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"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Kingston Reif

Worth Deferring: A Sino-Japanese Plutonium Production Race | ACA-FPI Forum

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This forum, cohosted by the Arms Control Association and the Foreign Policy Initiative, addressed the emerging, “peaceful” nuclear rivalry between China, Japan and South Korea.

Japan has accumulated approximately 11 metric tons of separated plutonium—enough to make roughly 2,500 nuclear bombs—and plans to open a nuclear spent fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho in 2018 to strip enough plutonium from spent reactor fuel for an additional 1,500 nuclear warheads annually. China’s new five-year plan includes a proposal to import a reprocessing plant from France with the same capacity. South Korea, meanwhile, insists that it should have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan.

Speakers included :

  • Gordon Oehler, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Nonproliferation Center
  • Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
  • Mark Holt, specialist in energy policy at the Congressional Research Service
  • Christopher Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative
  • Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association

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This forum, cohosted by the Arms Control Association and the Foreign Policy Initiative, addressed the emerging, “peaceful” nuclear rivalry between China, Japan and South Korea.

Country Resources:

Obama Weighs Nuclear Options

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

As his time in office winds down, President Barack Obama is reviewing a number of proposals to advance the nuclear weapons risk agenda he first outlined in an April 2009 address in Prague, a senior White House official said on June 6.

“[O]ur work is not done on this issue,” said Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington.

According to Rhodes, the different categories of options under consideration include further reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nondeployed, or reserve, nuclear warheads; “additional steps” to lessen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear use; reaffirming “the international norm against” nuclear explosive testing; and putting “more nuclear material under appropriate monitoring.” 

In addition, Rhodes said the president would continue to evaluate current plans to ramp up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and also decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” (See ACT, May 2016.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate and House armed services committees in March that he “expects the total cost of nuclear modernization to be in the range of $350-450 billion.” 

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modern-ization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes said. 

He added that the modernization plans were “developed” early in the administration’s first term “when we...anticipated a different budgetary picture going forward, particularly with respect to our defense budget.” 

Congress in 2011 passed the Budget Control Act, which mandated reductions in projected spending in the Defense and Energy departments through the end of the decade. 

Rhodes did not specify a timeline for when the president would make a decision on whether to pursue any of the options under consideration and, if so, when he would announce such a decision.

Rhodes noted that the president would continue to speak publicly about nuclear weapons issues, as he did during his visit to Hiroshima on May 27. (See ACT, June 2016.)

Obama delivered his first major foreign policy address as president on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in Prague on April 5, 2009. The speech outlined his vision for strengthening global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and moving forward on practical, immediate steps “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

In highlighting what the administration has accomplished since the speech, Rhodes touted “substantial progress in securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world” as a result of the nuclear security summit process, measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, the negotiation and U.S. Senate approval of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. 

Rhodes acknowledged “other areas...where more work needs to be done.” 

He said the administration has failed to stop “the advance of North Korea’s nuclear program,” achieve further nuclear weapons reductions beyond New START, and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

President Barack Obama is reviewing a number of proposals to advance the nuclear weapons risk agenda he outlined in an April 2009 address in Prague. 

UAE Still Committed to Nuclear Pact

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) remains committed to its obligation under a 2009 agreement with Washington not to enrich or reprocess nuclear material, the country’s ambassador to the United States said on May 31. 

Despite reports to the contrary, “we are not planning to change our position,” said Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba at an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 

The UAE’s support for refraining from enrichment and reprocessing was called into question last September, when Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a congressional hearing that Al Otaiba told him the UAE “no longer felt bound by the agreement” in the aftermath of the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. 

Royce said the ambassador “indicated to us…your worst enemy [Iran] has achieved this right to enrich...that now your friends are going to want.” 

The 2015 accord permits Tehran to enrich uranium, although under significant constraints.

In the UAE pact, known as a 123 agreement after the section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act that makes such pacts a prerequisite for U.S. nuclear trade with other countries, Abu Dhabi’s pursuit of enrichment and reprocessing would be grounds for the United States to halt nuclear cooperation with the country, an unprecedented provision in U.S. cooperation agreements.

A Department of State spokesman in 2010 referred to the pact as the “gold standard” of 123 agreements. 

“We like being associated with the gold standard,” Al Otaiba said at Brookings. “In fact,” he continued, “we adopted this gold standard particularly to be used as a model going forward.” 

Meanwhile, on May 26, Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to tighten regulations on U.S. nuclear exports to China and hold Beijing accountable for any violation of the 2015 U.S.-China 123 agreement. 

Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced a companion version of the bill, titled the China Nuclear Cooperation and Nonproliferation Act of 2016, in the House of Representatives. 

The draft bills would require U.S. authorization before China re-exports “U.S.-origin” nuclear technology to other countries and the energy secretary to issue a definition of items that fall into this category. 

In addition, the legislation would require the president to monitor China’s compliance with the 2015 agreement and determine if China fails to prevent the transfer of proliferation-sensitive items to countries of concern. If such violations are deemed to have occurred, the president must suspend cooperation with Beijing until a plan of action to address these behaviors is developed and implemented. 

The bills would also prohibit the provision of U.S. consent for Chinese reprocessing of U.S. spent nuclear fuel unless the president certifies that fissile material is adequately safeguarded and protected.

The 30-year agreement with China entered into force last October and replaces an agreement signed in 1985. Unlike the 1985 deal, the current pact would grant each party “advance consent,” as specialists call it, to reprocess nuclear material transferred under the agreement and used in or produced through the use of transferred material or equipment. (See ACT, May 2015.)

In the past, U.S. officials have raised concerns about China’s nonproliferation record. For example, China is building reactors in Pakistan at that country’s Chashma site, which U.S. officials have said contravenes commitments that China made when it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004. (See ACT, June 2010.

In a press release announcing introduction of the legislation, Markey said the “agreement with China will only serve America’s interests if it is accompanied by appropriate restrictions and strong monitoring for violations.” 

“Without these safeguards, transferring nuclear technology to China will jeopardize both United States national security and the global nonproliferation regime,” he added.

The United Arab Emirates remains committed to its obligation under a 2009 agreement with Washington not to enrich or reprocess nuclear material.

Pentagon Completes Missile Defense Study

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department announced in May that it completed a draft study of three possible locations in the eastern United States for a new ballistic missile defense interceptor site, but said it still has no plans to actually build such a site.

The draft environmental impact statement, which was posted on the website of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) on May 31, said that the Defense Department “does not propose and has not made a decision to deploy or construct an additional interceptor site.”

“Any deployment decision would be based on the analysis of the ballistic missile threat to the U.S., system performance and operational effectiveness, site constructability, affordability, and potential environmental impacts,” the study said. 

The program to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, consists of interceptor sites in Alaska and California.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that the estimated $3-4 billion price tag of a third interceptor site would be better spent to upgrade the existing GMD system.

The draft environmental study narrowed an initial list of 457 Defense Department-owned locations throughout the continental United States down to three potential candidate locations. 

The three sites are Fort Drum in New York, Camp Ravenna Joint Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan. 

For each site, the study assessed the impact of factors such as hazardous materials and hazardous waste management, health and safety, socioeconomics, water quality, and environmental justice.

The draft environmental impact statement took approximately 18 months to complete. The Defense Department held several meetings in June for the public to gain additional information and comment on the draft. Based on this input and input from other government agencies, the department will issue a final version of the statement later this year. 

In the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Defense Department to conduct a study to evaluate at least three possible new long-range interceptor sites that could augment the GMD system, including at least two on the East Coast. 

The fiscal year 2016 defense authorization bill requires the Pentagon to designate a preferred location for a third site within a month of the completion of the draft environmental impact study. (See ACT, November 2015.)

Leah Garton, deputy director of public affairs at the MDA, told Arms Control Today in a June 28 email that the Defense Department does not plan to name a preferred location until it completes the final environmental impact statement. 

This will allow the MDA “to consider comments” on the draft environmental impact statement “from the public and regulatory agencies,” she added.

The Defense Department announced in May that it completed a draft study of three possible locations in the eastern United States for a new ballistic missile defense interceptor site...

Air Force Clarifies New ICBM Plans

July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force is not planning to pursue a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would have the capability to be deployed on mobile launchers, according to service officials.

In a May email exchange with Arms Control Today, Maj. Robert Leese, an Air Force spokesperson, said the service is pursuing a replacement missile that is “silo-based.”

“[I]f a mobile ICBM is pursued, it would require different design elements than what is being asked for” in the current replacement program, he added.

Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, told reporters in a June 1 meeting at the Pentagon that “right now we are not looking” at a mobile Minuteman III follow-on.

Arms Control Today reported in April that the service planned to seek a replacement for the existing silo-based Minuteman III ICBM system that could be shifted to a mobile platform in the future. (See ACT, April 2016.) The replacement is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

In response to questions regarding whether the Air Force intended to pursue mobile-capable missiles, Leese said in a March 7 email that the GBSD design “will provide the option for alternative modes of operation in the future.”

