Development of the Raytheon Technologies‘ [RTX] AGM-181 Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the Boeing [BA] AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) has raised no technology readiness level (TRL) concerns thus far, U.S. Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton, the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and the air component of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on Sept. 15 at his nomination hearing to become the next head of STRATCOM.

“We absolutely need LRSO,” Cotton told SASC in response to a question from Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). “The good news is the industry partner is doing incredible work keeping that program on time and on schedule, and I’m quite pleased as the air component commander…seeing what it’s doing. For our long-range standoff bomber capability–that leg of the triad–having a viable, credible weapon system is absolutely critical, and the LRSO is that final, critical weapon.”

“I have seen the testing that’s underway has been very promising,” Cotton replied when Kelly asked whether he had any TRL concerns with LRSO.

The Air Force has more than 500 ALCMs and is modifying the weapon to extend its service life to 2030. The service has planned to reduce the ALCM inventory to 528.

Development and on-time delivery of the LRSO cruise missile “and its associated W80-4 warhead is essential to maintain an effective and credible air-delivered nuclear deterrent, especially as adversaries deploy advanced digital air-defense systems,” Cotton wrote in answers to SASC questions before the Sept. 15 hearing. “The current Air-Launched Cruise Missile was deployed at the height of the Cold War to evade Soviet-era analog defenses and will be nearly 50 years old when LRSO is fielded.”

The Air Force is to field LRSO first on the B-52H bomber by Boeing, followed by the Northrop Grumman [NOC] B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

At the Sept. 15 SASC hearing, Kelly said that LRSO “is a de-escalatory weapon in mine and others’ opinions.”

“When our adversaries see or maybe hear that our long-range bombers are on high alert, it gives them some pause,” he said. “Tensions can be cooled without a bomber ever lifting off.”

The Air Force requested nearly $929 million for LRSO in fiscal 2023, and the congressional defense committees have approved the request in their variations of this year’s defense bill. House appropriators, however, expressed a concern with cost growth in LRSO and other Air Force nuclear modernization efforts.

“The fiscal year 2023 budget for LRSO represents growth of 135 percent over the amount projected in the fiscal year 2021–2025 FYDP,” House appropriators said in their report on the fiscal 2023 defense funding bill. “The committee further notes that Department of Defense and Air Force officials have cited the need to ‘fully fund’ nuclear modernization as a partial reason for decreases in conventional acquisition programs such as the F–35A.”

“Because the FYDP was not submitted with the fiscal year 2022 budget request, the budget justification and other program material submitted to Congress with the fiscal year 2023 budget request makes it difficult for the committee to track this budget growth and the reasons for it,” per the report. “While the committee’s recommendation is evidence of its support for nuclear modernization, this support does not extend to rubber stamping the request and the committee is not convinced that the budget growth reflected in the request is necessary to meet these programs’ threshold or objective schedules.”

House appropriators direct Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to submit a report to congressional appropriators by Oct. 31 to explain the growth in the fiscal 2023 research and development requests for LRSO, the B-21 Raider and the Northrop Grumman Sentinel next generation ICBM between the fiscal year 2021-25 FYDP and the 2023-27 FYDP.