Michael KreponCruise Missiles

The era of modern cruise missiles began when the Nixon administration was looking for leverage in arms control negotiations with the Kremlin. Nixon and Kissinger did not fare well in the SALT talks, in part because the Soviet Union was building up ballistic missile force levels while the United States was leveling them off. So Nixon and Kissinger sought advantage through other strategic modernization programs, including a new generations of cruise missiles. It was not surprising that, as negotiators were trying to squeeze the air out of some compartments of the arms race, others would balloon up.

Advanced cruise missiles, which started as a negotiating maneuver, turned out to have significant military applications. The worst fears associated with a nuclear-armed cruise missile world were not realized, however. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles weren’t very useful for major powers, but conventionally-armed cruise missiles were. Ironically, the pursuit of advanced cruise missiles by the United States helped to tip the Pentagon’s interests away from nuclear weapons.

My fingers have recently done the walking through my 4 X 6 shoe box file collection on cruise missiles. Here are some samples:

“The cruise missile has altered the naval equation beyond recognition.”
— Forward to Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1975-1976.

“The cruise missile program had its beginning in a National Security Council meeting. I was discussing the potential development of cruise missiles with Secretary Kissinger as part of a rather sensitive meeting on various subjects… I said that we had the technology and we could do things now we couldn’t do ten years ago… our technology had moved forward in guidance, propulsion and more particularly electronics… Kissinger… approved my idea of going forward with cruise missiles.”
— Undersecretary of Defense William Clements in an interview published in Countermeasures, 1977.

”It is unrealistic to expect that a complete ban on cruise missiles can be achieved. But the extraordinary potential flexibility of new cruise missiles to perform strategic and tactical missions, to be launched from a variety of land-, sea- and air-based platforms, and to be deployed in large and unverifiable numbers, is such that only negotiated limitations promise to inhibit their wide-scale deployment.”
— Paul Doty, Albert Carnesale and Michael Nacht, “The Race to Control Nuclear Arms,” Foreign Affairs, October 1976

“The Soviet Union, to counter current generation low-flying, pre-programmed, highly accurate U.S. cruise missiles targeted against Soviet territory, would be forced to spend between an estimated $10 and $15 billion for the modernization of its air defense system – funds that otherwise would undoubtedly be allocated to Soviet offensive weapons programs.”
–“Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., and Jacquelyn K. Davis, “The Cruise Missile: Bargaining Chip or Defense Bargain?” 1977.

“The cruise missile program, with its military advantages and implications for the nuclear arms race, is emerging as the most extensive and expensive weapons-system development in Defense Department history.”
— unsigned “Military Analysis,” New York Times, June 14, 1978

“SLCMs could be a pivotal factor in supplementing existing theater nuclear forces, strengthening our strategic reserve, and deterring against U.S. naval forces worldwide or in any post-war balance and struggle for recovery.”
— Richard D. DeLauer, Undersecretary of Defense, Research and Engineering, Congressional testimony, 1983.

“We advocate reducing the role of both ICBMs and SLBMs, with the result that the bulk of the U.S. deterrent force should comprise two categories of cruise missiles, ALCMs and SVCMs. In addition, the air-breathing deterrent should move from a penetrating bomber force toward an advanced ALCM force.”
— Sidney D. Drell and Thomas H. Johnson, “Managing Strategic Weapons,” Foreign Affairs, summer 1988.


  1. yousaf (History)

    I find the references to cruise missile “deterrence” interesting: presumably because this was during the cold war one would automatically know who bombed the Soviets or the US. However, attribution would be more difficult now, especially given that such missiles would not necessarily have a return address, like ICBMs do — assuming several nations developed the relevant cruise-missile know-how.

    It’s interesting to think that were there a technically plausible incarnation of national missile defense (perhaps Ted Postol’s drone-based boost-phase idea?) it may well dissuade the nations it is directed towards from working on ICBMs and encourage them to field cruise missiles which are more difficult to attribute, and thus (perhaps marginally) more likely to be used.

  2. Byron Skinner (History)

    Good Evening Folks,

    A good Cold War story, but the last I heard is that the Block 1 and Block 2 Tomahawks were being retired along with the W-64 warhead. I don’t believe that there are any longer Nuclear CM’s on US submarines either SSN’s SSBM’s.

    Byron Skinner

  3. MarkoB (History)

    Can we be so sure that cruise missiles really did start as a chip to use in arms control talks? Or was this rationale just trotted up by Kissinger to justify not killing off an arms development project? Berkowitz pointed out that arms control has a poor record at stopping developmental weapons technology. Here the situation might have been worse; arms control was used to justify development of weapons technology. Maybe something to ponder next time we hear about arms control and stockpile (plus complex) modernisation.

    • FSB (History)

      Or the (expensive) missile defense hoax.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    —I had thought that ACW did a bit about how unreliable cruise missiles are, as seen today, after decades of use. But in the early 1970s, was there an assumption that “the current generation of Cruise Missiles is not that good, but in two or three generations the refinements will make them much, much better?”

    —And then, two or three generations of Cruise Missiles later, they still were not as good as it was hoped?

    —The MarkoB posting above would be easier to evaluate if we knew how the people developing the first generation of Cruise Missiles felt the second and third generations would perform.

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