Options for Fielding Ground-Launched Long-Range Missiles
This report examines some of the challenges U.S. forces might face in a conflict in the Baltic region or the South China Sea and options for mitigating those challenges by procuring and fielding ground-launched long-range missiles.
In recent conflicts, the U.S. military has focused on rapidly establishing air and naval superiority. During the first Gulf War and operations against Serbia in the 1990s, as well as during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, the United States and its allies rapidly attained air superiority, which they then used in the fight against hostile forces on the ground.
For future conflicts, however, the Department of Defense (DoD) has expressed concern that potential opponents such as Russia and China could prevent the United States from easily gaining air and naval superiority, which could hinder its ability to prosecute military campaigns. In this report, the Congressional Budget Office examines some of the challenges U.S. forces might face in the current threat environment and the extent to which DoD could mitigate those challenges by procuring and fielding ground-based long-range missiles. Such missiles could counter the advantages that Russia and China have in certain scenarios and would be more difficult for them to suppress than air or naval assets. The missiles could also create some of the same challenges for potential adversaries that U.S. military planners currently face.
CBO identified several existing weapon systems that DoD could adapt to launch from the ground and could procure and field to give U.S. ground forces long-range capabilities: a cruise missile for attacking land targets, an antiship cruise missile, an air defense missile, or a combination of antiship and air defense missiles. By adapting missile systems already or soon to be in the U.S. military’s inventory, CBO estimates, DoD could acquire those ground-based capabilities relatively rapidly at an up-front cost of $1 billion to $6 billion, depending on the system. Of course, the Army or the Marine Corps could also develop and build new weapons specifically for those missions, but this report focuses on less costly, short-term solutions that are consistent with DoD’s goal of responding quickly to emerging threats.
Using Ground-Launched Long-Range Weapons to Address Potential Threats
Future conflicts with Russia or China could involve scenarios in which the United States and its allies would have difficulty achieving air and naval superiority. For this report, CBO examined two such possibilities:
- A conflict with Russia in the Baltic region, and
- A conflict with China in the South China Sea.
In both types of scenarios, the United States would face a much more technologically adept adversary than it has in recent conflicts. Because both China and Russia would be operating much closer to their own borders than the United States would be, they would have more options for projecting force than the United States would. As a result, either adversary could prevent the United States and its allies from securing air and naval superiority and impede their fight against hostile forces on the ground.
To address such scenarios, the United States could increase its capability to launch conventional missiles from the ground, which it could use to disrupt its opponents’ operations even without air and naval superiority. The ground forces launching those missiles would be more difficult for a technologically sophisticated adversary to destroy than air and naval forces, because ground forces are often dug in and dispersed over a wide area. Although U.S. ground forces do not currently operate any of the ground-launched missiles examined in this report, those missiles have all been, or will soon be, fielded by other U.S. military services and would require only modest changes to be launched by ground forces.
Options for Ground-Launched Long-Range Weapons
CBO examined four options that DoD could pursue to provide U.S. ground forces with ground-launched longrange weapons. For each option, CBO assumed that the Army would field seven batteries of missile launchers and purchase 550 missiles of the relevant missile type. The batteries would be comparable in size and mobility to the existing seven batteries of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system. In addition, the Army would need to integrate all the missiles with broader U.S. systems for detecting and engaging targets at long range, and it would need to procure air and missile defense radars for options that include such missiles. The operating costs for all four options would be roughly the same because each would provide for seven batteries of about the same size, but up-front costs to purchase the specific missiles and radars would differ.
|Ground-Launched Missile Options|
|Up-Front Cost (Billions of 2020 dollars)||Annual Cost (Millions of 2020 dollars)||Missile Range (Kilometers)||Intended Target||Value in South China Sea Scenarios||Value in Baltic Scenarios|
|Option 1: JASSM-ER||1.3||300||925||Static ground targets||Minimal||Minimal|
|Option 2: LRASM||2.2||300||600||Ships||Significant||Minimal|
|Option 3: SM-6||4.6||300||240||Aircraft, missiles||Limited||Significant|
|Option 4: LRASM and SM-6||6.3||300||600 and 240||Ships, aircraft, missiles||Significant||Significant|
|JASSM-ER = Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile–Extended Range; LRASM = Long-Range Antiship Missile; SM-6 = Standard Missile 6.|
Option 1: A Cruise Missile for Attacking Land Targets
In Option 1, DoD would procure and field a ground-launched Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile–Extended Range (JASSM-ER). The Air Force’s air-launched JASSM-ER, an extended-range version of its JASSM, is already in production. A cruise missile with low-observable features—making it stealthy and difficult to detect—the JASSM-ER is intended to strike fixed ground targets. A ground-launched JASSM-ER would need a booster motor added to accelerate it to an appropriate speed and altitude.
CBO estimates that this option would have the lowest up-front cost, $1.3 billion (in 2020 dollars), of the four options it examined. In the agency’s assessment, however, the ground-launched JASSM-ER would have minimal incremental value in either a South China Sea or a Baltic scenario. Army ground forces could strike valuable land targets with JASSM-ERs in both scenarios, but air-launched JASSM-ERs could also strike those same targets because U.S. aircraft could launch their missiles from outside the range of the adversary’s air defenses. Although a ground-launched option might add value as a deterrent or reduce the workload of air-launched missiles, it would only supplement existing capabilities.
Option 2: An Antiship Cruise Missile
In Option 2, DoD would procure and field a ground-launched Long-Range Antiship Missile (LRASM). The Air Force and the Navy already have an air-launched LRASM; it is a variant of the JASSM-ER, but it has a different seeker that allows it to find and strike ships rather than hit fixed ground targets. To make the missile capable of being launched from a ship, the Navy is developing an LRASM variant with a booster motor attached. A ship-launched LRASM could also be launched by ground forces.
Option 2 would have an up-front cost of $2.2 billion, CBO estimates. Ground-launched LRASMs could be quite valuable in a South China Sea scenario, possibly denying Chinese forces the ability to operate surface warships in the area or blockading Chinese commercial shipping. Ground-launched LRASMs would have much less value in a Baltic scenario because Russian naval forces present less of a threat there.
Option 3: An Air Defense Missile
In Option 3, DoD would procure and field a ground-launched Standard Missile 6 (SM-6), as well as an air and missile defense radar for each battery. The SM-6 is a Navy surface-to-air missile that can destroy aircraft, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. Designed to be launched from a warship, the SM-6 is already capable of being launched by ground forces.
By CBO’s estimate, Option 3 would have an up-front cost of $4.6 billion. Ground-launched SM-6s would not have a long enough range to fully prevent Chinese air forces from operating in the South China Sea, but they could supplement existing U.S. forces and assist in defending allies. Ground-launched SM-6s could, however, deny Russian air forces some advantages in a Baltic scenario.
Option 4: A Combination of Antiship and Air Defense Missiles
In Option 4, DoD would procure and field both a ground-launched LRASM and a ground-launched SM-6. Although Option 4 would be the most expensive option, with an estimated up-front cost of $6.3 billion, buying both missiles would provide long-range capabilities in both scenarios and would allow DoD to deploy a mix of missiles as appropriate: the LRASM in a South China Sea scenario and the SM-6 in both South China Sea and Baltic scenarios.