The U.S. Air Force yesterday awarded two $900 million contracts to Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to develop a new, nuclear-armed cruise missile. The Long Range Stand Off Weapon, or LRSO, is meant to modernize the offensive punch of American bombers, keeping even older planes such as the B-52 relevant. Critics, however, argue that as older nuclear cruise missiles age out they should not be replaced, as they increase the likelihood of a misunderstanding that could lead to nuclear war.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said about LRSO, ""This weapon will modernize the air-based leg of the nuclear triad. 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 United States Air Force will buy 1,000 LRSOs, which will equip the B-52H Stratofortress, B-2A Spirit, and forthcoming B-21 Raider bombers. (The B-1B bomber has been designated a conventional-only bomber and stripped of its capability to carry nuclear cruise missiles.) The Air Force believes the LRSO is critical to keeping the old, lumbering, non-stealthy B-52H in the country's nuclear arsenal. The B-52H currently operates the in the nuclear role, while the B-2A carries only B61 free-fall nuclear bombs. The B-21 Raider, when it comes to fruition many years from now, will probably carry everything.
The justification for nuclear cruise missiles is that in the event of a nuclear war, bombers can launch them toward distant targets without getting too close to enemy air defenses. A stealthy bomber armed with LRSOs could use them to , nuking fixed anti-air missile, radar, and command-and-control sites in its path before striking the final, main target. Non-stealthy bombers such as the B-52H could stand off at a distance and kick in the door for stealthy bombers (but would be unable to accompany the B-2A and B-21 into hostile enemy territory).
On the other hand, people including former Secretary of Defense William Perry charge that nuclear-tipped cruise missiles make accidental nuclear war more likely. (His new op-ed in the Washington Post is called, ".") They say that non-nuclear cruise missiles, which have been used since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, are now a regular part of conventional warfare. Here's a video of Russian nuclear-capable bombers launching Kh-101 cruise missiles (which also have nuclear variants) against targets in Syria:
The existence of nuclear cruise missiles ups the stakes in a conventional war, as an adversary observing a flight of cruise missiles on his radar screens does not know whether he is about to get hit with conventional or nuclear weapons. If the adversary assumes the worst case scenario, he may believe he should launch his own nuclear weapons in response, inadvertently starting a nuclear conflict.
As reported in FlightGlobal, the $1.8 billion dollar contracts will cover the technology development phase of the missile through 2022. Between now and 2022, the two defense contractors will start nailing down the technologies necessary to bring the missile to life, demonstrate critical technology in prototypes, and complete preliminary design. (For a PowerPoint-friendly, layman-unfriendly, brain-melting guide to the defense acquisition process, see .)
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