The New Nuclear Cruise Missile and the Stability Argument
Nuclear strategists often like to speak of weapons or security events as “stabilizing” or “destabilizing.” Whole books have been written on the concept of “strategic stability” and what it means for today’s security environment. So when critics of the Obama administration’s plan to build a new nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) call the plan “extremely destabilizing” and “inherently destabilizing” they are using a term of art with a long history behind it.
At issue, critics of the new cruise missile, called the Long Range Stand Off weapon (LRSO), claim that adversaries will be unable to see a difference on their radars between a conventionally-armed cruise missile and the nuclear-armed LRSO, supposedly creating uncertainty, and thus a destabilizing dynamic. The critics’ answer to this dilemma is to kill the LRSO program and therefore minimize the uncertainty for the enemy.
Yet their argument is ultimately unpersuasive. If a nuclear cruise missile is too dangerous to field because an adversary will not know whether it is nuclear or conventional, then the same criterion may also apply to the U.S. B-61 nuclear bomb, which, if dropped, an adversary could not know was nuclear until it is too late. If an adversary detects a bomber or perhaps an F-35 on its horizon, logically, they could not know whether it was carrying a nuclear bomb or not. And yet, in many of their articles, some critics of the LRSO advocate retaining the B-61 bomb and a portion of the bomber force. They have yet to address this contradiction.
In fact, recent history suggests that dual-capable cruise missiles are not destabilizing in the way that critics like to claim. The United States has used dual-capable cruise missiles around Russia’s periphery multiple times, for example: against Iraq in 1991, in Bosnia in 1995, in Kosovo in 1999, in Afghanistan in 2001, and against Iraq in 2003, all without starting a nuclear war.
Russia itself obviously does not seem to see dual-capable cruise missiles as destabilizing. Only two months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin went out of his way to remind the world that the cruise missiles Russia launched against ISIS in Syria, some of which came close to U.S. military positions, “can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.”
Official U.S. government policy since at least 1979 has been that nuclear air-launched cruise missiles are not destabilizing: “Indeed to the extent that ALCM’s aid in maintaining the effectiveness in the bomber leg of the triad, they could help to preserve a high degree of crisis stability, with important arms control benefits.” Even in the 1990s when the United States began deploying dual-capable cruise missiles, official U.S. policy was that, “manned bombers are more stabilizing than land-based ballistic missiles, because they do not in themselves pose a first-strike threat.”
Rose Gottemoeller, the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, recently articulated some of the stabilizing aspects of the LRSO: “And my view is that air‑launched systems are inherently more stabilizing for the reasons that have long been discussed. They are slow fliers. They give adequate scope for decision-making, not only in their slow flying nature, but in the fact that they are recallable. Again, if a decision is made to launch the bomber force, then they can also be recalled. And so there are certain very stabilizing aspects to bomber weapons as a kind of second-strike force, particularly.”
The United States has deployed dual-capable cruise missiles for decades now. Other nations are well aware of U.S. capabilities, so U.S. officials need not worry that the LRSO will surprise anybody with new destabilizing characteristics.
What U.S. officials should be, and are, worried about is the increasing ability of nations like Russia and China to hold at risk U.S. air assets in strategic areas. As Russian and Chinese anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities increase the range at which they can engage U.S. air assets, the requirement for a “stand-off” capability like the LRSO will likely increase.
If, for deterrence purposes, the United States had to hold at risk the same targets using only conventional weapons, the danger to the bomber pilots would greatly increase because they would have to launch more weapons, at a closer range, at the same target. As air defense systems become more capable and hardened, conventional weapons may become less credible for deterrence.
In addition, conventional weapon systems for deterrence are often just as (if not more) expensive as nuclear weapon systems also used for deterrence, so critics of the LRSO must show that there is some net cost savings in procuring more conventional systems like the JASSM-ER vice the LRSO in order to attain the same level of deterrence and assurance capability. And even if there were net cost savings, the deterrence and assurance credibility that could be lost by killing the LRSO program would still make the move unwise.
For deterrence to function effectively, the United States needs the capability to hold at risk targets that the adversary values greatly. The LRSO will be a critical element of U.S. deterrent strategy in the future and will provide the president with an important tool for deterrence and assurance missions.
Killing the LRSO program now while letting the current cruise missile age out is tantamount to unilateral disarmament, given Russia’s robust cruise missile programs. Knowing Vladimir Putin, he would gladly take the concession and only ask for more.