US Air Force Decides to Retire Advanced Cruise Missile

The U.S. Air Force has decided to retire the Advanced Cruise Missile, the most modern and capable nuclear cruise missile in the U.S. arsenal, according to information obtained by the Federation of American Scientists.

The decision affects approximately 400 ACMs (AGM-129A) currently deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Each missile carries a W80-1 warhead with a yield of 5-150 kilotons. The ACM is designed for delivery by B-52H strategic bombers.

FAS analyst Hans Kristensen noticed elimination of funding for the ACM in the Air Force’s FY2008 budget request, and a subsequent email to the Air Force confirmed the decision to retire the weapon system. The Air Force has not announced when the retirement will be completed, but it appears to be within the next year.

The decision to retire the ACM is part of the reduction of strategic nuclear warheads under the 2002 SORT agreement (Moscow Treaty), which limits U.S. and Russian operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a maximum of 2,200 by 2012. To meet the treaty limit, the United States already has reduced the number of nuclear warheads on sea-launched ballistic missiles and is in the middle of a download of warheads from land-based ballistic missiles. Confirmation of the ACM retirement is the first public statement about a reduction of warheads on the bomber force.

The ACM is one of two nuclear cruise missiles in the U.S. arsenal, but the only nuclear cruise missile built with stealth technology to evade radar detection. The ACM, which has hard target kill capability, was produced by General Dynamics between 1987 and 1993. The initial plan was to produced nearly 1,500 missiles but the program was cut back to 460 missiles in 1991. The Air Force has not decided what to do with the retired ACM airframes, but is exploring alternative uses such as converting them to carry conventional warheads or use in missile tests.

The Air Force also has an inventory of approximately 1,300 older Air Launched Cruise Missiles (AGM-86B), which also carry the 80-1 warhead. The Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) has just completed a life-extension program, and funding continues through 2013. It is estimated that the ALCM force will be reduced by two-thirds over the next five years.

The United States currently has total stockpile of nearly 9,900 nuclear warheads, of which roughly 4,700 are operationally deployed. Approximately 2,000 warheads are in the Responsive Force, a reserve of extra warheads available to increase the operational force if necessary. The remaining 3,000 warheads are scheduled to be dismantled. After the reductions under the SORT agreement are completed in 2012, the United States will still have a nuclear stockpile of nearly 6,000 warheads.

Background: Status of World Nuclear Forces

4 thoughts on “US Air Force Decides to Retire Advanced Cruise Missile

  1. BK: Is it possible that the weapon is being “retired” only in the sense that it is being moved from bomber bases and placed in storage facilities, thereby removing itself from the category of ‘operationally deployed strategic warhead’ and thus complying with the SORT treaty? It seems odd that the Air Force would be retiring this system when there is a much larger number of older AGM-86s that could be cut. If the ACM is in fact to be completely scrapped, could this be an indicator that JASSM is being eyed for a nuclear mission?

    Reply: Good questions. It doesn’t look like the ACM is simply being made “invisible.” Storage would require funding, which is ending. But other sources than the budget have also confirmed the retirement, including the Air Force itself. Apparently, the ACM was scrapped as part of a bigger deal about the future of the W80 warhead, which arms three cruise missile types (ACM, ALCM and SLCM): Life extension was “deferred” until sometime after 2008 (probably 2012, or never), ACM was cut, ALCM will be reduced significantly, and the SLCM might be scrapped. Instead the money will be used for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.

    There is no indication that nuclear capability is being considered for the JASSM. However, the Air Force has been working for several years on a new nuclear cruise missile: the Enhanced Cruise Missile with a new nuclear warhead. It is still in the early design phase and has not been approved for production. – HK

  2. DW: I strongly disagree with any agreement to retire any weapons while engaged in war with Iraq and elsewhere: The world is unsafe and for America to throw away a multi-billion dollar weapon system will only engage more terror and will result in more U.S. deaths. Too many lose ends and pending military action against issues, such as Iran and North Korea who will always be and remain our enemy!!! When could we ever defend against China or Russia if we can’t afford or fight our own battle against (2) countries without their own military, navy or air force ????

    Reply: I look at it from a different angle: If it’s that easy to “throw away a multi-billion dollar weapons system,” why has the Air Force argued for years that it was absolutely essential to the nation’s security? Iraq, North Korea and 9/11 happened, so it seems, regardless of this capability. – HK

  3. R: The key here is the statement that “After the reductions under the SORT agreement are completed in 2012, the United States will still have a nuclear stockpile of nearly 6,000 warheads.” Those warheads will no doubt still be distributed among the standard triad of air-launch, ICBM, and sea-launch delivery systems. So our strategic capacity to respond with complete obliteration of a foe foolish enough to launch a nuclear strike against the US remains. Six thousand warheads seems like plenty to me. It is good to see the Pentagon actually cutting programs.

    In similar fashion, the F-117 bomber is being mothballed to allow for primarily the rollout of the F-22 Raptor fleet. Certainly, the F-117 could fulfill its role for many years to come. But it is pointless to spend money maintaining it when we have a more advanced aircraft that can fill the same role.

    Reply:But I can’t help wondering about all those years we’ve paid for and heard how essential the Advanced Cruise Missile was for national security.

    For our updated estimate of the nuclear stockpile 2007 and 2012, go here. MK

  4. What makes the least sense to me is the decision to retire the more capable AGM-129s while keeping some AGM-86Bs regardless of W-80 funding or SORT concerns. As a firm believer in deterrence via the triad, I just don’t understand the “powers that be” sometimes. I could not imagine the Navy retiring the W-88 armed Trident II D5 while keeping the less capable Trident 1.

    I agree with the previous poster’s contention that it is pointless to spend money maintaining an older, less capable system (substitute AGM-86B for F-117) when we have a more advanced system (substitute AGM-129 for F-22) that fits the same role. I understand the F-117 was a purely an “attack” platform while the Raptor has gone from F-22 to F/A-22.

    I am befuddled by the AGM-129 retirement, although I have faith that “the powers that be” will keep our nuclear deterrent triad viable.

    Reply: I heard there were reliability issues with the ACM. But when faced with a decision to drastically reduced the nuclear cruise missile inventory to 528 missiles, the ACM was probably chosen for retirement because we “only” have 400. Keeping them and 128 ALCMs would have been much more expensive, and the ALCM apparently can do the job just fine. Besides, nuclear cruise missiles seem less important to today’s mission; former STRATCOM commander General Cartwright repeatedly referred to them as Cold War weapons.

    As for the future of the nuclear triad, I suspect that as we go to lower numbers one of the legs will have to axed. And if deterrence – as opposed to warfighting – is the mission, then I think a few missile submarines would be quite sufficient. HK

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