- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Cruise missiles — low-flying, precision-guided warhead delivery systems — revolutionized military strategy with their debut on the battlefield in the decades after World War II.

But with a new administration in Washington, the Air Force is stepping up its case for adopting what it calls a long-range standoff weapon to replace the aging air-launched cruise missile in order to maintain the strategic bomber leg of the nuclear triad.

It’s not just another weapons contract. Pentagon officials worry that all three legs of the classic nuclear triad, whether launched on land, underwater or in the skies, are showing serious signs of wear and tear.

The three legs of the triad, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and ballistic-launching nuclear submarines, are operating “decades beyond their design life,” Lt. Gen. James C. Dawkins Jr., the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, told a recent online discussion sponsored by The Heritage Foundation, while rivals such as China and Russia press ahead with major modernization plans.

“Nuclear threats to our nation are increasing,” Gen. Dawkins said. “We must have the ability to respond appropriately.”

The AGM-86B cruise missile has been in service since 1982 and is due to be retired in 2030.

Its anticipated replacement, the long-range standoff weapon, is a subsonic missile with a range of at least 1,500 miles and advanced stealth features designed to make it more survivable against enemy air defense systems, officials said.

Although the legs of the triad have shown signs of obsolescence, the strategic logic of having multiple ways to respond to a nuclear rival has not.

“Nuclear deterrence has served as the foundation for United States national security since 1945,” Gen. Dawkins said. “Our nuclear deterrence underwrites our diplomatic actions across the globe [and] backstops our conventional forces to allow them to have freedom of action.”

While Navy ballistic missile submarines are intended to be undetectable platforms for waging nuclear war, the Air Force’s fleet of nuclear-capable B-52H Stratofortress and B-2A Spirit bombers offer reassurance that U.S. deterrence is intact.

“No leg of the triad is expendable. Each provides capabilities,” Gen. Dawkins said.

The fabled B-52, which was announced a year after World War II came to an end, is expected to continue flying for 100 years before it is retired. But Pentagon planners say its crucial role as a nuclear-armed strategic bomber will be hampered without long-range standoff, officials said.

The B-52, which carries the current cruise missile, lacks the stealth capabilities of the B-2 Spirit or its eventual replacement, the B-21 Raider. It requires a standoff weapon — a weapon that can be launched at such a distance from the enemy target to evade defensive countermeasures — if it is to be an effective element of the nuclear triad, officials said.

“If you don’t have standoff weapons, you have to worry about air defenses. The bad guys are getting better and better at that,” said Peter Huessy, director of strategic defense studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“You don’t want to loiter inside the enemy airspace. You want to be able to loiter outside the enemy airspace,” Mr. Huessy said.

Showing its age

The AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile was designed in 1974 and has undergone several programs to extend its intended lifetime by almost 40 years. It is now being asked to outwit systems such as Russia’s new S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, which are among the most sophisticated in the world.

In some cases, Air Force weapons maintenance crews have to fabricate tools and parts because of the advanced age of cruise missiles.

Attempting one more upgrade won’t cut it, analysts say.

“For nuclear deterrence to be effective, it must be credible, and any further attempts to sustain [the air-launched cruise missile] would make it less so,” Patty-Jane Geller, a defense analyst at The Heritage Foundation, wrote in a report this month.

Ms. Geller said the long-range standoff weapon is relatively inexpensive, despite its importance to the nation’s defense. The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2021 budget request included $474.4 million for the long-range standoff weapon and $1 billion for W80-4 nuclear warheads.

“The Congressional Budget Office estimates the costs of the [long-range standoff weapon] and its W80-4 warhead will comprise about 2 percent of the total nuclear modernization and sustainment budget through 2046,” she wrote.

Gen. Dawkins said he doesn’t believe going forward with the long-range standoff weapon will usher in a new arms race.

“There are no new capabilities here. We’re just modernizing what we have based on presidential guidance,” he said.

The Biden administration faces a number of key policy and budgetary decisions on whether and how to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons system. In one sign of early continuity, the administration is retaining, for now, Charles Verdon as acting administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Air Force officials say they are heartened by the work so far on the long-range standoff weapon. A major engineering and manufacture development phase is expected to begin in May, nine months earlier than projected.

Gen. Dawkins said in his Heritage remarks that time is of the essence.

“We’ll basically rust our way into obsolescence. That’s the risk if we delay too long,” he said. “If we’re going to have a triad — that’s a political decision — we have to make sure it’s credible, it’s safe, it’s secure and it’s reliable.”

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