The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Council has selected the W80-1 thermonuclear warhead for the Air Force’s new nuclear cruise missile (Long-Range Standoff, LRSO) scheduled for deployment in 2027.
The W80-1 warhead is currently used on the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), but will be modified during a life-extension program and de-deployed with a new name: W80-4.
Under current plans, the ALCM will be retired in the mid-2020s and replaced with the more advanced LRSO, possibly starting in 2027.
The enormous cost of the program – $10-20 billion by some estimates – is robbing defense planners of resources needed for more important non-nuclear capabilities.
Even though the United States has thousands of nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles and is building a new penetrating bomber to deliver nuclear bombs, STRATCOM and Air Force leaders are arguing that a new nuclear cruise missile is needed as well.
But their description of the LRSO mission sounds a lot like old-fashioned nuclear warfighting that will add new military capabilities to the arsenal in conflict with the administration’s promise not to do so and reduce the role of nuclear weapons.
What Kind of Warhead?
The selection of the W80-1 warhead for the LRSO completes a multi-year process that also considered using the B61 and W84 warheads.
The W80-4 selected for the LRSO will be the fifth modification name for the W80 warhead (see table below): The first was the W80-0 for the Navy’s Tomahawk Land-Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM/N), which was retired in 2011; the second is the W80-1, which is still used the ALCM; the third was the W80-2, which was a planned LEP of the W80-0 but canceled in 2006; the fourth was the W80-3, a planned LEP of the W80-1 but canceled in 2006.
The B61 warhead has been used as the basis for a wide variety of warhead designs. It currently exists in five gravity bomb versions (B61-4, B61-4, B61-7, B61-10, B61-11) and was also used as the basis for the W85 warhead on the Pershing II ground-launched ballistic missile. After the Pershing II was eliminated by the INF Treaty, the W85 was converted into the B61-10. But the B61 was not selected for the LRSO partly because of concern about the risk of common-component failure from basing too many warheads on the same basic design.
The W84 was developed for the ground-launched cruise missile (BGM-109G), another weapon eliminated by the INF Treaty. As a more modern warhead, it includes a Fire Resistant Pit (which the W80-1 does not have) and a more advanced Permissive Action Link (PAL) use-control system. The W84 was retired from the stockpile in 2008 but was brought back as a LRSO candidate but was not selected, partly because not enough W84s were built to meet the requirement for the planned LRSO inventory.
In the past two year, NNSA has provided two very different cost estimates for the W80-4. The FY2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) published in June 2013 projected a total cost of approximately $11.6 billion through 2030. The FY2015 SSMP, in contrast, contained a significantly lower estimate: approximately $6.8 billion through 2033 (see graph below).
The huge difference in the cost estimates (nearly 50%) is not explained in detail in the FY2015 SSMP, which only states that the FY2014 numbers were updated with a smaller “escalation factor” and “improvements in the cost models.” Curiously, the update only reduces the cost for the years that were particularly high (2019-2027), the years with warhead development and production engineering. The two-third reduction in the cost estimate may make it easier for NNSA to secure Congressional funding, but it also raises significant uncertainty about what the cost will actually be.
Assuming a planned production of approximately 500 LRSOs (there are currently 528 ALCMs in the stockpile and the New START Treaty does not count or limit cruise missiles), the cost estimates indicate a complex W80-4 LEP on par with the B61-12 LEP. NNSA told me the plan is to use many of the non-nuclear components and technologies on the W80-4 that were developed for the B61-12.
In addition to the cost of the W80-4 warhead itself, the cost estimate for completing the LRSO has not been announced but $227 million are programmed through 2019. Unofficial estimates put the total cost for the LRSO and W80-4 at $10-20 billion. In addition to these weapons costs, integration on the B-2A and next-generation long-range bomber (LRS-B) will add hundreds of millions more.
What’s The Mission?
Why does the Air Force need a new nuclear cruise missile?
During a recent meeting with Pentagon officials, I asked why the LRSO was needed, given that the military also has gravity bombs on its bombers. “Because of what you see on that map,” a senior defense official said pointing to a large world map on the wall. The implication was that many targets would be risky to get to with a bomber. When reminded that the military also has land- and sea-based ballistic missiles that can reach all of those targets, another official explained: “Yes but they’re all brute weapons with high-yield warheads. We need the targeting flexibility and lower-yield options that the LRSO provides.”
The assumption for the argument is that if the Air Force didn’t have a nuclear cruise missile, an adversary could gamble that the United States would not risk an expensive stealth bomber to deliver a nuclear bomb and would not want to use ballistic missiles because that would be escalating too much. That’s quite an assumption but for the nuclear warfighter the cruise missile is seen as this great in-between weapon that increases targeting flexibility in a variety of regional strike scenarios.
