by Richard Krushnic
The enormously dangerous and expensive upgrading of the US nuclear triad is moving full steam ahead under the Trump Administration. The speed with which contracts are being awarded and work begun on new weapons systems will make it harder for any future Administration to turn around our nuclear policy.
The Massachusetts-based Raytheon Technologies Corp. secured a contract in April to develop the nuclear Long-Range Standoff Missile (LRSO), which will be the air-launched leg of the new nuclear triad.
US nuclear weapons strategy is primarily based on a triad of forces: the ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) stored in deep silos, the submarine-launched Trident missiles, and the air-launched cruise missiles carried by B-52 bombers. The existing triad represents tremendous overkill and the upgrade will make it more so. Rather than being a deterrent, these new-gen nuclear weapons are designed for first-use, making an adversary’s retaliatory launch much more likely if it thinks there has been a U.S. launch.
Raytheon joins other major “defense” contractors that will build different legs of the new triad. Northrop Grumman won a bidding war last December to construct the land-based leg of the triad – the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) – and is expected to be awarded an $80 billion contract shortly. General Dynamics’s subsidiary Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut will be constructing the new Columbia-class nuclear submarine for the new nuclear sub missiles, which will replace the Trident subs and missiles. Construction could begin in late 2020.
Two years were left on the exploratory pre-engineering phase contracts to Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, both competitors for the LRSO missile program, but in its zeal to complete the new generation of nuclear weapons, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (AFNWC) cut the phase short and awarded the prize to Raytheon. Now the Air Force will negotiate the engineering and manufacturing development phase with Raytheon, and work will begin as soon as possible.
While the nuclear LRSO may be carried by another plane later on, it will initially be deployed on the aging B-52s. Aviation Week and Space Technology (May 4-17, 2020) informs us that the nuclear LRSO will replace the 375 existing Boeing nuclear AGM-86B cruise missiles. The article, “Raytheon’s LRSO Prize completes nuclear modernization supplier roles,” notes that the AGM-86Bs have been in service since 1982 and are due to be retired in 2030. It seems they won’t have to wait so long for retirement.
The article warns that the LRSO could be at risk if Joe Biden wins the November election, because he could become the first president to declare a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy. It is generally thought that patrolling aircraft can get nuclear warheads to their targets more quickly than submarine-launched nukes, and certainly more quickly than ground-launched missiles from the U.S. Hence, the LRSO is thought of as a potential first-use nuke. A “no first use” policy could make the LRSO expendable in some nuclear warfare planners’ eyes. However, given Raytheon’s unsurpassed lobbyists, and its new heft as a giant conglomerate with 195,000 employees around the world after its April 2020 merger with United Technologies, I have little faith that Biden’s “no first use” leanings would scuttle the missile.
A number of top Pentagon and Congressional leaders—including, for example, former Secretary of Defense William Perry—consider the LRSO to be a weapon that makes nuclear war much more likely. In 2017, nine senators led by Sen. Ed Markey introduced legislation that would have impeded its development. “Instead of wasting billions of dollars on this dangerous new nuclear weapon that will do nothing to keep our nation safe, we should preserve America’s resources and pursue a global ban on nuclear cruise missiles,” Markey said at the time.
The LRSO is designed to find its target with pinpoint accuracy, even when an enemy renders its GPS homing inoperable, and it’s designed to disable and/or evade complex, integrated defense systems. Launched from patrolling aircraft not that far from targets, it would give an enemy only 10-15 minutes to launch a counter strike.
The Air Force has not stated whether the LRSO will be subsonic, supersonic, or hypersonic; but we know that the development of hypersonic missiles is part of the $20 billion/year secret work of Raytheon, and the secret work of other firms. In the 23 previous incidents where the U.S or Russia thought the other side had launched nuclear missiles, there was a 30-45-minute window in which to seek verification and contemplate response. A hypersonic LRSO would give an enemy no more than 5 minutes to launch a counter attack, eliminating any possibility for careful thought or verification, and making automatic nuclear response much more likely. At any speed, the LRSO is a seriously destabilizing nuclear weapon. A hypersonic LRSO is terrifyingly so.
—Richard Krushnic is a long-time researcher of military production, imperial U.S. foreign policy, and overt / covert warfare. He is also a professional in public financing of community economic development in the U.S. and Latin America.