June 17, 2016 | Issue Brief on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

Why the United States Needs an LRSO Capability

The debate over the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon continues to heat up both in Congress and within the nuclear weapons community. The LRSO is an essential component of a credible future U.S. nuclear and conventional deterrent force. Having it in the nation’s arsenal will increase the security of the United States and that of its allies.

The Air-Launched Cruise Missile Replacement Is Overdue

The LRSO is intended to replace the AGM-86, and to compliment the conventional AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM). Since its fielding in 1982, the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) has gone through several upgrades and depot-level life extensions, including replacement of 25 percent of the ALCM inventory with conventional warheads. That conventional ALCM has been used in every major conflict since the end of the Cold War.

None of the modifications has helped the missile keep up with advances in enemy air defenses. Both the conventional and nuclear-tipped versions of the ALCM rely on low-altitude ingress and a saturated enemy air-defense system in order to reach a well-defended target. Cuts in defense spending have reduced capacity and readiness across the Air Force, making it unlikely that the United States will be able to overwhelm a modern surface-to-air missile (SAM) defense system like the Russian S-400. That, coupled with the AGM-86’s lack of stealth, will make it relatively easy for any modern fighter or SAM system to defeat that missile. The ALCM’s relatively short range will also put the B-52, the only aircraft capable of delivering it, at risk.

The primary rationale for the ALCM was to increase the survivability and effectiveness of the B-52 bomber, itself a 1950s aircraft. Many targets at which an ALCM would be launched sit well over a thousand miles inside hostile borders. In far too many scenarios, the AGM-86’s maximum range of 650 nautical miles would force the most aged and vulnerable platform in the U.S. inventory to penetrate well into hostile airspace in order for the ALCM to reach its target.

The LRSO will have the range required to significantly improve the options and overall targeting capability and will keep the B-52 viable for years to come. This missile is also compatible with the B-2 and the new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), and like the AGM-86, the LRSO will be fielded with both conventional and nuclear warheads.

Credibility is at the heart of deterrence. Adversaries must believe that the United States is able and willing to destroy what they value. The LRSO will boost that belief as it has about twice the range of the dated ALCM, and its stealth will make it very difficult for adversary radars and air defenses to detect it. The LRS-B will be a stealth platform, but without the LRSO the only nuclear munition compatible with that new bomber will be munitions like the B-83 that require target overflight for delivery. As U.S. adversaries adapt and improve their counter-stealth radar technology, target overflight will likely become problematic, leaving this mission to the B-52/AGM-86 pairing, a system that adversaries targeted by this system could defeat.

There is no reason why one should consider the LRSO’s dual-capability inherently more destabilizing, as opponents of the program claim. After all, the United States deploys multiple dual-capable systems. Bombers are dual-capable themselves, and a majority of their missions today are conventional, not nuclear. Some of them were converted from their nuclear roles to exclusively conventional ones. Similarly, the United States converted some of its strategic submarines to conventional ones. The F-35 will have both a conventional and a nuclear role. U.S. command and control infrastructure supports both nuclear and conventional forces.

The LRSO opponents’ declarations about not needing to consider perceived escalatory options and scenarios are premature, particularly considering Russia’s strategic thinking that relies on de-escalatory power of use of a nuclear weapon in regional conflicts. Future Presidents will appreciate options in the case of different scenarios, some of which perhaps cannot be envisioned today. It would not be the first time that the United States was caught by a surprise turn of military events.

The LRSO Will Not Cause Proliferation

Opponents of the LRSO argue that if the United States foregoes the program, other countries will be more likely to forego their own nuclear weapons. There is no empirical evidence to support this logic, quite to the contrary. The United States has given up around 90 percent of its nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War, while North Korea, India, and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons and expanded their arsenals. China and Russia have been developing their own cruise missiles, and will continue that effort regardless of whether the United States proceeds with the LRSO. Countries follow their own national interests. They do not buy into flowery declarations about a world without nuclear weapons.

The second argument put forth in opposition to the LRSO is that this cruise missile is better than the ALCM in the existing arsenal. (Most believe that having a better capability is a good thing.) U.S. adversaries are innovating and improving their anti-access area-denial capabilities, and the United States is expected to spend several billion dollars on the LRSO. Of course, the LRSO must be better than the ALCM. Curiously, the United States is choosing not to improve the W-80 nuclear warhead, which will be a key component of the nuclear-tipped LRSO. The U.S. approach to its nuclear stockpile, maintenance, and life-extension programs is unlike that of China or Russia. Both of these countries are developing new nuclear warheads, potentially with new effects, and are keeping their nuclear complexes vibrant, innovative, and engaged.

Steps Ahead

To advance U.S. security and that of U.S. allies, Congress should:

  • Fully support the LRSO program. The LRSO is an essential program for dealing with adversaries’ advanced air defenses in years to come. It will not promote nuclear proliferation. It will expand the capabilities and mission set of the LRS-B bomber to give it a standoff conventional role, magnifying the impact of those tax dollars.
  • Fully support the life-extension program for the W-80 warhead. The nuclear variant of the LRSO is perhaps more critical than its conventional variant. Gravity bombs are not suited for scenarios in which the LRSO would be used because bombers are too vulnerable to advanced air defenses, particularly those of Russia and China.
  • Mandate that the Administration re-evaluate assumptions about U.S. nuclear posture. The current Administration is wrong to believe that Russia is no longer an adversary and that prospects for military confrontation have declined dramatically—as Russia’s continued belligerent and aggressive behavior demonstrates on a daily basis. U.S. adversaries must believe that it is capable of destroying what they value. That is the essence of deterrence. The LRSO contributes to U.S. credibility, including in regional scenarios.
  • Educate the public on the importance of nuclear weapons modernization. Members of Congress must be able to articulate why U.S. nuclear weapons continue to be an indispensable asset to U.S. national security and its regional nonproliferation policy. The public’s support is a critical asset as the United States embarks upon the first large-scale nuclear platform modernization program in the past 30 years.

Getting Ready for Strategic Uncertainty

The world today is different from that of the Cold War, and the U.S. nuclear arsenal is nothing like that of the Cold War. The United States has fewer types of nuclear warheads and delivery platforms, and many warheads and supporting systems were cancelled, modified to conventional-only systems, or destroyed as a result of optimistic assumptions about the post–Cold War security situation. The current U.S. nuclear posture assumes that Russia is no longer an adversary and that the potential for conflict is low, for instance. But curtailing this capability now will give future U.S. Presidents fewer options should that assumption turn out to be wrong—an inherently unwise move.

—Michaela Dodge is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and Strategic Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation. John Venable is Senior Research Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for National Defense, of the Davis Institute.

About the Author

Michaela Dodge Senior Policy Analyst, Defense and Strategic Policy
Center for National Defense

John Venable Senior Research Fellow For Defense Policy
Center for National Defense