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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven Editor-in-Chief
Should major global powers be immersed in a high-stakes, dangerous escalation of tension, raising the possibility of a nuclear confrontation, could the existence of a long-range nuclear-armed cruise missile provide that unique additional variable necessary to keep the peace?
Such is the Air Force thinking when it comes to the current developmental trajectory for its emerging Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) -- a new, aircraft-launched nuclear cruise missile engineered to prevent nuclear conflict by holding enemy targets at risk potentially inaccessible to other methods of attack.
The LRSO "will allow the Air Force to ‘counter adversaries’ ever-improving integrated air defense with a lethal, tailorable, standoff nuclear strike capability,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, told an audience at a recent Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Nuclear Deterrence event, according to transcripts.
The LRSO will be operational by 2030, Goldfein said.
The weapon will provide commanders with a wider range of options, as a bomber-launched nuclear cruise missile brings the prospect of deterring nuclear attack without needing to have a stealth bomber actually penetrate the airspace. Naturally, this lowers risk and also increases the deterrence posture by virtue of letting a potential adversary know there are a wide range of methods through which a response might be possible. Interestingly, the existence of nuclear weapons, according to Goldfein and other U.S. Air Force senior leaders, - is entirely based upon the notion of deterrence -- bringing the prospect of massive destructive power to achieve the opposite effect - stopping nuclear war before it happens.
In the event of major nuclear attack on the US, a stand-off air-launched nuclear cruise missile may be among the few weapons able to retaliate and, as a result, function as an essential deterrent against a first-strike nuclear attack. The idea with deterrence is not so much to use nuclear weapons under threatening circumstances, but rather to provide Commanders and decision-makers with a range of options with which to prevent escalation, a concept recently articluated by Goldfein.
Service engineers and weapons architects have been working with industry partners concepts, configurations and prototypes for the weapon.
A 2018 Air Force Acquisition Report states that the LRSO is being designed to be compatible with the B-52 bomber and the B-21 Raider. Furthermore, the service report says that the Air Force will acquire 1,000 LRSOs. The program completed Systems Requirements and Systems Functional Reviews in 2018.
In 2017, the Air Force awarded two $900 million LRSO deals last year to both Raytheon and Lockheed Martin as a key step toward selecting one vendor for the next phase of the weapon's development. While many details of the weapons progress are not available naturally for security reasons, Air Force officials tell Warrior Maven that plans to move into the Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase are on track for 2022.
Senior Air Force leaders continue to argue that engineering new, modern Long-Range Standoff weapons with nuclear capability may be one of a very few assets, weapons or platforms able to penetrate emerging high-tech air defenses, depending upon the warfare scenario. Such an ability is, as a result, deemed crucial to nuclear deterrence and its principle aim - preventing major-power warfare.
“The United States has never had long-range nuclear cruise missiles on stealthy bombers,” Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists, told Warrior Maven last year, during an earlier phase of the weapon’s development.
“There may be defenses that are just too hard. They can be so redundant that penetrating bombers becomes a challenge. But with standoff (enabled by long-range LRSO), I can make holes and gaps to allow a penetrating bomber to get in,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, former Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, (and Current Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force) told the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in 2014.
At the same time, some experts are raising concerns as to whether a nuclear-armed cruise missile could blur crucial distinctions between conventional and nuclear attacks - therefore potentially increasing risk and lowering the threshold to nuclear warfare.
“We have never been in a nuclear war where escalation is about to happen and early-warning systems are poised to look for signs of surprise nuclear strikes. In such a scenario, a decision by a military power to launch a conventional attack - but the adversary expects and mistakenly interprets it as a nuclear attack - could contribute to an overreaction that escalates the crisis,” Kristensen said.
Potential for misinterpretation and unintended escalation is, Kristensen said, potentially compounded by the existence of several long-range conventional cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk and JASSM-ER. Also, in future years, more conventional cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons are likely to emerge as well, creating the prospect for further confusion among potential adversaries, he explained.
However, senior Air Force and Pentagon weapons developers, many of whom are strong advocates for the LRSO, believe the weapon will have the opposite impact of increasing prospects for peace -- by adding new layers of deterrence.
In fact, this kind of thinking is analogous to what is written in the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review which, among other things, calls for several new low-yield nuclear weapons options to increase deterrence amid fast-emerging threats.
The LRSO will be developed to replace the aging AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile or ALCM, currently able to fire from a B-52. The AGM-86B has far exceeded its intended life-span, having emerged in the early 1980s with a 10-year design life, Air Force statements said.
Unlike the ALCM which fires from the B-52, the LRSO will be configured to fire from B-21 bombers as well, service officials said; both the ALCM and LRSO are designed to fire both conventional and nuclear weapons.
While Air Force officials say that the current ALCM remains safe, secure and effective, it is facing sustainment and operational challenges against evolving threats, service officials also acknowledge.
“The ALCM is 25 years past its design life,” Goldfein said.
Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.