the implications of developing a nuclear cruise missile intended for shooting holes in air- and coastal-defense systems. Their mindset seems to be that anything that can be used to “bust the A2AD environment” – even a nuclear weapon – must be good for deterrence and therefore also for security and stability.

While a decision to authorize use of nuclear weapons would be difficult for any president, the planning for the potential use does not seem to be nearly as constrained. Indeed, the nuclear LRSO anti-A2AD mission that defense officials describe raises some serious questions about how soon in a conflict nuclear weapons might be used.

Since A2AD systems would likely be some of the first targets to be attacked in a war, a nuclear LRSO anti-A2AD mission appears to move nuclear use to the forefront of a conflict instead of keeping nuclear weapons in the background as a last resort where they belong.

And the nuclear LRSO anti-A2AD mission sounds eerily similar to the outrageous threats that Russian officials have made over the past several years to use nuclear weapons against NATO missile defense systems – threats that NATO and US officials have condemned. Of course, they don’t brandish the nuclear LRSO anti-A2AD mission as a threat – they call it deterrence and reassurance.

Nor do LRSO proponents seem to ask questions about redundancy and which types of weapons are most useful or needed for the anti-A2AD mission. The A2AD targets that the military officials describe are not “otherwise inaccessible targets,” as suggested by Secretary James, but are already being held at risk with conventional cruise missiles such as the Air Force’s JASSM-ER (extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Missile) and the navy’s Tactical Tomahawk, as well as with other nuclear weapons. The Air Force doesn’t have endless resources but must prioritize weapon systems.

Gen. Klotz defended the LRSO as if it were a choice between having a nuclear deterrent or not. But, of course, even without a nuclear LRSO, US stealth bombers will still be armed with the new B61-12 guided nuclear bomb and the US nuclear deterrent will still include land- and sea-based long-range ballistic missiles as well as F-35A stealthy fighter-bombers also armed with the B61-12.

The White House needs to rein in the nuclear warfighters and strategists to ensure that US nuclear strategy and modernization plans are better in tune with US policy to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks” and enable non-nuclear weapons to “take on a greater share of the deterrence burden.” Canceling the nuclear LRSO would be a good start.

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

6 thoughts on “Questions About The Nuclear Cruise Missile Mission

  1. The LRSO/W80-4 will be highly effective against mobile icbms. No other nuclear weapon that we have in our arsenal will be as effective at destroying mobile icbms. We won’t have enough penetrating bombers with B61-12s to attack each mobile icbm. And warheads from icbms or slbms cannot destroy a mobile icbm on the move. I think the DOD’s explanation of destroying the A2/AD environment with the LRSO is also quite valid. If nuclear war breaks out, we need the assurity provided by a nuclear warhead to destroy a target. Conventional cruise missiles probably won’t be as effective against advanced A2/AD equipment.

  2. This article mixes up the LRSO (the proposed nuclear cruise missile) with the LRSB (the next-generation stealth bomber) when quoting General Breedlove. The LRSB presumably could carry the LRSO if it is developed, but it is more likely that General Breedlove was referring to the LRSB destroying A2AD assets using conventional munitions.

    When Lt. Gen. Wilson talked about creating holes and gaps in air defenses using standoff weapons, it’s unclear whether he specifically meant reducing the air defenses using nuclear-tipped standoff weapons. He did, however, say that he wants nuclear standoff weapons because of their ability to penetrate air defenses, because the B-52 is becoming obsolete and flying the B-2 is becoming more challenging in the face of developments in modern air defenses. But penetrating air defenses does not necessarily imply targeting air defenses, and even if it did, the general did not imply that nuclear weapons would be used to target air defenses in a conflict that was purely conventional up until that point. In a full nuclear war, of course, targeting air defenses with nuclear weapons would be considered fair game by anyone.

    1. No, the article does not mix up LRSO with LRSB but uses Gen. Breedlove as an example of the bomber stand-off mission (which includes nuclear as well as conventional). I hope the general was referring to conventional cruise missiles and I generally wish that officials would be more specific about what they’re talking about. It is a problem that nuclear and conventional is often blurred in the justifications.

      Likewise, while penetration is relevant for some bomber scenarios, it is not as important to cruise missiles, which are much more stealthy. Besides, deterrence is about holding targets at risk, not necessarily whether the weapon is nuclear or conventional. Indeed, many missions that previously required nuclear weapons today are covered by conventional weapons. My point is that the US today could forego the LRSO and instead use conventional standoff weapons for scenarios that previously required a nuclear cruise missile. Think how different today’s military capabilities are compared with the late-1970s, when the nuclear ALCM was justified.

      The B-52 is not getting obsolete as a standoff missile launcher. What matters is the weapons, not the launcher. The B-52 will be able to fly at least through the 2040s. At that point it will still be capable of launching standoff weapons.

      1. I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a general anywhere who is talking about using nuclear weapons to break up air defenses in an A2AD mission — can you find any other examples? To me, it’s pretty clear that the general was talking about conventional penetrating strike missions.

        At any rate, Breedlove’s quote that you cited does not mention the LRSO anywhere, nor does he mentioned U.S. nuclear weapons anywhere in the transcript you linked to. He only mentions the bomber (the LRSB). So I think it’s extremely misleading (in fact, wrong) to use that quote as an example of Breedlove explaining what “[EUCOM wants] to use the *nuclear LRSO* to blow up” [emphasis added].

  3. I don’t see the problem with similar language for nuclear versus conventional munitions. In a purely conventional war, your target set looks similar, but it might take more hits to disable specific capabilities. In a nuclear war, your motivation to ensure that the target is destroyed the first time goes up tremendously. Couple that with the likelihood that in a nuclear exchange the US might be operating with greatly diminished space assets for navigation, targeting and damage assessment, you can see how a campaign planner would want a nuclear munition on a target where under other circumstances a conventional one might do.

    1. Correct. And that’s why we have very capable long-range ballistic missiles backed up by bomber gravity weapons. But one of the the problems with nuclear scenarios is that one can always come up with another worst-case “but what if” or “suppose that” situation where it might be good to have something else. What’s much harder to pin down is where the difference is not only nuclear but realistic and essential.

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