Discretionary Spending

Function 050 - National Defense

Cancel the Long-Range Standoff Weapon

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

Billions of Dollars 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 2019-
Change in Planned Defense Spending  
  Budget authority 0 -1.4 -1.2 -1.2 -1.2 -1.2 -1.2 -1.6 -2.1 -2.0 -5.0 -13.3
  Outlays 0 -0.8 -1.2 -1.2 -1.2 -1.2 -1.2 -1.2 -1.4 -1.6 -4.4 -11.0

This option would take effect in October 2019.
Estimates of savings displayed in the table are based on the 2019 Future Years Defense Program and the Congressional Budget Office's extension of that plan.


Long-range bombers are one of the three components of the strategic nuclear triad, which also includes intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Nearly all of the systems that make up the nuclear triad are scheduled to be refurbished or replaced with new systems over the coming decades. Over the next 20 years, modernization efforts are expected to nearly double the total amount that the United States spends annually on nuclear forces (currently about $30 billion).

Since 1945, the United States has used nuclear-capable bombers to deter adversaries and assure allies during crises—by increasing the pace of their operations (for example, by raising their alert level or by maintaining alert bombers in the air at all times) or by deploying the aircraft to areas of potential conflict. Bomber weapons are effective only if they are able to penetrate air defenses to reach their targets. To ensure that capability, the Air Force relies on hard-to-detect platforms, including cruise missiles that can deliver a warhead when launched from a bomber operating safely away from air defenses, and stealthy manned bombers that can fly into defended airspace and drop short-range gravity bombs from directly above targets. Currently, the Air Force fields two types of long-range bombers that can carry nuclear weapons, both of which can also perform conventional missions: the B-52H, which carries the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), and the stealthy B-2A, which carries several varieties of nuclear gravity bombs. In addition, some shorter-range tactical aircraft—specifically the F-15E and, in the future, the F-35A—are capable of carrying nuclear gravity bombs.

Nearly all components of the nuclear bomber force are slated for modernization over the coming decades through the combined efforts of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Energy (DOE). The centerpiece of the nuclear bomber modernization effort is the development of a new stealthy bomber, the B-21. Two other programs focus on the development of new weapons for that bomber. In one program, the B61-12 life extension program (LEP), DOE is working to refurbish and combine several varieties of the B61 bomb into a single hybrid design. In the other program, DoD is developing the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile that will carry a warhead that DOE will produce. Plans call for the B-21 to be capable of carrying both the B61-12 bomb and the LRSO.


This option would cancel the LRSO but retain the B61-12 LEP. Thus, the Air Force would stop equipping bombers with cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads after the current ALCMs reached the end of their service life (around 2030). Specifically, DoD would cancel development and production of the LRSO, and DOE would cancel development and production of the associated warhead. Aircraft that are capable of carrying nuclear bombs would still be able to do so. This option would not change the planned size of the strategic bomber fleet or its ability to conduct nonnuclear missions.

Effects on the Budget

This option would reduce discretionary budget authority by about $13 billion over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, if appropriations were reduced accordingly. Outlays would decrease by $11 billion. Savings would continue to accrue after 2028 as both the cost of the additional LRSO missiles and warheads that would be purchased and the expense of operating the new systems would be eliminated.

CBO's estimate of the costs of the LRSO is based on the actual development costs of the Advanced Cruise Missile, the most recent air-launched nuclear cruise missile built by the United States. Those costs were increased by 40 percent to account for cost growth between generations of missiles. CBO's cost estimates for both the LRSO and the associated warhead are very uncertain. Programs that develop new weapon systems historically have experienced cost growth relative to early estimates, and the LRSO and the warhead programs are both in the early planning stages.

CBO's estimate of savings is based on the full cancellation of the LRSO and its warhead, forgoing both development and subsequent production. If DoD chose instead to continue those programs but to reduce the quantity purchased, savings would be substantially lower. The development efforts, which constitute roughly half of the costs within the 10-year period, would still continue. Reduced production is also likely to result in 10-year savings that are less than proportional to the reduction in the number of missiles purchased, for several reasons. The current generation ALCMs are well past their original service life, so any reductions in LRSO quantities are likely to be taken at the end of the production run. Most savings would thus occur after 2028. In addition, reducing the quantity purchased would probably boost the average unit cost of both missiles and warheads.

Other Effects

By equipping bombers with a single type of nuclear weapon, the United States could reduce costs while still retaining the ability to deploy nuclear weapons on bombers. That is one argument for this option. Another argument for canceling the LRSO program is that the need for nuclear cruise missiles has been lessened significantly by the development of modern conventional cruise missiles, which can perform many of the same missions. Modern cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear, are substantially more accurate than the ALCM, according to unclassified estimates. Because damage from a missile warhead can depend more strongly on accuracy than explosive yield, a modern conventional cruise missile could potentially perform some (but not all) of the missions that were assigned to the less-accurate, nuclear-tipped ALCM. In addition, to maintain the ability to conduct missions requiring nuclear weapons, some analysts argue, the LRSO program could be postponed until adversaries' air defenses advanced to the point at which the B-21 could no longer penetrate them.

An argument against canceling development of new air-launched cruise missiles is that doing so would somewhat diminish the capabilities of U.S. nuclear forces, particularly the forces' capacity to carry out limited nuclear strikes. Cruise missiles offer operational planners flexibility because they can travel for extended distances (the unclassified range for the current ALCM is more than 1,500 miles) along complicated flight paths, potentially allowing bombers to avoid dangerous or sensitive areas. Thus, removing air-launched cruise missiles would be more detrimental to the Air Force's strategic nuclear capabilities than eliminating nuclear bombs, which must be dropped close to a target.