Flawed Pentagon Nuclear Cruise Missile Advocacy

The Pentagon is using flawed arguments to sell a nuclear cruise missile to President Obama?

By Hans M. Kristensen

In its quest to secure Congressional approval for a new nuclear cruise missile, the Pentagon is putting words in the mouth of President Barack Obama and spinning and overstating requirements and virtues of the weapon.

Last month, DOD circulated an anonymous letter to members of Congress after it learned that Senator Dianne Fenstein (D-CA) was planning an amendment to the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act to put limits on funding and work on the new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear air-launched cruise missile. The letter not surprisingly opposes the limits but contains a list of amazingly poor justifications for the new weapon.

The letter follows another letter in March from Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall to Senator John McCain that contains false claims about official documents endorsing the LRSO, as well a vague and concerning statements about the mission and purpose of the weapon.

The two letters raise serious questions about DOD’s justifications for the LRSO and Congress’ oversight of the program.


About That Strategy…

A DOD letter opposes Sen. Feinstein draft amendment on LRSO. Click to download letter.

The DOD letter circulated to Congress in May presents surprisingly poor arguments in defense of the LRSO. In response to Senator Feinstein asking the Pentagon to show “the types of targets the LRSO is needed to destroy that cannot also be destroyed by existing U.S. nuclear and conventional weapons, “ DOD spins off into an off-topic, incoherent, and vague defense for retaining different nuclear capabilities in the arsenal:

Using the ability to destroy the target as the sole metric would also fail to address the dependence of effective deterrence on possessing credible options for responding to adversary attacks. A strategy of relying on large-scale or high-yield response options is credible and effective for deterring large-scale nuclear attack, particularly against the U.S. homeland, but it is less credible in the context of limited adversary use against an ally or U.S. forces operating abroad. Maintaining a credible ability to respond to a limited as well as large-scale nuclear attack against the United States or our allies strengthens our ability to deter such attacks from ever taking place.

But Feinstein’s draft amendment doesn’t say that destruction of the target is or should be “the sole metric” for deterrence. Even so, the bottom line for an effective nuclear deterrent is the credible capability to hold at risk the targets that an adversary values most. One can try to do that in many different ways, of course, but the DOD letter’s portrayal of an either-or choice between “large-scale or high-yield response options” against large attacks or limited-scale and lower-yield response options to limited adversary attacks is obviously a strawman argument because no one – certainly not Feinstein’s draft resolution – is arguing that the United States should eliminate its large inventory of lower-yield gravity bombs on heavy bombers and dual-capable fighter bombers. The US nuclear arsenal would still be able to provide limited and lower-yield options if the LRSO were canceled.

Next the DOD May letter tries to paint the LRSO decision as a choice between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons:

We do not and should not think of nuclear weapons as just another tool for destroying a target. The President’s guidance directs that [sic] DoD to assess what objectives and effects could be achieved through non-nuclear strike options, but also recognizes the unique contribution of nuclear weapons to our overall deterrence strategy. For example, the President might require a nuclear response to a nuclear attack in order to restore deterrence and prevent further attacks, even if a conventional weapon could also destroy the target.

This is another strawman argument because Feinstein’s draft amendment does not call for the elimination of all nuclear weapons or gravity bombs on heavy bombers and dual-capable fighter-bombers. Those weapons would of course still provide limited escalation-control options if the LRSO were canceled. Not to mention what non-nuclear cruise missiles could accomplish.

Next the DOD May letter gets into the obscure issue of “hedging” where multiple warhead types are used to provide backup against possible failure of one of them. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of hedging (Union of Concerned Scientists has a good report here) but critique the claims made in the DOD letter:

Requiring that only one warhead type is suitable for a given target also misses the LRSO’s critical role in providing the ability to hedge against significant geopolitical or technical issues. An effective bomber force with standoff capability can be put on alert in response to a serious technical problem in another leg of the Triad, or if the nature of the threat changes suddenly. Reliance on a single warhead type would threaten the stability of our deterrence posture, and would have changed the approach required for negotiating the New START Treaty with Russia.

