Expert Commentary

Stealthy New Nuclear Cruise Missile Aims to Deter the Enemy

Lieutenant General (Ret.) David Deptula
Dean, Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies

America’s strategic bomber force is comprised of some of the Air Force’s oldest aircraft. The B-52 has served since the 1950s and will remain a valuable aircraft for decades more. However, this is contingent on developing the Long Range Standoff cruise missile to replace the aging Air-Launched Cruise Missile. This new cruise missile will have the range and targeting accuracy to keep the B-52 out of harm’s way in the face of increasingly advanced countermeasures and ensure the B-52 remains a credible piece of the United States nuclear deterrent.

The LRSO will also increase the versatility of more advanced aircraft, such as the B-2, F-35, and the forthcoming B-21. Though the LRSO would add more capabilities, critics warn these capabilities and associated costs are unnecessary, and the LRSO could instead compel adversaries to develop new weapons or countermeasures of their own.

The Cipher Brief’s Will Edwards asked Air Force Lt. Gen. (ret) David Deptula to weigh the pros and cons about the value of the LRSO to America’s nuclear triad.

The Cipher Brief: Can you describe the intended mission of the LRSO and how it fits into the nuclear triad?

Lt. Gen. David Deptula: To deter the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons, the United States maintains a credible nuclear deterrent known as the nuclear triad.  The triad diversifies our nuclear forces across three very different delivery systems—long-range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).  This diversity of delivery capabilities ensures that no adversary can launch a catastrophic attack against the U.S. or its allies without suffering a devastating response.

Bombers provide a set of unique attributes for the triad.  They can signal U.S. concern and resolve in crises by providing options that include: placing the bomber force on alert; dispersing the bomber force; and/or conducting shows of force.  These flexible response options, along with the recall potential of dispersed bombers not available with ICBMs or SLBMs, means bombers do not pose a first strike threat, thus bolstering crisis stability.

The LRSO’s mission is to enhance the deterrent capabilities of the bomber force for the long term.  LRSO will act as a force multiplier augmenting the long-range bomber force and appreciably complicate an adversary’s ability to defend its airspace.  LRSO on penetrating bombers like the B-2 and B-21 significantly increases the reach and target coverage of these aircraft.  LRSOs launched from B-52s can add mass to an attack.  Furthermore, because of its characteristics of small size and signature, range, and speed, LRSO will enable the expansion of simultaneity of attack across the breadth and depth of adversary geography significantly complicating the adversary’s defense calculus. Re-entry angle limitations on ICBMs and SLBMs, combined with increasingly lethal air defenses, means that some targets can only be struck by stealthy cruise missiles.  The amplified challenge to enemy air defenses posed by a combined force of stealth bombers and LRSO makes countermeasures both more costly and problematical for the adversary and thus enhances deterrence.

TCB: Why do proponents think it is necessary?

Deptula: The additive and unique capability provided by LRSO in conjunction with our long-range penetrating bomber force enhances deterrence to avoid a nuclear exchange.  Nuclear deterrence is the most cost-effective investment the U.S. government can make.  Failing to deter nuclear conflict would impose existential costs in ways much more horrific than a very small fraction of the federal budget.

TCB: Why do opponents think the program should be cut?

Deptula: The primary reasons opponents offer for cutting LRSO are:

  1. Terminating LRSO saves money;
  2. LRSO could be destabilizing;
  3. The triad without LRSO is sufficient for nuclear deterrence;
  4. Canceling LRSO may persuade potential adversaries to eliminate their nuclear-armed cruise missiles;
  5. And U.S. allies would support such a ban.

Responses to perspectives one, two, and three above are provided in my answers to the other questions posed.  The notion that canceling a particular weapon could persuade potential adversaries to eliminate their similar weapons is historically unfounded.  Regarding allies supporting such a ban, the reality is that no ally covered by U.S. extended nuclear deterrence has expressed support for negotiating a ban on LRSO.

TCB: Do we need the LRSO with the B-21 Raider coming into service? Does it become redundant?

Deptula: Only a robust stealth long-range sensor-shooter force consisting of B-2s and B-21s will have the ability to fly from the continental United States to any location on the planet in a matter of hours; penetrate into highly defended enemy airspace; and find, fix, and successfully destroy both hardened and mobile targets.  Unlike cruise missiles alone—or paired with non-stealthy aircraft—stealth bombers do not have restrictions on geographic coverage due to their high survivability and ability to penetrate the most dangerous threat environments. They can persist over the target area as required and enjoy a significant advantage in the number and types of targets they can hold at risk.

The B-2 and B-21 will serve as effective cruise missile launch aircraft due to their ability to penetrate enemy air defenses. This will allow them to decrease the distance and flight time for the cruise missiles to reach their targets. The B-21 will eliminate gaps in target coverage while simultaneously optimizing cruise missile effectiveness against the targets they are best suited to attack.

The B-21 and LRSO are not redundant—they are synergistic.  The LRSO, when carried by B-21s, will enable simultaneous target attacks against several targets from one aircraft, with multiple cruise missiles making defense against this combination highly problematical. This combination strengthens deterrence by presenting an adversary an intractable challenge.

TCB: Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) recently questioned Secretary of Defense James Mattis on the cost and necessity of the LRSO.  She also commented on its value as a deterrent, saying, “I don’t see it as an effective deterrent weapon.  I see Russia taking action to counter it.”  How do you view the LRSO as a deterrent?  Could it be provocative in the way Feinstein describes?

Deptula: According to Senator Feinstein, “Russia [is] already taking action to counter it.” This demonstrates that it will complicate the defenses of nuclear threats.  Being capable of defending against nuclear attack is what is destabilizing.  When a nation can defend against our attacks, we are at the most risk.

LRSO acting in a complimentary fashion with the penetrating B-21 will allow for simultaneous target attacks against several targets from one aircraft with multiple cruise missiles. Given that a bomber can attack from a far wider range of vectors than ballistic missiles, defending against LRSO is particularly difficult.  These attributes make defense against this combination highly problematical and strengthens deterrence by presenting an adversary an intractable challenge.

Regarding the notion of the LRSO being “provocative,” it has been shown over many decades that the U.S. use of cruise missiles in a conventional fashion has never prompted our adversaries to alert their nuclear forces. The current Syria crisis offers a case in point. Russia has used their Kh-101 cruise missiles, the conventional variant of the Kh-102 nuclear cruise missile, to attack anti-Assad forces in the country. The United States did not mistake them for a nuclear attack.

War has a logic that includes signals that would indicate the potential use of nuclear weapons. In addition, the president is not going to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, whether cruise missiles or gravity bombs or ICBMs or SLBMs, until such time as that becomes absolutely critical to defend the United States.  Weakness is what is provocative in real-world security dynamics, not strength.


Lieutenant General (Ret.) David A. Deptula was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign; commander of no-fly-zone operations over Iraq in the late 1990s; director of the air campaign over Afghanistan in 2001; joint task force commander (twice); and air commander for the 2005 South Asia tsunami relief.  He is a fighter pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours - 400 in combat - including multiple command assignments in the F-15. During his last assignment as the... Read More

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