Pentagon officials have in the past endorsed the concept of building a replacement for the Minuteman III that could be put on a mobile launcher. 

In a September 2014 speech in Washington, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said, “[What] we want to be able to do is develop a system that would give us an option later on to go back and revisit what is the right basing mode.”

“Certainly with the system we have today, you can’t do that,” he added. 

InsideDefense.com reported on April 15 that the Air Force planned to explore additional mobile command-and-control centers for the GBSD system to enhance its survivability.

Minuteman III missiles are dispersed in hardened silos to protect against attack and connected to an underground launch control center through a system of hardened cables. In the event communication between the missiles and launch control center is lost, specially configured E-6B airborne launch control center aircraft automatically assume command and control of the isolated missile or missiles.

The current Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III calls for procuring 642 replacement missiles and rebuilding the existing missile infrastructure, including command and control, at an estimated acquisition cost of $62.3 billion over the next 30 years. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

The U.S. Air Force is not planning to pursue a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would have the capability to be deployed on mobile launchers, according to service officials.

New Report Calls for Russia and the West to Move Back from the Brink

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For Immediate Release: June 21, 2016

Media Contacts: Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104; Ulrich Kuehn, Researcher, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, University of Hamburg, +49 (1) 76 811219 75

(Mosow, Berlin, Washington)—A new report from a high-level group of international security experts from Russia, the United States, and Germany recommends that the West and Russia build on a number of existing arms control and confidence-building measures in order to avoid further exacerbation of the increasingly tense and dangerous relationship between Russia and the West, particularly along the border between Russia and NATO member states.

The third report of the Deep Cuts Commission describes 15 key recommendations to help address the most acute security concerns in Europe—particularly in the Baltic area—and increase U.S.-Russian nuclear transparency and predictability.

“The prime objective for the next few years should be limiting the potential for dangerous military incidents that can escalate out of control,” the authors argue. “Russia and the West must come back from the brink. They need to better manage their conflictual relationship. Restraint and dialogue are now needed more than ever,” they write.

The Commission’s recommendations include:

    • In order to reduce current security concerns in the Baltic area, NATO and Russia should initiate a dialogue on possible mutual restraint measures. All states should adhere to the NATO-Russia Founding Act. A NATO-Russia dialogue should aim at increasing the security of all states in the Baltic area by encompassing reciprocal and verifiable commitments. A sub-regional arms control regime could consist of interlocking elements such as restraint commitments, limitations, CSBMs, and a sub-regional Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism.
    • In light of the increasing dangers of military incidents between Russia, the United States and other NATO member states, the United States and Russia should revive a dialogue on nuclear risk reduction measures, capable of addressing risks posed by different sorts of emergencies in near real-time. The United States and Russia could consider creating a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Such a cell could be linked to or established in parallel with a new European Risk Reduction Center.
    • States-parties to the Treaty on Open Skies should pay more attention to the continued operation of Open Skies. They should strengthen its operation by devoting equal resources to upgrading observation equipment.
    • Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) participating States should consider measures to give effect to the principle of non-intervention into internal affairs. For this purpose, the OSCE could set up a commission which would carefully look into the issue from a legal point of view and explore possibilities for a new OSCE states-based mechanism. Beyond, OSCE participating States should prepare for a long-term endeavor leading to a Helsinki-like conference with the aim of reinvigorating and strengthening Europe’s guiding security principles.
    • The United States and Russia should commit to attempting to resolve each other’s compliance concerns with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by supplementing ongoing diplomatic dialogue with technical expertise, either by convening the Special Verification Commission or a separate bilateral experts group mandated to appropriately address all relevant treaty-related compliance concerns. Further on, the United States and Russia should address the issue of supplementing the treaty by taking account of technological and political developments that have occurred since the treaty’s entry into force.
    • The United States and Russia should address the destabilizing effects of nuclear-armed cruise missile proliferation by agreeing on specific confidence-building measures. Together with other nations, they should address the challenges of horizontal cruise missile proliferation by reinforcing the relevant Missile Technology Control Regime’s restrictions and by endorsing the inclusion of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles/unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UAVs/UCAVs) in the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.
    • Moscow and Washington should exercise restraint in Russian and U.S. nuclear force modernization programs, remaining within the New START limits and acting consistent with the intent of the treaty. The United States should forego development of the LRSO and Russia should reciprocate by phasing-out of new nuclear-armed ALCMs. The United States should show restraint in ballistic missile deployments consistent with its policy of defending against limited threats. NATO should follow through on its commitment to adapt its ballistic missile deployments in accordance with reductions in the ballistic missile proliferation threats.

