Editor's Note: This essay is featured in our new report, "10 Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President" (pdf).
The Defense Department has proposed to build a new, powerful nuclear cruise missile called the Long-Range Standoff weapon (LRSO). In our opinion, this weapon is unnecessary, incredibly expensive and would move the United States closer to actually using a nuclear weapon — an unthinkable action.
The LRSO would be a new nuclear weapon. It would have a significantly upgraded nuclear warhead capable of immense destruction and the missile itself will possess added military capability, for example the capacity to evade the world’s most advanced air defense systems. Its early development has already been funded, even though it has received very little debate in the administration and in Congress and is largely unknown to the general public. This is unfortunate — and in our opinion very dangerous — and we believe the LRSO must receive additional scrutiny and public debate.
The LRSO would be part of a proposed 30-year, $1 trillion plan to overhaul the entire nuclear weapons enterprise. However, this proposal is neither affordable, executable nor advisable in order to maintain an effective and reliable nuclear deterrent.
We are convinced that the LRSO creates unnecessary risks of miscalculation in a conflict, lowers the threshold for nuclear use, is not necessary to preserve nuclear deterrence and will draw scarce resources away from other nuclear assets and advanced conventional capabilities. We are calling on the next administration and our colleagues in Congress to carefully reexamine the need for the LRSO and weigh any potential value against the risks this new weapon would create.
During the Cold War, the United States built air-launched nuclear cruise missiles to defeat advancing air-defense systems. Rather than sending large, lumbering aircraft like the B-52 into harm’s way, bombers could launch nuclear cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away. These nuclear cruise missiles also had the added advantage of forcing the Soviet Union to build expensive air defenses along its borders, siphoning money from other military capabilities.
Today, the United States has multiple penetrating bombers and fighters capable of avoiding enemy air defenses, including the B-2, the new F-35 and eventually the B-21. All three platforms will be capable of dropping nuclear gravity bombs such as the B61, which itself is now being modernized by the Energy Department.
Because the United States will have multiple ways of employing nuclear weapons from the air, including from a stealthy new bomber, another expensive standoff weapon capable of being launched at an enemy from tremendous distance is not needed. Even if future enemy air defenses were able to hold our stealth fighters and bombers at bay, the United States could still reliably respond to nuclear aggression with hundreds of ballistic missiles, for which there is no defense.
However, maintaining nuclear deterrence may not be the primary motivation for developing the LRSO. In a letter sent two years ago, Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall wrote the following ominous sentence: “Beyond deterrence, an LRSO-armed bomber force provides the president with uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis.” Such an approach is risky and not advisable.
We firmly believe that the only legitimate reason to maintain nuclear weapons is deterrence. Nuclear weapons are not and must not become “flexible options” for use in nuclear warfighting as an alternative to the use of conventional weapons.
Building a new nuclear weapon that provides such flexibility risks undermining deterrence by introducing uncertainty into an adversary’s decision-making. For example, Congress has mandated that the LRSO be both conventionally and nuclear-armed. In the event of a conflict, an adversary could plausibly mistake the launch of a conventional cruise missile at a great distance for a nuclear weapon, sparking an accidental nuclear exchange.
The fact is that employing the LRSO as a warfighting weapon in a limited nuclear exchange could cause unintended, rapid escalation toward all-out nuclear war. Referring to Russia’s dangerous doctrine of “escalating to de-escalate,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work testified before the House Armed Services Committee on June 25, 2015, that, “Anyone who thinks that they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”
The United States must maintain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear deterrent. However, developing a new generation of nuclear cruise missiles would unnecessarily siphon limited resources from preserving nuclear deterrence without adding to our national security.
Those resources could be better used to build the Navy’s next generation of ballistic missile submarines, the most survivable leg of the nuclear triad, and to develop the Air Force’s B-21 strategic bomber, which would play a role in both conventional and nuclear missions.
To date, Congress has appropriated $223 million for the Air Force to begin development of the LRSO and for the Energy Department’s early work on refurbishing the W80 warhead. In fiscal year 2017, the president requested an additional $315 million, which both the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees have agreed to fully fund.
According to estimates provided by the Defense and Energy departments, the cost to complete the LRSO will be approximately $20 billion. Congress will be asked to fully fund this new weapon during the height of an estimated $1 trillion nuclear modernization program that includes investments in new long-range stealth bombers, ballistic missile submarines, ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable fighters, as well as modernize the associated nuclear warheads and infrastructure, including increasing nuclear warhead production capacity across the nuclear complex.
We believe it would be far wiser to invest in our conventional standoff capabilities, such as the Air Force’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile and the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile. Both of these weapons can precisely attack targets from hundreds of miles away and will not risk crossing the threshold to a nuclear exchange, starting an uncontrolled escalation into an all-out nuclear war, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, or producing radioactive fallout that would irreparably damage the planet.
Congress would be wise to follow the recommendation of the last nuclear posture review, which stated that the United States will “reduce the role of US nuclear weapons in US national security strategy” by strengthening our conventional military capabilities, and at a minimum conducting an analysis of alternatives for the nuclear cruise missile that includes conventional capabilities.
Reconsidering or delaying the LRSO would provide us an opportunity to realistically assess how we can best support our national security priorities. Doing so would help us strengthen our ability to deter nuclear attack by maintaining effective nuclear forces, reduce the risk of an accidental or unintended nuclear war and freeing up vital resources to invest in the conventional capabilities that we need to protect American interests across the globe.
Senator Dianne Feinstein is the senior United States Senator from California, and the ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Representative Adam Smith is a member of the United States House of Representatives from the State of Washington, and is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Photo: Nuclear-capable B-52 flying over clouds. US Air Force photo.