Military Aviation

USAF is Developing a New Nuclear Weapon for the Venerable B-52 Strategic Bomber

The newly designed ALCM will be fit with a newly designed warhead, known as the W80-4.

For more than 60 years, the B-52 has been the backbone of the strategic bomber force for the United States and remains a vital part of America’s nuclear deterrent. Now, to keep relevant the BUFF nuclear capability, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) will spend billions of dollars to develop a new air-launched cruise missile to replace the AGM-86B (dubbed ALCM) developed in the early 1980s.

A B-52 can carry 20 AGM-86 missiles, eight in a rotary launcher in the bomber weapons bay and another 12 on pylons under the wings.

“A lot of this stuff predates the airmen I have working on ’em,” said Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Abrams-Trust, the cruise missile flight chief for the 2nd Munitions Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to Defense News contributor Jeff Bolton.

“So while it was extremely sophisticated at the time, it’s fallen out of favor. Some of that technology’s requiring service-life extensions where we identify maybe some high-failure areas, things that we need to replace,” Abrams-Trust said.

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The ALCM “had an initial service life of 10 years,” Abrams-Trust added. “It was really only meant to go to early to mid-’90s, be replaced by the advanced cruise missile. And while we fielded that, advanced cruise missile had some challenges logistically, maintenance was difficult. So we’ve pushed through the ALCM even further.”

As we have previously reported Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are designing the new weapon. Even though the cost of the heavily classified program is unknown, the companies are currently on contract for $900 million as part of a four-and-a-half-year technology-maturation and risk-reduction phase to conceive the new weapon. The USAF plans to integrate the weapon in B-52, B-2 and B-21 nuclear capable bombers in the late 2020s after having chosen between the designs in 2022.

The newly designed ALCM will be fit with a newly designed warhead. Known as the W80-4, the new warhead is currently in the early design stages with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

According to NNSA the program faces unique risks because the warhead is being designed at the same time as the delivery system — the first time in 30 years the two projects have been done in parallel.

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The first production unit of the W80-4, the costs of which are expected to range between $6.7 billion and $10.3 billion between FY18 and FY32, is expected to be delivered in FY25, with completion of the production run by FY31.

For a few years, it looked like the LRSO program might be in for a rough ride from congressional Democrats. But the introduction of even newer nuclear weapon systems through the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review appears to have taken the heat off the new cruise missile. And for advocates of the air-based leg of the nuclear triad, keeping the B-52 as up to date as possible is a good thing.

“When we say nuclear modernization, we are merely replacing the current triad. We are not expanding our capabilities, we’re not violating a treaty, we’re not developing a new capability. It’s a very reasonable response to the threat,” Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, said during the 2019 Defense News Conference.

With the U.S. engaged in what the Pentagon has termed as a renewal of “great power competition,” and Russia and China modernizing their nuclear arsenals, Soofer described the overall nuclear modernization efforts as “sensible,” “reasonable” and “affordable.”

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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