    • Russia and the United States should work toward early discussions on a possible follow-on strategic arms reduction treaty. They should be able to envision reductions to a level of 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 1,000 deployed strategic warheads during the next decade. These discussions should explore options for exchanging measures of reciprocal restraint and seek to address other issues of mutual concern under a combined umbrella discussion of strategic stability.

Beyond these recommendations, the experts identify a number of additional measures which could foster confidence in and maintain focus on the goal of further nuclear disarmament.

The complete report is available online.

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

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The West and Russia need to build on existing arms control measures to avoid exacerbation of the increasingly tense relationship between them, according to a group of international security experts.

Country Resources:

Examining the Flawed Rationale for a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile

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Volume 8, Issue 2, June 12, 2016

The debate about the necessity and affordability of the Obama administration’s half trillion dollar plan to modernize the nuclear triad of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers–and their associated warheads and supporting infrastructure–continues to escalate.

The mammoth costs of nuclear modernization prompted Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ask on May 19 at the Brookings Institution: “it is very, very, very expensive... Do we really need the entire triad, given the situation?”

President Barack Obama has acknowledged that existing U.S. and global nuclear weapons capabilities already provide more than enough nuclear killing power. Yet, his administration has to date pursued a costly, “all-of-the-above” plan to maintain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces at force levels that exceed nuclear deterrence requirements.

One of the most controversial pieces of this approach is the Air Force’s proposal to build a new fleet of roughly 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and refurbish the warhead for the weapon. The replacement is known as the long-range standoff cruise missile, or LRSO.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed an amendment to the fiscal year (FY) 2017 national defense authorization act that would delay development of the new cruise missile and warhead by one year to allow further consideration of the programs. While the Senate is unlikely to debate or vote on the amendment, the Senate and House of Representatives could consider amendments on the issue again later this month when each body takes up the FY 2017 defense appropriations bill.

For its part, the Obama administration appears content to pass on the growing fiscal challenge posed by its nuclear modernization project to its successor.

However, Ben Rhodes, the assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said at the Arms Control Association annual meeting on June 6, that the President recognizes the enormous budget challenge posed by the plans and will continue to review them “as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor.”

Regardless of what happens during the remainder of the Obama administration, the next president will likely face a number of increasingly urgent questions about the modernization effort, including its need, affordability, opportunity costs, impact on global security, and more.

In other words, the debate about modernization, and in particular the new cruise missile, has just begun.

The Defense Department and supporters of replacing the nuclear ALCM in Congress and the think tank community have circulated a number of materials in response to Markey’s amendment and other efforts to raise doubts about the rationale for the new missile.

The following is a rebuttal to some of the top arguments made in favor of the program.

A closer examination of the issue makes it clear that the LRSO is redundant, lacks a unique mission, could have a destabilizing effect, and is not worth its estimated $20-$30 billion acquisition cost.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Maintain the Air-Leg of the Triad

Proponents argue that air-launched cruise missiles extend the range of strategic bombers and complicate an adversary’s air defense problem. The LRSO will ensure the country has an air-leg of the triad that can penetrate enemy airspace as adversaries enhance and expand their air defense capabilities, they say.

It is important to remember that the United States first fielded a nuclear ALCM in the early 1980s at a time when the country did not have stealth bombers or advanced conventional cruise missiles and sought an additional nuclear system with which to deter and impose costs on the Soviet Union. None of these conditions exist today.

According to Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological matters, had the United States procured even half of the 132 B-2 bombers it had originally planned to build during the late 1980s and early 1990s (the Air Force ultimately bought 21), the Pentagon would have retired the current ALCM and removed the B-52H from the nuclear mission years ago.

The range of America’s existing strategic bombers is being extended by increasingly advanced long-range conventionally-armed air-launched cruise missiles. The planned introduction of 80-100 B-21 strategic bombers, which will be armed with the modernized B61 mod 12 gravity bomb, conventionally armed cruise missiles such as the JASSM-ER, and electronic warfare capabilities for air defense suppression, will further enhance the range of the bomber leg.

