The LRSO: US Plans for Nuclear Primacy
Andrei AKULOV | 27.07.2016 | WORLD / Americas

The LRSO: US Plans for Nuclear Primacy

Ten Democratic senators have penned a letter to US President Barack Obama urging him to cancel development of a new nuclear-capable cruise missile.

The Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) cruise missile will replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) program with 1,000 to 1,100 cruise missiles, representing the US Air Force’s standoff nuclear delivery capability.

In its budget request released in February, the Pentagon requested $95.6 million for the weapons in its fiscal 2017 budget, and $2.2 billion over the next five years. Unlike the AGM-86, the LRSO will be carried on multiple aircraft, including the B-52, the B-2 Spirit, and the Northrop Grumman B-21. The LRSO can be armed with either a conventional or nuclear warhead. The program is to develop a weapon that can penetrate and survive integrated air defense systems and destroy strategic targets. Both conventional and nuclear versions of the weapon are required to reach initial operational capability (IOC) before the retirement of their respective ALCM versions that will age out around 2030.

«Independent estimates suggest that nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization plans could cost nearly one trillion dollars over the next 30 years, putting enormous pressure on our defense budget at a time when non-nuclear systems will also require major expenditures», wrote the authors of the letter. «In particular, we urge you to cancel plans to spend at least $20 billion on a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Standoff weapon, which would provide an unnecessary capability that could increase the risk of nuclear war», the paper reads.

The letter also urges Obama to officially adopt a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons.

Last month, members of the House voted down an amendment to cut $75.8 million from the LRSO program, despite a slowly rising chorus of influential voices arguing against the weapon.

More than a third of the House voted against.

Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, has said, she will try to block funding in the Senate.

The Air Force, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, has continued its push for the LRSO as part of its strategic nuclear posture backed by hawkish lawmakers and strong voices such as the Air Force Association. The Pentagon plans to spend in the realm of $350 billion over the next decade to modernize its nuclear arsenal.

Opponents say the LRSO is redundant because the US will have two bombers which are themselves able to penetrate enemy airspace and drop a nuclear bomb on a target, the B-2 and the B-21. They believe the LRSO exemplifies a Cold War approach to deterrence that is out of step with more pressing threats from terrorist groups.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) believes, America does not need a nuclear cruise missile when old-fashioned conventional cruise missiles can do the job.

«The new nuclear cruise missile will not be able to threaten targets that cannot be threatened with other existing nuclear weapons», writes Hans Kristensen, director of the FAS's Nuclear Information Project. «It would be much harder for the President to authorize use of nuclear cruise missiles, he would in reality have considerably fewer options with the LRSO», the scholar notes.

Feinstein echoes that argument, saying: «We have non-nuclear options, which can achieve the same objectives, and that’s my deep belief. So we need that discussion in this country, about the role of nuclear weapons in the nation’s defense».

William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense, called for cancellation of the plans to build LRSO in a Washington Post op-ed. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles «are a uniquely destabilizing type of nuclear weapon», they write, and foregoing the development of a new version «would not diminish the formidable US nuclear deterrent in the least» and «could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons».

Perry said the move to build these new missiles reflects outdated, Cold-War thinking and would be «a grave mistake».

The mammoth costs of nuclear modernization prompted Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ask on May 19 at the Brookings Institution: «it is very, very, very expensive... Do we really need the entire triad, given the situation?»

It should be noted here that the US Air Force is significantly increasing the lethality of its conventionally armed cruise missiles. The service is purchasing an extended-range precision air-to-surface standoff cruise missile known as the JASSM-ER with a range of over 1,100 kilometers integrated onto the B-1, B-52, B-2, F-15E, F-16 aircraft and, likely, the new F-35 and long-range stealth multi-role fighter. It is planned to arm the JASSM-ER with a new computer-killing electronic attack payload. The technology is designed to have an effect similar to an electromagnetic pulse.

Funding for the LRSO program over the next 10-15 years will come at the expense of other costly Air Force priorities such as the acquisition of the KC-46A tanker, the F-35, and a replacement for the existing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system, a new fleet of Ohio-class nuclear submarines loaded with new missiles – a class of ships that’s be so expensive it must be funded outside of the Navy’s own budget – a new strategic nuclear bomber, a new land-based ICBM, new designs for nuclear warheads and new fuses for existing ones, and a new fleet of satellites to manage the entire deterrent.

Designed to deliver either a nuclear or a conventional warhead, the LRSO has a destabilizing nature. With the target country unable to tell whether it is under nuclear attack, these weapons increase the chances for miscalculation and the unintended escalation of a conflict to nuclear war. For instance, the United Kingdom rejected sea-based nuclear cruise missiles in 2013 because they carry too great a risk of «miscalculation and unintended escalation».

It brings to mind the well-known Norwegian rocket incident, also known as the Black Brant scare, which occurred on January 25, 1995, when a team of Norwegian and American scientists launched a Black Brant XII four-stage sounding rocket from the Andøya Rocket Range off the northwestern coast of Norway. During its flight, the rocket eventually reached an altitude of 1,453 kilometers (903 mi), resembling a US Navy submarine-launched Trident missile. As a result of the alert, Russian submarine commanders were ordered to go into a state of combat readiness and prepare for nuclear retaliation. With high tensions between Russia and NATO today, such a false alarm could lead to a nuclear conflict.

The weapon is also provocative as a first strike weapon, the only one to effectively target the opposing side’s ground-based ballistic missiles on trucks and trains. This mission cannot be carried out by ground- and submarine-based ballistic nuclear missiles and strategic bombers armed with gravity bombs.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev recognized the destabilizing nature of nuclear cruise missiles and prioritized the elimination of ground-launched versions in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Similarly, in 1991, President George HW Bush unilaterally ordered all sea-launched Tomahawk nuclear cruise missiles taken off surface ships and attack submarines and put into storage to be scrapped in 2011. In the April 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama pledged to seek a world without nuclear weapons. The New START agreement with Russia was a major breakthrough on the way. Since then there has been no progress achieved. Mr Obama has acknowledged that existing US and global nuclear weapons capabilities already provide more than enough nuclear killing power. Yet, his administration has to date pursued a costly, «all-of-the-above» plan to maintain and upgrade US nuclear forces at force levels that exceed nuclear deterrence requirements.

Obama’s legacy has become so tarnished in the nuclear arena that Barry Blechman, the founder of the Stimson Center, has actually called for the President to return his Nobel Peace Prize.

Barack Obama has failed to submit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the Senate for ratification reneging on the promise he made in his first month in office. No mutual understanding with Russia has been found regarding the ballistic missile defense – a major dividing issue hindering further arms control progress. It adds to refurbishing 180 tactical nuclear bombs stationed in Europe (B61s) considered by Russia as an attempt to acquire additional nuclear strike capability. The plans to acquire the $30 billion long-range standoff weapon, or LRSO, will also negatively affect he arms control process adding to the pile of the problems.

Once Congress commits to development of the LRSO, the program will be much harder to cancel. The LRSO genie does not even need to leave its bottle. This weapon is the wedge in the door to a new generation of nuclear weapons that are unnecessary and increase the danger of nuclear war, whether intended or accidental.

Spending bills for 2017 fully fund the request for the LRSO and associated warhead but President Obama still has time to remove the requirement or propose a delay. The issue will be a major challenge for the next administration as it conducts its own review of the US defense priorities. With the arms control efforts stalled, a dangerous arms race is looming. There is still time to stop it.