The Feinstein draft amendment does not argue “that only one warhead is suitable for a given target” but asks for clarity about what the LRSO targets are that cannot also be destroyed by other existing nuclear or conventional weapons. That’s a reasonable question when someone is asking you to pay for a weapon that might cost $20 to $30 billion dollars over its lifetime.

But an effective bomber force does not require the LRSO to hedge. A force that includes 20 B-2 and 100 B-21 stealthy bombers (60 of them equipped with nearly 500 B61-12 gravity bombs) would still provide a considerable hedging capability against a serious technical problem in another leg of the Triad. Under the New START Treaty force structure the ICBMs are planned to deploy 400 warheads and the SLBMs 1,090 warheads.

However, the bomber hedging argument is weak. Under the Pentagon’s so-called 3+2 warhead plan (which is actually a 6+2 warhead plan according to a 2015 JASONs study), billions of dollars will be spent on building six new warhead types for the two ballistic missile legs partially to hedge against warhead failures on each other. So if the two ballistic legs are already designed to hedge each other, why are bomber weapons needed to hedge them as well? It sounds more like the Pentagon is using the hedge argument as a way to get the LRSO.

It is also amazing to see DOD bluntly advocating that the “bomber force with standoff capability can be put on alert… if the nature of the threat changes suddenly.” The bombers were taken off alert in 1991 and the Pentagon strongly argues against the dangers of rapidly increasing the alert level of nuclear forces.

The Kendall letter from March also defends the LRSO because it gives the Pentagon the ability to rapidly increase the number of deployed warheads significantly on its strategic launchers. He does so by bluntly describing it as a means to exploit the fake bomber weapon counting rule (one bomber one bomb no matter what they can actually carry) of the New START Treaty to essentially break out from the treaty limit without formally violating it:

Additionally, cruise missiles provide added leverage to the U.S. nuclear deterrent under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The accounting rules for nuclear weapons carried on aircraft are such that the aircraft only counts as one weapon, even if the aircraft carries multiple cruise missiles.

It is disappointing to see a DOD official justifying the LRSO as a means to take advantage of a loophole in the treaty to increase the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons above 1,550 warheads. Not least because the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy determined that the Pentagon, even when the New START Treaty is implemented in 2018, will still have up to one-third more nuclear weapons deployed than are needed to meet US national and international security commitments.

Finally, the DOD May letter also takes issue with the Feinstein draft resolution demand to certify that the sole objective of the LRSO is to deter nuclear attack. This would be inconsistent with the Administration’s nuclear weapons policy and the President’s guidance on nuclear employment, DOD says. Even though the NPR and guidance both affirmed that “the fundamental purpose of all U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack,” they also determined that a sole-purpose nuclear policy can not be adopted yet because there “remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack against the United States or its allies and partners.”

The public DOD report on the 2013 guidance does not mention the “role in deterring a conventional or CBW attack” that the NPR specifies. And there are rumors that the guidance removed the requirement to plan nuclear missions against chemical weapons attacks. If so, that would leave only biological and conventional attacks other than nuclear attacks as a role for US nuclear weapons. Deterring biological attacks is thought to remain a mission because of the widespread human casualties such weapons can cause. And conventional might for example refer to a devastating North Korean conventional attack against Seoul or a Russian conventional attack against Eastern European NATO allies. But it is unclear and such attacks would in any case almost certainly be more likely to trigger non-nuclear responses; why would the US escalate to nuclear use if no one else has?

It is curious why Senator Feinstein chose the wording “sole objective” given that the NPR and guidance both clearly rejected a “sole purpose of nuclear weapons” for now (although the policy is to “work to establish conditions under which such a policy could be safely adopted”). She must have known that it would be easily rejected.

But it is also possible that what she was really after was a way to limit the almost tactical warfighting mission of the LRSO that numerous officials have widely described in public statements. Only a week after Kendall sent his LRSO letter to Senator McCain, Senator Feinstein said during a hearing:

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. (Emphasis added.)

The two DOD letters seem to confirm Senator Feinstein’s worst fears. The Kendall letter speaks of “flexible options across the full range of threat scenarios” with “multi-axis” attacks, and the DOD May letter talks about using “lower-yield” options in limited regional scenarios “even if a conventional weapon could also destroy the target.”

