The Pentagon wants a cheap cruise missile that can strike anywhere in the world without risking American soldiers or aircraft.
It’s a great idea. As long as it doesn’t inadvertently start a destabilizing arms race.
The Pentagon’s proposal calls for a stand-off weapon that can launch from outside the range of enemy defenses.
It should be a “low-cost conventional weapon concept or concepts that costs less than $2 million per round, can support other reconnaissance and attack missions, and strike important weapons, sensors, facilities and infrastructure targets at ranges up to … 3,000 nautical miles.”
Note that use of the word “round,” as in bullet. These weapons are being conceived as a form of ammunition. While $2 million hardly seems “low-cost,” even an AMRAAM air-to-air missile costs more than a million dollars. Spending $2 million to blast a North Korean tunnel complex with a missile launched from, say, Guam is a bargain.
The idea came from a report by the Defense Science Board on how the U.S. military can achieve technology superiority over adversaries in the 2030 time frame. The DSB recommended that America develop a new weapon to strike deep inside enemy territory.
Most of the options weren’t very appealing. Manned aircraft? Too expensive and America doesn’t have very many of them anymore. Special Operations Forces are politically too risky. Directed energy weapons? Complex and technologically immature.
Non-nuclear ballistic missiles could hit any target in an hour, and in fact the U.S. has been pursuing that idea. But the problem with America using ICBMs as conventional weapons is that while we would know they weren’t carrying nuclear warheads to obliterate Moscow or Beijing, the Russians and Chinese wouldn’t.
Compared to ballistic missiles, cruise missiles seem less problematic. Cruise missiles are slow, but they’re also accurate and relatively cheap. They fly low trajectories that make them distinct from nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
Cruise missiles could be launched in waves to saturate enemy defenses—or as decoys to protect manned aircraft. “Quantity has a quality all its own,” the DSB explained.
The report emphasized that the price would determine whether the project is viable. Given cost overruns on recent projects such as the F-35 stealth fighter, there’s reason to be skeptical about the Pentagon’s ability to control prices.
But the real danger is that a mass U.S. deployment of cruise missiles could trigger a new arms race, warned Phillip Coyle, a researcher at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C.
Using tactical cruise missiles for non-nuclear strikes—like America’s barrages of Tomahawk missiles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Serbia—tends to obscure the fact that cruise missiles are also strategic weapons that can carry nuclear warheads.
Arms control treaties have abolished some—and only some—nuclear cruise missiles. The U.S. warned last January that Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile may have violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces.
“Only ground-launched cruise missiles of medium range are banned by the INF treaty, sea- and air-based cruise missiles are not,” explained Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, also in Washington, D.C.
“In fact, one possibility is that Russia is claiming that the cruise missile it is testing is intended to be sea-based, but U.S. intel has seen something that indicates otherwise, such as a ground-based test configuration,” Collina added.
Even the Defense Science Board warned that “the policy implications of deploying an intercontinental, precision cruise missile with a capacity to carry relatively heavy payloads are significant.”
A new long-range cruise missile would probably be at most an evolutionary improvement over older missiles, rather than than some revolutionary new weapon. Coyle said he’s worried that a mass U.S. deployment of these new missiles could spur other nations to do the same.
Long-range cruise missiles have big advantages as cheap tactical weapons. But they risk restarting an arms race that the world agreed to end decades ago.
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