On Stealth, Nukes and Cruise Missiles

The AGM-129A Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM) is being retired by the US Air Force, according to a March 7 post on the Strategic Security Blog by the Federation of American Scientists.

Add the AGM-129A to the growing list of weapons the air force is divesting or seeking to divest, which also include the F-117 and the U-2.

The decision also brings an ingnominous end to the brittle AGM-129A, the first nuclear-tipped cruise missile designed with stealth as an overriding factor. It was conceived in 1983 in the same generation as the B-2 stealth bomber and RAH-66 Commanche stealth helicopter in an age when stealth — perhaps like information and networking today — was still viewed and hyped as its own revolution in military affairs.

The original plan was to deliver 1,500 AGM-129A missiles at a rate of 40 missiles per year after full-rate production in 1993. The weapon would still be coming off the assembly line today!

But the original manufacturer, General Dynamics, was beset by flawed software, shoddy manufacturing and testing mishaps. Congress stepped in to zero out funds for the program in 1989 and the air force invited McDonnell Douglas to qualify as an alternative source. McDonnell Douglas accepted the invitation, only to regret it later when the Bush I regime decided to stop production of the missile after building about 460.

The remaining inventory is now being retired after less than 20 years of service. Other non-stealthy cruise missiles with conventional warheads — such as the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile and the UGM-109 Tactical Tomahawk — are known to have been fired in combat.

The concept of a nuclear cruise missile now appears to be out of fashion. US Strategic Command is demanding a capability for prompt global strike — like the kind delivered by a hyper-mach ballistic missile, not a subsonic cruise missile. Conventional (read: non-nuclear) warheads are seen as the proper kill mechanism of a cruise missile, stealthy or othwerwise.

To wit: production of the nuclear AGM-129A was curtailed just as the military started pouring cash into the development of stealthy, non-nuclear cruise missiles.

The initial investment in the Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile fell apart, but the replacement — the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile — is in the inventory today. The JASSM and the AGM-129A are not equivalent even as conventional weapons — the AGM-129A has an enormous range advantage.

The AGM-129A never really found its niche in the arsenal despite its reportedly $6.4 billion price tag. If there is any return for the taxpayer’s investment, it may be as an object lesson for the dangers of taking the fads of military technology to their unjustified extreme. 

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2 Responses to On Stealth, Nukes and Cruise Missiles

  1. Strategic Thinker 17 August, 2007 at 3:55 pm #

    If you ask me, the USAF should take advantage of the significant capabilities of these missiles (stealth, range, payload) and convert them to conventional missiles, perhaps with an enhanced capability to destroy hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs).

  2. The DEW Line 17 August, 2007 at 4:01 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We know they’ve tried that approach with JASSM, but the test was a failure. I wonder if a cruise missile has the thrust required to be an effective penetrator. For what it’s worth, the AGM-129A may actually be returned to service next year anyway, according to my sources.

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