The Pentagon continues to face backlash over a $20 billion nuclear missile program that critics fear will set off Armageddon.
The polemical weapon — a stealth cruise missile that would be launched from Air Force bombers and strike targets nearly 2,000 miles away — has been in the works since the early days of the Obama administration. But pushback from the arms control community has intensified over the past two years, notably after former Defense Secretary William Perry called for the cancellation of the program.
With the Pentagon in the midst of conducting a “nuclear posture review” for the first time since 2010, opponents of the so-called “long-range standoff missile,” or LRSO, see a window of opportunity to convince Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the program should be nixed.
The Air Force is scheduled to award contracts this fall for the next development phase of the LRSO. The Pentagon’s top contractors, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, have submitted bids. The stakes are high as the Air Force expects to buy up to 1,000 missiles and warheads. “The LRSO effort remains on track to award up to two technology maturation and risk reduction contracts by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2017,” said Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski.
“This effort is continuing,” Grabowski told RealClearDefense. Air Force leaders have spent years tweaking the requirements and making sure the defense industry is up to the task, she said.
“From 2011 to 2016, the LRSO program office conducted numerous interactions with the industry, including contract trade studies, industry days, requirement-cost tradeoff analyses and providing draft requests for proposals.
An acquisition plan was approved in July 2016.
The Air Force so far has spent $16 million on LRSO research and development in 2016, $95 million in 2017, and is seeking $451 million in 2018. The Energy Department’s national nuclear security administration is requesting $400 million to start developing the LRSO warhead. The Defense Department has estimated the entire warhead program will cost $8.6 billion, and the missile delivery system will run about $10 billion.
The Pentagon’s larger effort to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad — the Navy’s nuclear missile submarines, the Air Force’s strategic bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles — is expected to get full support from the Trump administration and Congress despite its trillion-dollar price tag. But the LRSO, which would replace an aging air-launched cruise missile, continues to raise hackles.
“The LRSO has been debated by this committee over and over again and I suppose I'm going to continue to cause a debate about it,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) during the recent House Armed Services Committee markup of the 2018 defense authorization bill.
He cited Perry and others who worry the missile “creates an unnecessary risk of miscalculation, lowers the threshold for nuclear use, is not necessary to preserve U.S. nuclear deterrence and will cost over $20 billion in the years ahead, money that we could use for many, many other things.”
Opponents sought unsuccessfully to make Congress withhold funding for the LRSO until the nuclear posture review is completed and the program receives Mattis’ seal of approval.
The weapon undoubtedly has more friends than foes in Congress and the military. “Our senior military officers have repeatedly described the urgent need for an LRSO and the declining reliability of the [current] air-launched cruise missile it will replace,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.).
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva told lawmakers that the existing missiles were designed and built in the 1970s and the technology is woefully outdated. “A decade from now, those weapons will not be able to penetrate Russian air defenses and, therefore, there's an urgency to their replacement."
“Some argue we should just slow the program down a bit because the nuclear posture review might propose to cancel it,” said Rogers. Such possibility seems unlikely, however, because the military brass has come out so forcefully in favor of the program. Rogers also recalled testimony by Obama officials who defended the LRSO as an important element of the U.S. nuclear modernization program designed to help maintain strategic parity with Russia and China.
LRSO critics were both surprised and encouraged that Mattis, when pressed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) during a hearing last month, said he would further study the issue. “I need to look at that one,” he told Feinstein. Mattis said LRSO “makes sense, but I have to look at it in terms of its deterrence capability.”
Nuclear weapons analyst Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association said there is a chance that the nuclear posture review will delay, if not end, the LRSO program. “We’re likely to see the Trump administration want to put its own stamp on U.S. nuclear policy,” he said. “We could see some significant changes.” Although Mattis has yet to “offer his full support,” the odds that he will propose the termination of the LRSO are slim, Reif said. “But it’s interesting that he is still raising questions. He has expressed support for every element of the triad except this system. And he’s mentioned Perry’s criticism in particular.”
One reason to not support this system is that it is “completely redundant,” asserted Reif. The Air Force will have a stealth bomber that, armed with existing cruise missiles and nuclear gravity bombs, would in theory be able to penetrate air defenses. Adding a stealth cruise missile brings in an entirely new capability that is arguably overkill, he said.
“It contributes to a new arms race not in terms of numbers but in terms of technological capability.”
Perry specifically raised the specter of nuclear holocaust if a country like Russia or China mistook a conventional U.S. Air Force cruise missile for an LRSO. The former defense secretary, who is highly respected across the U.S. defense establishment, said he worries about the United States using a stealthy air-launched cruise missile along with a stealth bomber. “In a conflict, if we use a cruise missile, the country on the receiving end won’t know if it’s nuclear or conventional,” Reif said.
Adam Lowther, director of the Air Force Institute of Technology’s school for advanced nuclear deterrence and an LRSO advocate, said the naysayers’ arguments don’t hold water. The idea that a 40-year-old missile is good enough to deter Russia is preposterous, he said.
“It’s a totally different air defense environment; it’s far more challenging for us, penetrating air space,” Lowther said. “The Russians and Chinese have improved ground-based and space-based early warning systems. These are targets that are very difficult to hit.”
The critics are wrong, he said, because they are not factoring the technological advances that U.S. enemies are making. “Bombers that are loaded with LRSO missiles have the ability to dramatically complicate an enemy’s defense strategy,” he said. It takes an advanced cruise missile to target North Korean facilities in narrow valleys that would be difficult for any other weapon to penetrate. And targeting nuclear facilities with an autonomous missile, as opposed to sending in a manned bomber, keeps pilots out of harm’s way, he said.
From a deterrence perspective, said Lowther, the prospect of the United States having 1,000 LRSO weapons “will give adversaries a real reason to think twice.”