Ten Democratic senators urged President Barack Obama to cancel the Air Force’s Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon before he leaves office in January, according to a letter obtained by Defense Daily.

The senators urge Obama to scale back plans to construct “unneeded” new nuclear weapons and delivery systems, LRSO in particular. The senators also urge reforms to United States nuclear posture, including adopting no-first-use of nuclear weapons and canceling launch-on-warning plans to increase the time available to the commander-in-chief to consider launching nuclear weapons. The senators said the U.S. currently maintains plans to launch nuclear weapons in response to warning of a nuclear attack.

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

LRSO will replace the Air Force’s Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), which has been operational since 1986. LRSO will be capable of penetrating and surviving advanced integrated air defense systems (IADS) from significant standoff range. Tom Karako, senior fellow of the international security program, missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank, said Wednesday the ALCM’s publicly available range is 2,500km, and LRSO would presumably have a similar range.

Obama has delivered speeches during his term emphasizing a goal of a world without nuclear weapons. In a May 27 speech in Hiroshima, Japan, Obama called on nuclear weapon-holding nations to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, stop their spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics. He said the world may not realize this goal in our lifetimes, but that it was worthy of persistent effort.

The Defense Department is on the verge of modernizing its nuclear weapons enterprise, including refurbishing ICBMs and replacing Ohio-class nuclear submarines. The senators, in their letter, claim independent estimates suggest that nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization plans could cost nearly $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The Air Force requested $96 million for LRSO in its fiscal year 2017 budget request. For fiscal years 2018-2021, the Air Force expects to request $2.1 billion for LRSO spending. The service expects a technology maturation and risk reduction contract award in the third quarter of FY ’17. The Air Force is currently conducting technology maturation and risk reduction development tasks aimed at meeting validated requirements prior to the engineering and manufacturing (EMD) phase, according to Air Force budget documents.

Karako said he supports LRSO development. He said without a standoff weapon in an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment, the United States lacks reliability and capability of penetrating this type of robust air defense environment. Karako opposed simply refurbishing ALCM as ALCM, he said, is not a stealthy system and has deep reliability problems. Plus, Karako said, you can only refurbish your 1982 car “so many times.”

On the other hand, Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association (ACA), argues the odds are rising that the next administration, assuming it is a Democratic one, delays or cancels LRSO and associated warhead refurbishment. Reif believes there is a growing realization among lawmakers and defense budget watchers that the current nuclear weapon spending plans are not sustainable and adjustments will need to be made. LRSO, Reif said, has become the most controversial aspect of the modernization plan.

The senators who signed the letter were: Edward Markey (Mass.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Al Franken (Minn.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Jeffrey Merkley (Ore.), Bernard Sanders (Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).