The U.S. Air Force’s aging, nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) is experiencing “significant reliability challenges,” underscoring the need to develop a replacement, a key general said June 20.

All elements of the ALCM vehicle, including the engine, have reliability problems, forcing maintainers and operators to go to great lengths to keep the decades-old missile in service, according to Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command.

“If you want to see an ancient weapon system, go look at that cruise missile down at Minot” Air Force Base in North Dakota, Hyten said at an Air Force Association event on Capitol Hill. “It’s a miracle that it can even fly.”

For ALCM’s replacement, the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), the Air Force plans to award up to two contracts for technology maturation and risk reduction at the end of fiscal year 2017 and an engineering and manufacturing development contract in fiscal year 2022. The Air Force is seeking $451 million for LRSO in its FY 2018 budget request, up from $96 million in FY 2017.

Asked about congressional critics who assert that the LRSO could be destabilizing and cause Russia to take action to counter it, Hyten downplayed such concerns, saying that “the new missile will have pretty much the same capability as the old missile,” which the Air Force has deployed since the early 1980s.

“The bottom line is that for the air leg of the triad to be effective, we need the extended range and multiple target capability you get off of a cruise missile,” he said. “Otherwise, you have to have a bomber that goes to exactly the point because it only has a gravity bomb.”

With Congress gearing up to consider its FY 2018 defense bills, Hyten said that efforts to modernize all three legs of the nation’s nuclear triad – air, land and sea – must remain on track to replace aging systems. Besides the LRSO, those efforts include a new Navy ballistic missile submarine, a new Air Force bomber aircraft and a new Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile.

“I would strongly urge Congress not to slow down any element of the triad,” he said. “We can’t slow down anything at all. We actually need to accelerate them, not decelerate them.”