Asia Defense

US to Build New Stand-off Nuclear-Capable Cruise Missile

The new long-range nuclear-capable missile will replace the aging AGM-86B weapon system.

US to Build New Stand-off Nuclear-Capable Cruise Missile
Credit: U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded two separate $900-million contracts to Lockheed Martin Corporation and Raytheon Company for the development of the Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear-capable cruise missile, the Pentagon announced on August 23.

The contracts run until 2022, when the U.S. Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center will select a single contractor to build and deploy the new weapon system. The new weapons program is part of a multi-billion dollar effort to extend and modernize the U.S. arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles.

“This weapon will modernize the air-based leg of the nuclear triad,” said Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Heather Wilson. “Deterrence works if our adversaries know that we can hold at risk things they value. This weapon will enhance our ability to do so, and we must modernize it cost-effectively.”

The LRSO missile is expected to replace the nuclear-armed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), a weapon system first introduced in the 1980s during the height of the Cold War. “The aging ALCM will continue to face increasingly significant operational challenges against emerging threats and reliability challenges until replaced,” the U.S. Air Force said in a statement.

“The LRSO will be a reliable, long-ranging and survivable weapon system and an absolutely essential element of the nuclear triad,” Gen. Robin Rand, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, told the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee in May. “The LRSO missile will ensure the bomber force continues to hold high-value targets at risk in an evolving threat environment, including targets deep within an area-denied environment.”

Others are less convinced about the utility of the LRSO. “It’s got features which concern me greatly,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis during a recent appropriations meeting, according to The Washington Post. “I don’t see it as an effective deterrent weapon. I see Russia taking action to counter it.”

The U.S. Air Force expects to start fielding the new LRSO in the late 2020s. Program costs are estimated at around $20 billion. Overall, the U.S. Air Force is expected to buy up to 1,000 LRSOs.

The LRSO, purportedly capable of striking targets nearly 3,200 kilometers away, is to be launched from from long-range aircraft such as theB-52 Stratofortress, B-2 Spirit,and the top-secret new B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber. The B-21 will reportedly feature stealth capability, carry both conventional and nuclear weapons, and be optionally manned.  The USAF is expected to buy 80 to 100 B-21 bombers overall. Initial operating capability is set for 2025.