Together these improvements will make the bomber leg of the triad much more formidable than it is today. The B-21 is projected to be able to penetrate enemy airspace for decades after its initial fielding in the mid-2020s, which begs the question of why a new ALCM is urgently needed now. Even if the survivability of the B-21 is called into question in the future, the Pentagon has yet to demonstrate that the LRSO, which is being procured at the same time as the B-21, will be inherently more survivable or that a B-21 armed with conventional air-launched cruise missiles won’t be able to blow holes in air defenses. If the Air Force believes the stealth of the B-21 could be compromised soon after it is deployed, the service shouldn’t procure it in the first place.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Deter Limited Nuclear Escalation, Nor Should We Want It for Waging Limited Nuclear War

Proponents argue that new air-launched cruise missiles would provide low-yield nuclear war-fighting options for responses to limited adversary attack, which is important for escalation control and maintaining a credible deterrent.

In reality, U.S. nuclear capabilities would remain highly credible and flexible even without a nuclear ALCM. The arsenal includes other weapons that can produce more “limited” effects, most notably the B61 gravity bomb. Moreover, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warheads could be configured to produce limited effects at a lower cost than the LRSO and its warhead, if necessary.

Regardless, has the U.S. intelligence community produced an assessment showing that failing to replace the current ALCM would increase the risk of limited adversarial nuclear use? Under what scenario has the intelligence community concluded that an adversary might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using a higher-yield ICBM or SLBM in response to limited nuclear use?

More importantly, the notion that the use of nuclear weapons can be fine-tuned to carefully control a nuclear war is very dangerous thinking. It is highly unlikely that an adversary on the receiving end of a U.S. nuclear strike would (or could) distinguish between a large warhead and a small warhead. The fog of war is thick. The fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. Large or small, nuclear weapons are extremely blunt instruments, both in terms of their destructive power and the taboo associated with the fact they have not been used in 70 years.

Finally, under what scenario could one ALCM or LRSO reliably circumvent the most sophisticated adversarial air defense capabilities and destroy a target that a B-21-borne gravity bomb or conventional cruise missile could not? If such a scenario does not exist, and the United States needed to launch more nuclear cruise missiles to ensure penetration, how would such a strategy not unavoidably escalate the conflict?

The LRSO Would Be a Costly “Hedge on a Hedge”

Proponents argue that ALCMs (and later the LRSO) complement the nuclear triad and will provide an important and rapidly uploadable hedge against technical problems with the sea and ground based legs of the triad. They also argue that the weapon allows the military to take advantage of the counting rules in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which counts each strategic bomber as one launcher and one warhead, regardless of the number of cruise missiles and gravity bombs they can carry.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But how much added deterrence value do air-launched cruise missiles actually provide in the minds of potential adversaries?

The weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–namely, SLBMs and ICBMs–can penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence. The United States possesses far more warheads for these missiles than does Russia and could upload hundreds of warheads to its deployed ballistic missiles and bombers. In addition, the Navy’s sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile is also a highly capable and continually improving conventional standoff weapon, and it has an even longer range than the JASSM-ER.

Has the military identified possible technical or other problems that could compromise the sea and ground based legs of the triad? What specific targets cannot be effectively and credibly held at risk by other nuclear and standoff weapons, together with gravity bombs, that could only be held at risk by the current ALCM and later, the LRSO force? How large and unique is that target set?

The Defense Department believes SLBMs, ICBMs and gravity bombs have different characteristics than ALCMs and are not perfect substitutes. At least a portion of the total ALCM force can also be more quickly uploaded to the deployed force than non-deployed ballistic missile warheads. (Note: nuclear ALCMs are not deployed on B-52H bombers on a day-to-day basis. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota armed with the W80-1 nuclear warhead.)

Yet as Hans Kristensen with the Federation of the American Scientists notes, “the bottom line for an effective nuclear deterrent is the credible capability to hold at risk the targets that an adversary values most.” On the issue of timing, how essential for deterrence is the quicker generation time for ALCMs? It is also important not to forget that B61 bombs can be rapidly uploaded to the B-2 and later the B-21.

Finally, regarding the New START bomber counting rule, it has been reported that the United States originally preferred an agreement that would count the actual number of nuclear bombs and ALCMs at air bases for use by bombers, but compromised and agreed to a discount rule that attributes each deployed bomber as one warhead. If such an agreement had been reached would reductions in the ALCM force have been required? There have also been reports that the United States was prepared to go lower than the 1,550 accountable warhead cap in the treaty.

Russia’s Actions Do Not Require Pursuit of a Costly New ALCM

Some LRSO advocates suggest that because Russia is fielding nuclear and conventional cruise missiles on aircraft, submarines, and surface ships, the United States must retain a nuclear cruise missile option.

