The AGM-86B

America needs the LRSO… just in case

Lord Salisbury said once that if generals were left to their own devices, they might well decide to put garrisons on the Moon to defend us from Mars. Envisioning worst-case scenarios and drawing up contingency plans for them is part of what the military does to get its job right. The problem with this professional reflex is that it often fails to assess comparative risk effectively, and in particular fully account for the risks of unintended consequences or the impacts on others. When it comes to nuclear policy and procurement decisions, the temptation for overkill is high.

This seems to be the case with the US intention to acquire 1000 new air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and tip around half of them with nuclear warheads. Former US secretary of defence William J. Perry and president Obama’s former assistant secretary of defense Andy Weber have charged against such a plan, and many within the global arms control and disarmament community have followed their lead. They have claimed the new nuclear ALCM, also known as Long-Range Standoff weapon (LRSO), will be a dangerous and destabilising addition to the US arsenal.

It was Perry himself who in the 1980s resolutely pursued the introduction of the AGM86-B, garnering him the nickname ‘ALCM Bill’. The justification for the AGM86-B (originally designed to be exclusively a nuclear delivery system) was that a cruise missile was needed for the (non-stealthy) strategic bomber B-52 to stay out of the range of Soviet air defences while effectively contributing to a nuclear attack, either by overwhelming and destroying air defences or by hitting other targets. Since the introduction of the ALCM and then the end of the Cold War, it has been the conventional variant that has seen extensive use, and now, thirty years later Perry is on the other side of the debate, saying the new ALCM is a first-strike weapon on a stealthy aircraft that ‘can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants’. When dual-capable cruise missiles are fired, the adversary has no way to know whether a nuclear payload is on course and could feel forced into a nuclear response.

Perry and Weber claim the nuclear LRSO risks and costs – around billion over two decades – are unjustifiable as the US ‘can, and should, maintain an extremely effective bomber leg of the triad without it’ (using the updated B61-12 free-fall bomb).

Hans M. Kristensen from the Federation of American Scientists believes that the conventional long-range JASSM-ER (Joint Air-To-Surface Standoff Missile, or AGM-158B) can do everything the LRSO is conceived for at a lower cost and spares the worrisome complications of nuclear weapons use. The JASSM-ER has been at full-scale production since 2014 and is already operational; the LRSO would not be introduced until around 2030.

For the advocates of the LRSO this missile is needed because it would present a future US president in a strategic crisis with more nuclear options. Robert Scher, US assistant secretary of defence for strategy, plans and capabilities, considers that

[The LRSO] will be an essential element of our assured second strike capability, carried by a strategic bomber force that is survivable once alerted. The LRSO will ensure our ability to penetrate adversary air defenses far into the future, and preserve the ALCM’s essential contribution to the range of strike options the President has for responding to a limited or large scale failure of deterrence.

An assured second strike capability does not require nuclear ALCM for the foreseeable future: robust sea and land-based strategic systems provide ample deterrence and the air-leg of a triad would still have high assurance to deliver bombs even with air defence systems intact. Any additional war-fighting options that are claimed the LRSO would open up are thus unnecessary. But any such additional US options also translate directly into serious threats for any potential adversary that would need to be countered with systems that would also be destabilising. It risks encouraging them to rapidly go up the escalation ladder as nuclear retaliation to a possible US first use of nuclear weapons.

Fearing its conventional inferiority, Russian defence policy contemplates the gradual use of its lower-yield nuclear weapons to ‘de-escalate’ a possible confrontation on terms acceptable for the Kremlin.

Moscow’s dependency on nuclear weapons presents a major challenge for Washington to either assure Russia sufficiently that it does not contemplate such an escalation, or dissuade them by threat from escalating to incremental nuclear strikes. Some believe the solution is the latter and to show that the United States has the will and tools to control escalation as well, by threatening a response in kind with low-yield nuclear retaliatory attacks. Franklin C. Miller put this position at a recent CSIS conference, ‘there are no winners in a nuclear war; for our deterrence, we must convince Mr. Putin of the same’. Variable yield warheads like the W80-4, planned for the LRSO, could fulfil this role. Alternative options more focused on the assurance of Russia do not get the same airtime.

The idea for the LRSO stems from the concerns of U.S. warplanners that Moscow is improving its integrated air defences. Area-denial systems based upon the S-400 could be increasingly effective at detecting those U.S. stealth bombers in existence (F-35 Lightning II), or even those under development (the proposed Long Range Strike Bomber). This could affect their future ability to reliably deliver the nuclear B61-12 gravity bomb, still under development. The conventional JASSM-ER could be deployed to destroy or disrupt those air defences, but the LRSO entourage worries that would be just a temporary solution as technology develops and the Russians develop protection against this. The design of the LRSO remains flexible at present. However, it could make more sense to adapt the JASSM-ER as technology develops.

Currently, there seems to be a preference for quantity over quality when discussing options. A sobering and critical discussion on procurement decisions would be favoured by a positive international political environment, but today that is lacking. It is natural for military planners to prepare for the worst. But political decision-makers have a grave responsibility to look beyond the immediate perception of increased dangers and to their nation’s (and by extension global) strategic security and stability as well as an eye to value for money – both of these would strongly steer a decision against further development of the LRSO. In a recent blog post Michael Krepon writes that ‘Reagan and Gorbachev broke the mad momentum of the arms race by dismissing the underlying war-fighting capabilities behind their nuclear deterrents’. This kind of political courage may be needed again to break the internal logic of maximising options and capabilities that lie behind the LRSO programme.

Image: The AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles, from the US Air Force 

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