Options Abound for New Intermediate-Range Missiles

By Jon Harper

Photo: Defense Dept.

The Pentagon’s plan to develop a new class of missiles could provide important capabilities, but they will come with a hefty price tag, analysts say.

In August, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which had prohibited the United States and Russia from deploying land-based nuclear or conventional missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, after Washington accused Moscow of cheating.

The Pentagon had already commenced treaty-compliant research-and-development activities that focused on mobile, conventional, ground-launched cruise and ballistic missile systems, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in a statement.

“These programs are in the early stages,” he said. “Now that we have withdrawn [from the INF Treaty], the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles.”

Just weeks later, the Pentagon announced that it had conducted a flight test of a conventionally configured ground-launched cruise missile at San Nicolas Island, California.

“The test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight,” the statement said. “Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense’s development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”

A Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report titled, “Leveling the Playing Field: Reintroducing U.S. Theater-Range Missiles in a Post-INF World,” estimated costs for a variety of options.

Ballistic land-attack missiles could include: a precision strike missile with an estimated development cost of $780 million and procurement cost of $500,000 to $800,000 per unit; a Pershing III with an estimated development cost of $820 million and procurement cost of $16 million per unit; or a longer-range system with a development cost of $1.1 billion and a procurement cost of $21 million per unit, the study said.

Cruise land-attack missiles could include: a ground-launched variant of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range with an estimated development cost of $250 million to $500 million and a procurement cost of $1.1 million per unit; a ground-launched Tomahawk with an estimated development cost of less than $100 million and a procurement cost of $1.4 million per unit; or a ground-launched Tomahawk-Extended Range with an estimated development cost of $600 million and procurement cost of $3 million to $4 million per missile.

A boost-glide hypersonic land-attack weapon has an estimated price tag of $1.1 billion for development and $21 million each for procurement.
Ground-launched, anti-ship variants of these missiles would be more expensive than land-attack variants, according to the study.

“Each one of these systems [examined in the report] takes considerable funding in terms of research, development, testing and evaluation to be able to develop and field, so there’s a major opportunity cost” in pursuing them, said Tim Walton, a co-author of the report.

Nevertheless, the weapons would offer a number of operational benefits for the U.S. military, he noted during a recent conference. That includes providing a responsive strike capability to quickly engage time-critical targets; a survivable, difficult to detect force that could be forward deployed; and the ability to strike key nodes in an enemy’s defenses to create operational access for other units.

However, adversaries such as Russia and China have fielded sophisticated integrated air-defense systems, Walton noted.

“We need to either have large numbers of missiles to overwhelm them or have sophisticated missiles that use low signatures, high speeds, a great deal of maneuverability or advanced electronic warfare … to be able to tunnel through and penetrate their defenses,” he said.

More analysis will be required to determine the right type and mix of intermediate-range systems that the United States should pursue, Walton said. “But the good news is that now that the U.S. has left the INF Treaty, we can have that conversation.”

The Army already has projects in the works. New precision strike missiles and hypersonic boost-glide weapons that exceed the old treaty limitations could potentially be fielded in the early 2020s, Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy told reporters.

“These are all achievable in the very near future,” he said. “Those are in the process of development. … A lot of that will be dependent upon a lot of these developmental shots that are going to be taken over the next year to 18 months.” 

Topics: Strategic Weapons

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