Russia is Proving Why Nuclear-Tipped Cruise Missiles Are a Very Bad Idea

A screenshot from the video posted by Moscow after firing cruise missiles into Syria.

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A screenshot from the video posted by Moscow after firing cruise missiles into Syria.

Those four cruise missiles that crashed in Iran could’ve been carrying nuclear warheads — which is why the US should ban them, not renew them.

When Russia this month launched 26 cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea into Syria, more than 900 miles away, the missiles had to pass over Iran and Iraq. Four crashed in Iran. According to reports, a number of cows were killed in the ensuing blast.

Apologies to the cows, but this could have been a lot worse.

The Russian cruise missiles, the Kalibr-NK, were armed with conventional warheads. But these missiles are also capable of carrying nuclear warheads. That’s a problem. Cruise missile attacks are inherently ambiguous and can add major risks to a crisis. Had the target been the United States, military leaders would not have known until impact if it was a nuclear attack. This kind of uncertainty can increase the risk of nuclear war and it’s why nuclear-tipped cruise missiles should banned completely.

Cruise missiles are unreliable. In the case of Moscow’s attack into Syria, if nuclear warheads had been involved and some of them crashed in Iran without detonating (which is likely), Tehran could have retrieved them. This scenario is not as far fetched as one might think. In 2007, six nuclear-armed cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber and flown across the United States. Because nuclear-armed cruise missiles are virtually indistinguishable from conventional ones, the error went undetected for 36 hours. If this can happen under strict American guidelines, imagine what could happen from Russia to the Middle East.

Just ask the father of the U.S. nuclear-armed, aircraft-launched cruise missile, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry. He agrees they should be banned. Perry oversaw development of the current air-launched nuclear cruise missile 35 years ago, and recently penned a Washington Post op-ed with his colleague, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Andy Weber. They call the cruise missile a “uniquely destabilizing” weapon, because the intended target has no way of knowing if it is under nuclear or conventional attack.

As Perry and Weber point out, this fact was not lost on Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev who banned all ground-based cruise missiles under the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush unilaterally ordered all sea-launched Tomahawk nuclear cruise missiles taken off surface ships and attack submarines. The only U.S. nuclear cruise missile left is the air-launched version, carried by B-52 bombers.

Similarly, the United Kingdom rejected sea-based nuclear cruise missiles in 2013. Foreign Minister Philip Hammond argued that, “A cruise-based deterrent would carry significant risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation.” The uncertainty posed by these weapons, he said, “could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension.”

So why is the U.S. Air Force planning to spend $20 billion to build approximately 1,000 new nuclear-armed Air-Launched Cruise Missiles, or ALCMs, with refreshed warheads, to replace its current fleet? It should not. Not only are they “uniquely destabilizing” but their mission has evaporated.

As Perry and Weber explain, nuclear cruise missiles were initially conceived to keep the B-52 flying until it could be replaced by the stealthier B-2 bomber. During the Vietnam War, many B-52s were lost to enemy surface-to-air defenses making it painfully obvious that the plane was no longer able to safely operate in contested airspace. But with the cruise missile, the B-52 could still strike targets deep in the heart of enemy territory. This feature was deemed necessary during the Cold War so NATO could offset the Warsaw Pact’s larger conventional forces.

That was then. As Perry and Weber write, such a Cold War posture “no longer reflects the reality of today’s U.S. conventional military dominance.”

In fact, the ALCM was supposed to be retired long ago along with the B-52 bomber when the B-2 came on line. After all, there is no need for a penetrating cruise missile on a penetrating bomber. But in the 1980’s Congress cut plans for the B-2 from 132 to 75, and then the Berlin Wall fell. In 1992, Bush cut B-2 production to 20. Thus there were not enough B-2s to replace the B-52, only supplement it. So the B-52 and the ALCM are still with us today.

But this is more by accident than by design. Once the Air Force gets its new B-3 penetrating bombers and a revitalized B61 nuclear bomb, there will be no need for the ALCM. And there is certainly no need to build a new ALCM now.

President Obama can safely cancel the new nuclear cruise missile and challenge other nations, like Russia, to eliminate these destabilizing weapons. This step would save tens of billions of dollars, reduce the risk of nuclear war and provide momentum toward Obama’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. And, ironically, it would eliminate yet another potential pathway for Iran to get the bomb.

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