The Air Force should continue its pursuit of a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile despite concerns that the ambiguity between nuclear and conventional cruise missiles could trigger “false alarms” leading to a nuclear strike, the former head of U.S. Strategic Command told a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday.

The B-52 Stratofortress.  Photo: U.S. Air Force.
The B-52 Stratofortress.
Photo: U.S. Air Force.

The service wants to develop a new air-launched cruise missile that can be outfitted with either a conventional or nuclear payload as the situation requires, as well as be used by future platforms like the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB). However ,the acquisition program for the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon has been in limbo for several years as budgetary constraints have forced the Air Force to delay a contract award until at least 2018.

Critics believe it might be time for the military to do away with that capability altogether. In an October opinion piece in The Washington Post, former Defense Secretary William Perry advised the White House to cancel the LRSO program. Cruise missiles capable of both conventional and nuclear strikes are a “uniquely destabilizing type of weapon,” he said, because countries have no idea whether a strike is nuclear or conventional, thus increasing the risk of escalation.

However, the United States has successfully dealt with that ambiguity with its legacy AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), said retired Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, the former commander of STRATCOM.  ALCM, which is manufactured by Boeing [BA] for use on the B-52 bomber, can be outfitted with either a conventional or nuclear payload, just as LRSO is planned to be.

“We’ve only ever operationally used them—thank heaven, in conventional modes—and we’ve been able to work the ambiguity issue. When a cruise missile lifts off a surface ship, or when it drops out of a B-52 bomb bay, or if it comes out of an SSGN [nuclear-capable submarine], no one believes that we’ve just launched a nuclear weapon,” he said during a House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee hearing.

“We need to be careful with that. I agree that that’s an issue that we have to be mindful of and continue to work to reduce that risk…but I do not believe that we are changing the game here with LRSO,” he added.

Dual-capable cruise missiles increase the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and there is “no question” about the combat value the Air Force has derived from conventional cruise missiles in the past, he said. LRSO would also allow multiple bombers to strike many targets from further away, giving the U.S. military an edge over adversaries with strong air defenses.

“What you are doing is you are increasing the effectiveness of the bomber, and to me there is tremendous value to being able to do that,” he said. “When you look at the landmasses that are potentially involved here, even a penetrating platform benefits from having a longer range missile [so] it doesn’t have to get close to the target area if it doesn’t want to or it can hold multiple targets at risk at varying ranges while it’s penetrating.”