Such arguments ignore the fact that the United States did not acquire the ALCM because the Soviet Union had such a capability, and it does not maintain or need to replace the ALCM because Russia has nuclear cruise missiles. It is not in the U.S. interest to engage in a new tit-for-tat arms race with the Russians to rebuild an excessively large nuclear force. This is especially true if it comes at the expense of needed conventional improvements that are more relevant to countering Russia and maintaining America’s military technological edge.

Questions about ALCM's Role in Current U.S. Strategy

Proponents consider a new ALCM necessary to maintain an effective U.S. nuclear deterrent because the current missile is losing its ability to penetrate increasingly sophisticated air and missile defenses.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the existing ALCM have stated that the reliability of the missile is not assured over the next ten years and that there are serious restrictions on the current use of the ALCM due to reliability issues. This suggests that the current ALCM could play more of a "backup" role in U.S. nuclear planning. Consequently, it would be imprudent to spend $20 billion or more to build a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile that could increase the role these weapons play in U.S. policy.

The Imaginary Strategic Bomber Gap

Some advocates of the LRSO erroneously claim that without the new weapon, a strategic bomber "capability gap" will emerge in the late 2020s and last for at least a decade. They argue that because the B-21 bomber will not be available in sufficient numbers for the nuclear mission until the 2040s, the U.S. military will need to continue to use B-52Hs armed with LRSOs until then.

It is important to keep in mind that LRSO production is slated to begin in 2026 and reach only initial operating capability by 2030. It will be several years later before full operating capability is achieved.

In contrast, the B-21 is slated to achieve an initial operating capability in 2025, with nuclear certification to follow two years later. The initial capability could include as many as 24 planes.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced a full production rate of 7-8 B-21s per year. Assuming the United States continues to deploy no more than 60 nuclear capable strategic bombers (as it currently plans to do under the New START treaty), the B-52 may need to be removed from the nuclear mission as soon as the early to mid-2030s in order to accommodate the B-21.

In sum, the current bomber force will provide a more than formidable capability and would become even more potent when the B-21 is fielded with the B61 mod 12 and advanced conventional cruise missiles. Fears of a "bomber capability gap" are misplaced.

The New LRSO Would Create New Military Capabilities and Could Prompt Countermeasures

Proponents of the LRSO claim that it would simply sustain an existing capability, not expand that capability. They claim the new missile will not be used for new military missions and air-launched cruise missiles would not pose a destabilizing first-strike threat to potential U.S. nuclear adversaries.

In reality, the president’s nuclear modernization program is vastly increasing the military capability of U.S. nuclear weapons, including the bomber leg, across key attributes such as stealth, accuracy, range, and speed. The LRSO is likely to have greatly enhanced capabilities relative to its predecessor, and will be mated to the B-52H, B-2 and B-21 bombers, whereas the current ALCM can only be delivered by the B-52H. U.S. nuclear stealth bombers have never carried stealthy nuclear cruise missiles.

The LRSO raises serious questions about stability that have yet to be fully explored. Some sources have revealed that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond "the original mission space" of the ALCM, namely in limited nuclear war-fighting contingencies involving China. Some supporters of the LRSO emphasize its utility for achieving tactical surprise in combat.

Furthermore, as stressed by William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Weber, "cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon" due to the fact that "they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants." The possible risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation posed by the LRSO requires far more scrutiny than blithe assertions from administration officials that the missile won’t upset stability.

Bottom Line

While it is uncertain what the military budget will look like a decade from now, there will likely be insufficient funding for the complete portfolio of proposed nuclear and conventional modernization goals. This will force the U.S. government to choose between the nuclear effort and other military priorities.

As senior White House officials have noted, the current "modernization plan was put together in a different budget environment, with a different Congress and varied expectations about our future arms control efforts. Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades. And the President will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor."

The estimated $20-$30 billion cost to buy the LRSO and W80-4 would be much better spent on other parts of U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear mission areas.

The choice is clear: chart a more realistic path for the nuclear arsenal that doesn’t severely constrain the force-sizing options of future presidents and reduces the risk of doing serious damage to conventional capabilities and other national security programs.

As an early step in this course correction, the Pentagon should cancel its new cruise missile program and prioritize continued investments in the other legs of the nuclear triad and more relevant and usable non-nuclear capabilities, including longer-range conventional cruise missiles and other advanced air defense suppression tools.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

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A close examination of the proposed long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) reveals that it would be redundant, lack a unique mission, and could have a destabilizing effect with potential adversaries.

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