About Those Claims…

The Kendall letter, first published by Union of Concerned Scientists, makes numerous claims about official documents endorsing the LRSO. But when you check the documents, it turns out that they don’t explicitly endorse the weapon. Some don’t even mention it.

For example, Kendall claims that the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review “committed to maintaining a viable standoff nuclear deterrent for the air leg of the Triad…” But the NPR made no such commitment. The pubic version of the NPR only stated that “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)…” (Emphasis added). Contrary to Kendall’s claim, there is no explicit commitment in the public NPR to a nuclear cruise missile capability beyond the lifespan of the current ALCM.

Kendall also claims that the 2014 Nuclear Enterprise Review “committed to maintaining a viable standoff nuclear deterrent for the air leg of the Triad…” But that is also wrong. The public version of the document does not mention a cruise missile replacement at all but instead acknowledges “a moderate public attack on the need for the cruise missile carrying B-52 force…”

In terms of how the LRSO aligns with US nuclear employment strategy, the Kendall letter also explains that the DOD report Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, to which President Obama provided the foreword, “reaffirmed the need for U.S. forces to project power and hold at risk any target at any location on the globe, to include anti-access and area denial environments.”

That may be so but neither the DOD report nor President Obama’s foreword mention a requirement for a nuclear cruise missile with one word. Instead, here is what the report says:

Project Power Despite Anti-Access/Area Denial Challenges. In order to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged… Accordingly, the U.S. military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments. This will include implementing the Joint Operational Access Concept, sustaining our undersea capabilities, developing a new stealth bomber, improving missile defenses, and continuing efforts to enhance the resiliency and effectiveness of critical space-based capabilities.

On the same issue, President Obama’s foreword states:

As we end today’s wars and reshape our Armed Forces, we will ensure that our military is agile, flexible, and ready for the full range of contingencies. In particular, we will continue to invest in the capabilities critical to future success, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; counterterrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; operating in anti-access environments; and prevailing in all domains, including cyber.

Neither the DOD report nor Obama’s foreword makes any explicit commitment to a new nuclear cruise missile. Yet Kendall nonetheless uses them both to argue for one.

Humanitarian Crocodile Tears

The DOD May letter contains some really interesting statements about nuclear weapons and international law and collateral damage. The letter argues that not acquiring the LRSO would be “inconsistent with Administration policy and Presidential guidance” because the June 2013 Nuclear Employment Guidance “directs that all plans must apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.”

According to the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy report DOD sent to Congress in June 2013, the guidance “makes clear that all plans must also be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict. Accordingly, plans will, for example, apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects. The United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.”

This has been US policy for several decades but it is great that it was included in the new guidance. And it is even better if it actually restrains nuclear strike planning. But the authors of the DOD May letter forget to mention that even if the Obama administration were to cancel the LRSO, the Pentagon still plans to retain nearly 500 nuclear gravity bomb with lower yields for delivery by heavy bombers and dual-capable fighter-bombers. Retiring the ALCM or canceling the LRSO would not be incompatible with the guidance.

Yet the May letter illustrates how the new guidance is already being used by nuclear advocates in a twisted effort to use concern about civilian casualties in war as an argument against retiring existing nuclear weapons and to justify acquisition of new nuclear weapons that are more accurate with better lower-yield options to reduce radioactive fallout from nuclear attacks. The LRSO is one example; the B61-12 gravity bomb is another. As STRATCOM commander Gen. Robert Kehler told Congress in 2013 shortly after the guidance was published, “…we are trying to pursue weapons that actually are reducing in yield because we’re concerned about maintaining weapons that would have less collateral effect if the President ever had to use them.” (Emphasis added.)

“Electing to retire a lower-yield option because a higher-yield weapon can also destroy the target would be inconsistent with this principle and direction,” the DOD May letter concludes.

What makes this newfound “humanitarian” concern of the nuclear planners particularly hypocritical is that they don’t use the same guidance to conclude that the thousands of high-yield nuclear warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs therefore would be equally “inconsistent with Administration policy and Presidential guidance.”

Apparently, limiting damage to civilians is only worth it if you can get a better weapon in return.

