A Bridge to B-21

Development of a new Long-Range Standoff missile (LRSO) is critical to sustaining the US nuclear deterrent, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday. The problem is a combination of aging missiles and aging bombers. The current AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) fleet, which dates back to the early 1980s, is on its “fifth service life extension,” and the missiles will soon become “unreliable and not able to reach their targets,” Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson told the committee. Selva said the current US bomber fleet is performing well, but that “a decade from now these weapons will not be able to penetrate Russian air defenses.” The LRSO would be designed to do just that, even when launched from a B-52, and Selva said the LRSO is “critical to extending the life of our current bomber fleet” as USAF waits for the new, stealthier B-21 Raider to come online in the 2030s.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis questioned the necessity of an air-launched component of the US nuclear triad at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, when he said the program “makes sense” but that he doubted its “deterrent value.” On Wednesday, Selva told Congress that “open debate about abandoning the weapon because of cost puts us at a strategic disadvantage,” and that the Joint Chiefs are “committed to the development and fielding of an LRSO.” Wilson told the committee that the LRSO is “the most flexible leg” of the nuclear triad. Able to be carried by the B-52, B-2, and B-21 bombers, the LRSO would present “a very effective deterrent capability,” he said.