Funding will not be a problem in President Barack Obama administration’s plan to field a new Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) nuclear cruise missile, Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said Thursday.

Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget funds all of the Air Force’s nuclear modernization programs, including the LRSO, Weinstein said at an Air Force Association breakfast. He said this is significant particularly because not all the budgets the president submitted during his term have supported nuclear modernization, in light of his agenda to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in United States security strategy.

The ALCM. Photo: Air Force.
The ALCM. Photo: Air Force.

The Air Force’s fiscal 2017 budget request includes $95.6 million for LRSO. The House in June stripped an amendment from the fiscal 2017 defense appropriations bill that would have cut that amount by $75.8 million.

Air Force officials have said they expect in this fiscal year to reach a Milestone A decision on the LRSO, which will involve an examination of the cost of the missile and lay out an acquisition approach. The service also expects to award a technology, maturation, and risk-reduction contract late next fiscal year for the program.
“When you look now at how much money we’re spending [for nuclear modernization programs] in the out years, the money is not the main issue,” Weinstein said of fielding the LRSO.

Weinstein reaffirmed the $1 trillion cost estimate for updating the U.S. nuclear enterprise over 30 years. He added that modernization now takes up approximately three percent of the Defense Department’s budget and will peak in the mid-2020s at seven percent before dropping back to the normal level.

The Air Force is now waiting on Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, “to do the final dotting the ‘I’s’ and crossing the ‘T’s,’ and once the acquisition executive signs it, we’ll be good to go,” Weinstein said.

The Air Force plans to award a contract in fiscal 2018 for the LRSO, which will replace the service’s aging Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM) and is expected to cost between $20 billion and $30 billion for approximately 1,000 missiles. The LRSO will be able to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads and will be designed for compatibility with various aircraft. The Air Force expects to deliver the first new missile in 2026.

The LRSO’s critics in Congress have argued that the missile will cost too much and that its deployment will increase the risk of miscalculation by adversaries and, by extension, inadvertent nuclear war. This would be because adversaries might assume that a launched LRSO is carrying a nuclear warhead rather than a conventional tip, they say.

Others have countered that the U.S.’ previous fielding of nuclear and conventional cruise missiles never raised similar ambiguity concerns.

“Do we need a strategic bomber? Do we need a submarine-based platform? Do we need a Long-Range Standoff weapon? Do we need a gravity bomb? Do we need a ground-based ICBM? And do we need command and control and infrastructure to support all legs of the triad,” Weinstein said. “The answer to all these questions is a resounding yes.”