Conclusions and Recommendations

It is the responsibility of the Pentagon to advocate for nuclear forces but this should also require it to have clear and valid justifications for why it needs them. The March letter from DOD’s Frank Kendall and the anonymous DOD letter from May arguing for why the Congress should approve and pay for the LRSO clearly fall short of that standard. Instead, they are full of false claims, spin, and vague and overstated assertions about its mission.

The scary part of this is that a majority in Congress appears to have accepted these poor justifications for the LRSO. The majority leadership in the Senate Armed Services Committee recently rejected an amendment by Senator Edward Markey to delay funding for the LRSO to allow Congress to better study the justifications. The rejection made use of many of the same false claims, spin, and vague overstatements that the DOD letters contain.

The DOD May letter rejecting Senator Feinstein’s draft amendment insisted that the LRSO Assessment of Alternative provided to Congress in 2014 “does not and should not address why we have an airborne standoff leg of the Triad,” and that the AoA therefore “only examined technical options to meet an air-based stand-off strategy in a cost and mission-effective manner.”

But then, in the next sentence, DOD essentially told the lawmakers that unless they approved more money for the LRSO program to advance it further, they cannot be told what the cost will be.

This is tantamount to blackmailing and wrong because several officials privately have said that they have already seen preliminary briefings on estimated life-cycle costs for both the LRSO missile and W80-4 warhead.

Providing false claims, spin, and vague overstatements about the requirements and mission of the LRSO is bad enough. But unless President Obama during his remaining time in office decides to cancel the LRSO program, it could end up costing the taxpayers $20-$30 billion over the lifetime of the weapon for a nuclear weapon the United States doesn’t need.

Further reading about the LRSO:

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.

3 thoughts on “Flawed Pentagon Nuclear Cruise Missile Advocacy

  1. When will the United States Air Force have 76 operational B-21A bombers? What year? Fifteen years from now? Twenty? Twenty-five? Thirty? The ALCM reaches end of life in 2030; fourteen years from now. The LRSO is a weapon system designed to update the nuclear capability of the venerable B-52H bombers; and, that will be future adaptable to the B-2A and the non-built B-21A bombers. If we don’t build the LRSO cruise missile, the B-52 becomes irrelevant as a strategic deterrence in 2030 and should be withdrawn from service. It’s really just that simple.

    I’m confused by the logic of this debate. The very people that opposed the B61-12 project are using that nuclear weapon to now justify canceling the LRSO cruise missile. Ban the missile, promote the bomb! The argument seems disingenuous to me.

    Frank Shuler

  2. The B61-12 and LRSO/W80-4 have different missions. The B61-12 can be used as a tactical nuclear weapon on the F-35A or a strategic weapon on the B21 against hardened targets. The bomb allows for low-yield bursts while still destroying its target. The LRSO/W80-4 is best suited to take out mobile icbms. And Russia and China are building more and more nuclear mobile icbms. Conventional cruise missiles are not effective against mobile icbms. That is why the nuclear warhead is needed on a new cruise missile so the increased blast radius can destroy mobile icbms that are on the move. Conventional cruise missiles have been used on fixed targets, and even with these the new JASSM-ER has at best an 3m CEP and a range of 500nm. So it can easily miss a road mobile icbm and also not allow a bomber to release the missiles from a stand-off position.

    1. There are similarities and differences; it is not black and white. Both the B61-12 and LRSO will be capable of targeting fixed targets, so in that sense their missions are not different. But since one is self-propelled (LRSO) and the other is not, and one (B61-12) appears to have some earth-penetration capability and the other not, they each have unique capabilities. The LRSO will be launched from only long-range bombers, while the B61-12 will also be launched from shorter-range fighter bombers.

      As for mobile launcher, if the location is known then it is vulnerable to both nuclear and conventional weapons. The scenario you describe seems to be where the location is not known and so the nuclear blast is used to compensate and give a better change of damaging the launcher. But that’s a very inefficient and dirty way to target because you have to use a lot of weapons to cover the wide area mobile launchers can cover in the several hours it takes for the cruise missile to reach the aim point. A road-mobile launcher with an average speed of 50 kilometers (30 miles) per hour could be 50-100 kilometer (30-60 miles) away from the blast. Adding retargeting to the cruise missile potentially solves that but, then again, if you know where the launcher is why use nuclear?

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