That conversation could have taken place back in the 1980s because the answers sounded more like warfighting talk than deterrence. The two roles can be hard to differentiate and the Air Force’s budget request seems to include a bit of both: the LRSO “will be capable of penetrating and surviving advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) from significant stand off range to prosecute strategic targets in support of the Air Force’s global attack capability and strategic deterrence core function.”
The deterrence function is provided by the existence of the weapon, but the global attack capability is what’s needed when deterrence fails. At that point, the mission is about target destruction: holding at risk what the adversary values most. Getting to the target is harder with a cruise missile than a ballistic missile, but it is easier with a cruise missile than a gravity bomb because the latter requires the bomber to fly very close to the target. That exposes the platform to all sorts of air defense capabilities. That’s why the Pentagon plans to spend a lot of money on equipping its next-generation long-range bomber (LRS-B) with low-observable technology.
The LRSO is therefore needed, STRATCOM commander Admiral Cecil Haney explained in June, to “effectively conduct global strike operations in the anti-access, access-denial environments.” When asked why they needed a standoff missile when they were building a stealth bomber, Haney acknowledge that “if you had all the stealth you could possibly have in a platform, then gravity bombs would solve it all.” But the stealth of the bomber will diminish over time because of countermeasures invented by adversaries, he warned. So “having standoff and stealth is very important” given how long the long-range bomber will operate into the future.
Still, one could say that for any weapon and it doesn’t really explain what the nuclear mission is. But around the same time Admiral Haney made his statement, Air Force Global Strike Command commander General Wilson added a bit more texture: “There may be air defenses that are just too hard, it’s so redundant, that penetrating bombers become a challenge. But with standoff, I can make holes and gaps to allow a penetrating bomber to get in, and then it becomes a matter of balance.”
In this mission, the LRSO would not be used to keep the stealth bomber out of harms way per ce but as a nuclear sledgehammer to “kick down the door” so the bomber – potentially with B61-12 nuclear bombs in its bomb bay – could slip through the air defenses and get to its targets inside the country. Rather than deterrence, this is a real warfighting scenario that is a central element of STRATCOM’s Global Strike mission for the first few days of a conflict and includes a mix of weapons such as the B-2, F-22, and standoff weapons.
But why the sledgehammer mission would require a nuclear cruise missile is still not clear, as conventional cruise missiles have become significantly more capable against air defense and hard targets. In fact, most of the Global Strike scenarios would involve conventional weapons, not nuclear LRSOs. The Air Force has a $4 billion program underway to develop the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and an extended-range version (JASSM-ER) for deliver by B-1B, B-2A, B-52H bombers and F-15E, F-16, and F-35 fighters. A total of 4,900 missiles are planned, including 2,846 JASSM-ERs.
Since the next-generation long-range bomber would also be the launch platform for those conventional weapons, it will be exposed to the same risks with or without a nuclear LRSO.
Most recently, according to the Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor, Gen. Wilson added another twist to the justification:
“If I take a bomber, and I put standoff cruise missiles on it, in essence, it becomes very much like a sub. It’s got close to the same magazine capacity of a sub. So once I generate a bomber with standoff cruise missiles, it becomes a significant deterrent for any adversary. We often forget that. It possesses the same firepower, in essence, as a sub that we can position whenever and wherever we want, and it becomes a very strong deterrent. So I’m a strong proponent of being able to modernize our standoff missile capability.”
Although the claim that a bomber has “close to the same capacity of a sub” is vastly exaggerated (it is up to 20 warheads on 20 cruise missiles on a B-52H bomber versus 192 warheads on 24 sea-launched ballistic missiles on an Ohio-class submarine), the example helps illustrates the enormous overcapacity and redundancy in the current arsenal.
What Kind of Missile?
Although we have yet to see what kind of capabilities the LRSO will have, the Air Force description is that LRSO “will be capable of penetrating and surviving advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) from significant stand off range to prosecute strategic targets in support of the Air Force’s global attack capability and strategic deterrence core function.”
There is every reason to expect that STRATCOM and the Air Force will want the weapon to have better military capabilities than the current Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), perhaps with features similar to the Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM). After all, so the thinking goes, air defenses have improved significantly since the ALCM was deployed in 1982 and the LRSO will have to operate well into the middle of the century when air defense systems can be expected to be even better than today.
With a 3,000-km range similar to the ACM, the LRSO would theoretically be able to reach targets in much of Russia and most of China from launch-positions 1,000 kilometers from their coasts. Most of Russia and China’s nuclear forces are located in these areas.
