Reading Room

Former Defense Chief, Non­Proliferation Experts Warn: Stop the New LRSO

The Pentagon has requested that a new nuclear capable Long­Range Stand Off (LRSO) weapon be developed to replace an old air­launch cruise missile. The Air Force has plans to purchase over 1,000 LRSO’s. The Air Force currently has a stockpile of about 575 nuclear­capable air launch cruise missiles. The development of the LRSO would increase U.S. nuclear air launch cruise missile capacity by nearly 200%.

The Lawrence Livermore Lab has been placed in charge of refurbishing the nuclear explosive package and developing detonators for the new LRSO. Sandia Lab, also in Livermore, is responsible for the construction of some non­nuclear parts and for systems integration. Sandia Lab says that this program “will develop the next generation of weapon scientists and engineers and give them hands­on experience in a system development and integration program”.


The nuclear warhead that Lawrence Livermore Lab is developing, called the W80-4, will be a modified version of an older warhead, the W80. The W80-4 warhead refurbishment budget for federal year 2015 is $9 million. The 2016 request is $195 million. Future funding requests are slated to increase to $312 million in 2017 and $407 million in 2018.

To avoid another government shutdown, Congress passed a continuing resolution last September. The continuing resolution funded the W80-4 warhead refurbishment for 2016 at the previous 2015 level of $9 million, down from the requested $195 million. It is still possible that congress will pass a budget but, at least for now, the W80-4 warhead development will be slowed down.

The Federation of American Scientists estimate the full development of the LRSO including the W80-4 warhead to be as high as $20 billion. Here are a few facts about $20 billion:

● Stacking $20 bills, $20 billion would reach over 60 miles high

● $20 billion could purchase 35 billion bushels of wheat at current market price. Just one bushel of wheat yields roughly 90 one pound loaves of whole wheat bread.

International Impacts

The New START treaty, which pledges to reduce the United States and Russia’s forward deployed strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,550 nuclear warheads by 2018, counts air launch cruise missiles in an unusual manner. Each bomber plane counts as only one warhead toward the total 1,550 despite the fact that bombers can carry multiple nuclear weapons.

Russia will likely interpret the U.S. development of over 1,000 new nuclear capable air launch cruise missiles as undermining the spirit of the treaty. The LRSO project marks a stark reversal from previous disarmament accomplishments.

The LRSO also presents a significant strategic threat. Two former leaders in the defense department, William J. Perry and Andy Weber, recently wrote a piece in the Washington Post requesting that President Obama stop the development of the LRSO. According to Perry and Weber, cruise missiles are “inherently destabilizing” because “they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants”. Cruise missiles increase the risk of accidental nuclear war. Canceling the LRSO could be a significant first step towards a worldwide ban on all cruise missiles.