USAF Chief of Staff explains why America needs the new cruise missile

Among the key elements of the modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent is a new stealthy cruise missile, called the Long Range Stand-Off Weapon, or LRSO for short. This missile is intended to allow nonstealthy B-52 bombers to launch a nuclear retaliation (should it become necessary) on America’s adversaries using nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The B-52 itself, lacking low-observable shapes and easily detectable by radar, is totally unsurvivable inside enemy-controlled airspace and would therefore have to stand off outside the range of enemy air defenses.

The Democrats, who have never met a weapon system they didn’t like, have, in recent years, been trying their best to kill that program. They claim that it’s unnecessary because it supposedly duplicates the next-generation stealthy bomber, the B-21, currently being developed by Northrop Grumman.

But the USAF Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh III, who is responsible for two of the three legs of America’s nuclear triad, has recently explained in simple language why the US military needs the LRSO to keep the air leg of the triad credible:

“ALCM is already twenty years past its design life and very, very difficult to maintain. We just can’t keep maintaining this fleet of missiles for any period of time. So once ALCM dies on the vine, let’s say 10 years from now, 15 years from now, we are just beginning to field the B-21 [bomber] and we have a whole bunch of B-52s that are now going to have to fly over a target with a gravity bomb.”

As the Chief explains, the current nuclear-tipped missiles the USAF has are already 20 years past their intended service lives, are very difficult and costly to maintain, and cannot remain in service much longer. They will have to be retired within the next 10-15 years at the latest.

But within the next 10-15 years, B-21 bombers will only begin to enter service in limited numbers, because at the start of President Obama’s first term, in 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates delayed this crucial next-generation bomber by 2 years. This despite the fact that the need for the said aircraft had already been well-known and proven and despite the fact that the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review had already identified that requirement (which was subsequently re-validated by the 2010 and 2014 QDRs).

Also, 10-15 years from now, the USAF’s current, small (20-strong) fleet of B-2 Spirit stealthy bombers will be in its 30s and its stealth technology (which is 1980s vintage) might be obsolete, meaning that the B-2 may lose its ability to defeat advanced enemy air defense systems – certainly those fielded by Russia and China, America’s two most dangerous potential foes.

Similarly, the Air Force Association, a nationwide group of retired Airmen, has defended the LRSO by explaining that:

“Funding its replacement, LRSO, is particularly important given the advanced air defenses of our adversaries. Without a sustained bomber stand-off capability enabled by a modern cruise missile, the bomber leg of the triad will be increasingly at risk.”

So if the new cruise missile, the LRSO, is delayed, the consequences 10 years from now will be that:

  • the current cruise missile, the ALCM, will have to be retired due to old age and cost of maintenance;
  • the B-2 may well lose its ability to penetrate sophisticated enemy air defenses;
  • the B-52 and the non-nuclear B-1 will be of no help, because they won’t have a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile to carry, and they have such huge radar signatures that they cannot enter enemy-controlled airspace; and
  • as a result, the airborne leg of the U.S. nuclear triad will completely lose its credibility, undermining that of the entire triad and therefore the credibility of America’s extended deterrence guarantees to over 30 allies and friends – some of whom may then decide to develop nuclear weapons of their own.

Nuclear disarmament advocates fantasize that America’s unilateral cancellation of this new cruise missile would inspire other countries to do the same or to agree on a global ban on such weapons.

This argument is utterly laughable. Unilateral disarmament has never inspired any non-Western country to reciprocate. On the contrary, whenever the West has given up on such or such weapon system, Russia, China, North Korea, and others have NEVER reciprocated. NEVER. Not even once.

To give but one example: when the Obama administration withdrew nuclear-tipped TLAM-A cruise missiles from US Navy submarines, the Russians did not reciprocate. They still keep nuclear-armed cruise missiles on their attack submarines (SSNs) and cruise missile launcher subs (SSGNs), which is essentially a  second fleet of nuclear-armed submarines outside the scope of any arms control treaty.

Not only that, but Russia is in violation of EVERY arms control agreement it is a party to: the Biological and Chemical Weapons Convention, the INF Treaty, the New START Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum… the list goes on. Ditto North Korea. India, Pakistan and Israel – all of whom field nuclear-tipped cruise missiles – are not party to any arms control treaties whatsoever.

There is zero reason to believe Russia, or anyone else for that matter, would reciprocate America’s unilateral actions.

On the other hand, a moderate Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, has proposed that USAF nuclear deterrence programs be linked to the Navy’s to save money, increase collaboration, and promote jointness:

“Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., asked whether the Air Force planned to collaborate with the Navy, which is currently modernizing its own nuclear assets.

“I think it’s a historic opportunity to leverage research and development, common parts and lessons learned from the Navy’s recent Trident modernization program, which can reduce risk, enhance savings—which are critical—and field an extremely capable follow-on in Minuteman III.”

There are similarities between how the Navy and Air Force are approaching their nuclear modernization programs, said Goldfein.

“GBSD, one of the aspects of that is that it’s an enterprise approach. So as we field that weapon system, it’s actually not just the missile, it’s the missile, it’s the launcher, it’s the command and control,” he said. “The Navy does the same thing when they look at the submarine force.””

That, unlike what most of his party colleagues have proposed, is a very good idea.


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