- Raytheon will build a new, nuclear-tipped cruise missile for the U.S. Air Force.
- The Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) missile will arm Air Force strategic bombers.
- LRSO will have the range to make even B-52s effective nuclear platforms.
The U.S. Air Force has awarded Raytheon a contract to develop the service’s next-generation stealth cruise missile. The Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) missile will arm B-21 Raider and B-52 Stratofortress bombers, allowing them to launch missiles against targets without penetrating enemy airspace.
The Air Force flies two types of nuclear-capable bombers: the B-2 Spirit and B-52H Stratofortress. (The B-1 Lancer is no longer capable of carrying nukes and is now a conventional munitions-only bomber.) The bombers are armed with two kinds of nuclear weapons: the B61 and B83 free-fall gravity bombs, as well as the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).
While free-fall bombs typically have large explosive yields (the B83 has a yield of 1,300 kilotons, for example), the bomber must overfly the target. On the plus side, bomber crews can cancel the drop at the last minute. Bombers can launch the ALCM at targets up to 1,500 miles away, but enemies can shoot the cruise missile down. A cruise missile also takes up to 2 hours to reach its target, and it can’t be recalled during that time.
In the 1970s, nuclear bombers were on the verge of extinction. Advances in long-range air defense missiles and high-speed interceptors such as the Soviet MiG-25 made big, lumbering bombers like the B-52 sitting ducks in enemy airspace. But cruise missiles— effectively small, unmanned airplanes powered by turbofan engines, and low-flying to evade radar—allow bombers to launch against enemy targets long before they’re under threat.
A B-52, for example, could fire a salvo of ALCMs far from Soviet airspace, targeting enemy air defense installations. The B-52 could use ALCMs to blast a path to its main target, nuking MiGs on runways, radar sites, and enemy headquarters while remaining safely out of reach. Once the path is clear, the B-52 can then infiltrate enemy airspace and finally drop a high-yield gravity bomb on the target.
Cruise missiles are critical to the usefulness of bombers in a nuclear war. Without them, bombers would probably have to withdraw from the nuclear triad, removing a key capability—the ability to recall or cancel a nuclear strike—from America’s nuclear toolbox.
The Air Force has relied on the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile since the 1970s. Like any aging technology, the missile is increasingly difficult to maintain. The ALCM also lacks radar-evading stealth technology that would make it more difficult to detect by enemy defenses, increasing its likelihood of reaching its target.
LRSO, then, will be a stealthy missile with about the same range of 1,500 miles. The missile will also use the W80-4 thermonuclear warhead, a refurbished version of the older W80-1 thermonuclear warhead, with a customizable yield of 5 to 150 kilotons.
The new cruise missile is controversial. In 2015, a number of key U.S. Senators asked then-U.S. President Barack Obama to cancel the LRSO, saying the new missile was unnecessary given the development of the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and the forthcoming B-21 Raider bomber. Others warn that LRSO is “unnecessary” and “destabilizing.”
So, does the Air Force need its new stealth cruise missile? If it wants to keep the bomber leg of the nuclear triad, then the answer is yes. A B-21 Raider without cruise missiles would have to overfly every target to destroy it, a requirement that would dangerously expose the bomber and potentially add hours to a combat mission.
If such a bomber is tasked with destroying an enemy communications or headquarters site that transmits orders to launch more missiles, it could arrive at the target too late to interrupt the enemy’s plans—if it arrives at all.
In an ideal world, the U.S. could bargain with the other nuclear powers to gradually reduce—and even eliminate—nuclear weapons worldwide. An adversary must, however, recognize that America’s nukes are a threat in order to want to bargain to get rid of them.
Building LRSO isn’t the end of the world … but using them is. Between those two points, the U.S. can trade nuclear missiles away in exchange for missiles in Russia or China targeting this country.
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