In thinking about which capabilities would be needed for the LRSO, it is useful to recall the last time the warfighters argued that an improved cruise missile was needed. The ALCM was also “designed to evade air and ground-based defenses in order to strike targets at any location within any enemy’s territory,” but that was not good enough. So the Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM) was developed and deployed in 1992 to provide “significant improvements” over the ALCM in “range, accuracy, and survivability.” The rest of the mission was similar – “evade air and ground-based defenses in order to strike heavily defended, hardened targets at any location within any enemy’s territory” – but the requirement to hold at risk “heavily defended, hardened targets” was unique.
Yet when comparing the ALCM and ACM mission requirements and capabilities with the operational experience, GAO in 1993 found that “air defense threats had been overestimated” and that “tests did not demonstrate low ALCM survivability.” The ACM’s range was found to be “only slightly better than the older ALCM’s demonstrated capability,” and GAO concluded that “the improvement in accuracy offered by the ACM appears to have little real operational significance.”
Nonetheless, the ACM was produced in 1992-1993 at a cost of more than $10 billion. Strategic Air Command initially wanted 1461 missiles, but the high cost and the end of the Cold War caused Pentagon to cut the program to only 430 missiles. A sub-sonic cruise missile with a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) and hard-target kill capability with the W80-1 warhead, the ACM was designed for external carriage on the B-52H bomber, with up to 12 missiles under the wings. The B-2 was also capable of carrying the ACM but as a penetrating stealth bomber there was never a need to assign it the stealthy standoff missile as well.
The ACM was supposed to undergo a life extension program to extend it to 2030, but after only 15 years of service the missile was retired early in 2007. An Enhanced Cruise Missile (ECM) was planned by the Bush administration, but it never materialized. It is likely, but still not clear, that LRSO will make use of some of the technologies from the ACM and ECM programs.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The W80-1 warhead has been selected to arm the new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) missile, a $10-20 billion weapon system the Air Force plans to deploy in the late-2020s but can poorly afford.
Even though the United States has thousands of nuclear warheads on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles that can reach the same targets intended for the LRSO, the military argues that a new nuclear standoff weapon is needed to spare a new penetrating bomber from enemy air-defense threats.
Yet the same bomber will be also equipped with conventional weapons – some standoff, some not – that will expose it to the same kinds of threats anyway. So the claim that the LRSO is needed to spare the next-generation bomber from air-defense threats sounds a bit like a straw man argument.
The mission for the LRSO is vague at best and to the extent the Air Force has described one it sounds like a warfighting mission from the Cold War with nuclear cruise missiles shooting holes in enemy air defense systems. Given the conventional weapon systems that have been developed over the past two decades, it is highly questionable whether such a mission requires a nuclear cruise missile.
The warfighters and the strategists might want a nuclear cruise missile as a flexible weapon for regional scenarios. But good to have is not the same as essential. And the regional scenarios they use to justify it are vague and largely unknown – certainly untested – in the public debate.
In the nuclear force structure planned for the future, the United States will have roughly 1,500 warheads deployed on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles. Nearly three-quarters of those warheads will be onboard submarines that can move to positions off adversaries anywhere in the world and launch missiles that can put warheads on target in as little as 15 minutes.
It really stretches the imagination why such a capability, backed up by nuclear bombs on bombers and the enormous conventional capability the U.S. military possesses, would be insufficient to deter or dissuade any potential adversary that can be deterred or dissuaded.
As the number of warheads deployed on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles continues to drop in the future, long-range, highly accurate, stealthy, standoff cruise missiles will increasingly complicate the situation. These weapons are not counted under the New START treaty and if a follow-on treaty does not succeed in limiting them, which seems unlikely in the current political climate, a new round of nuclear cruise missile deployments could become real spoilers. There are currently more ALCMs than ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal and with each bomber capable of loading up to 20 missiles the rapid upload capacity is considerable.
Under the 1,500 deployed strategic warhead posture of the New START treaty, the unaccounted cruise missiles could very quickly increase the force by one-third to 2,000 warheads. Under a posture of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, which the Obama administration has proposed for the future, the effect would be even more dramatic: the air-launched cruise missiles could quickly increase the number of deployed warheads by 50 percent. Not good for crisis stability!
As things stand at the moment, the only real argument for the new cruise missile seems to be that the Air Force currently has one, but it’s getting old, so it needs a new one. Add to that the fact that Russia is also developing a new cruise missile, and all clear thinking about whether the LRSO is needed seems to fly out the window. Rather than automatically developing and deploying a new nuclear cruise missile, the administration and Congress need to ask tough questions about the need for the LRSO and whether the money could be better spent elsewhere on non-nuclear capabilities that – unlike a nuclear cruise missile – are actually useful in supporting U.S. national and international security commitments.
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 author.