Cruise missile is any weapon which automatically flies an essentially horizontal cruise flight profile for most of the duration of its flight between launch and its terminal trajectory to impact. The hallmark of a cruise missile is its incredible accuracy. A common statement made about the cruise missile is, “It can fly 1,000 miles and hit a target the size of a single-car garage.” Their main attraction has been the difficulty in detecting, tracking and killing a small, and often very low flying cruise missile.
Therefore cruise missiles often provided very significant stand-off range, keeping the delivery platform out of the reach of most if not all air defence weapons. A cruise missile’s job in life is to deliver a 1,000-pound (450-kg) high-explosive bomb to a precise location — the target. The missile is destroyed when the bomb explodes. Since cruise missiles cost between $500,000 and $1,000,000 each, it’s a fairly expensive way to deliver a 1,000-pound package.
Air-launched cruise missile (ALCM)
An air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) is a cruise missile that is launched from a military aircraft. Current versions are typically standoff weapons which are used to attack predetermined land targets with conventional, nuclear or thermonuclear payloads.
An ALCM has enormous utility in the initial stages of a conflict and is likely to be used in armed conflict, as it can eliminate the enemy’s air defences as well as air bases. It can also be delivered at substantial standoff ranges. Operation Desert Storm almost certainly secured the role of the cruise missile for future air campaigns, with the weapons providing the opening salvos for attacks in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya and more recently Syria.
Today, nearly 20 countries have an air-launched cruise missile capability and others are aspiring toward it as the technology proliferates. Nations such as Brazil, India and Pakistan are developing their own.
The United States intelligence community believes that the Russian Air Force is encountering a significant failure rate when using air-launched cruise missiles, almost certainly the Raduga Kh-101 (RS-AS-23A Kodiak), in long-range attacks against targets in Ukraine. The Kh-101 is integrated on the Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack A mod and the Tu-95MS Bear H mod. The missiles are carried internally on a rotary launcher on the Blackjack, and on underwing pylons on the Bear H. The Kh-101 was used successfully during Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war to strike enemy targets and is now the primary conventionally armed long-range land-attack cruise missile in the air force inventory.
China’s Cruise Missile
The cruise missile segment of China’s missile capabilities is highly advanced. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) controls and operates Chinese ballistic and cruise missile brigades. China’s long-range air-launched cruise missile capabilities pose the greatest threat to static targets and slow-moving concentration of forces or troops, rather than airborne targets. The CJ-20 is not a threat to airborne targets because of their speed and manoeuvrability, making them difficult targets to destroy
For instance, the PLAAF’s KD-20, also known as CJ-20 ALCM missile, is geared for striking land targets. It is an air-launched land attack cruise missile with a range of 1500 km. CJ-20 forms the payload of the PLAAF’s Xian H-6 strategic bomber. The variant of the H-6 strategic bomber, known as the H-6K, presents an even greater challenge than the original H-6H/M variant that first emerged in 2006. If estimates and predictions are accurate, the H-6K has a substantial combat radius of 2,500 km and when equipped with the CJ-20, gives it a menacing striking range of 4,000 km, which is 40-percent more than its predecessor.
Further, China is fielding H-6K bombers in greater numbers, which can carry six ALCMs and would be able to mount precision strikes at great distances, including potentially deep inside the Indian land mass. The ALCMs are precision stand-off weapons with high efficiency turbofan engines.
Furthermore, China is believed to be developing a long-range stealth bomber comparable to the American B-2. This long-range stealth bomber known as the H-20 can deliver cruise missiles potentially at hypersonic speeds.
BrahMos is a Joint Venture between India (DRDO) and Russia (NPOM) for the development, production and marketing of the supersonic cruise missile. The Air version of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile was successfully test fired from the supersonic fighter aircraft Sukhoi 30 MK-I at 1030 hrs from Integrated Test Range, Chandipur off the coast of Odisha on December 08, 2021. Major airframe assemblies which form the integral part of the Ramjet Engine are indigenously developed by Indian Industry. These include metallic and non-metallic air frame sections comprising Ramjet fuel tank and pneumatic fuel supply system. During the test, the structural integrity and functional performance have been proven. The air version of BrahMos was last flight tested in July 2021.
Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range (JASSM-ER)
In March 2022, Officials of the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., asked the Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control segment in Orlando, Fla., to build 308 lot-20 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range (JASSM-ER) stealthy air-to-ground missiles with containers.
The JASSM-ER is a 2,250-pound cruise missile with a 1,000-pound penetrator and blast-fragmentation warhead. These missiles use precision routing and guidance in adverse weather, day or night, using infrared sensors in addition to anti-jam GPS to find specific aim points on targets.
The missile’s guidance relies on an inertial navigation sensor (INS) with updates from Global Positioning System satellites. An imaging infrared seeker recognizes targets and provides terminal guidance. A data link enables the missile to transmit its location and status during flight, which can improve bomb damage assessment.
JASSM, which has been in service since 2009, is a long-range, conventional, air-to-ground, precision standoff missile for the U.S. and allied forces that is designed to destroy high-value, well-defended, fixed and relocatable targets. The JASSM has a range of 230 miles, while the JASSM-ER has a range of 620 miles.
In 2015 the Air Force nominated the JASSM-ER to carry the Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) payload. CHAMP is an electromagnetic warfare technology that destroys electronic equipment with bursts of high-power microwave energy. CHAMP is to be miniaturized to enable the JASSM-ER to carry the payload.
Risk of Nuclear escalation
The U.S. nuclear arsenal, which features a triad of nuclear weapons on bombers, land-based ballistic missiles, and submarines, is undergoing an extensive and expensive modernization plan costing up to $1.5 trillion over the next three decades. The Pentagon plans to update all three legs of the triad by building a new class of ballistic missile submarines, a new stealth bomber, a modified nuclear gravity bomb, new cruise missiles, and a new intercontinental ballistic missile.
As part of this plan, the Pentagon plans to build 1,000 new air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) to replace the current model, which will reach the end of its operational life around 2030. An ALCM is a guided missile fired from an airplane and can travel long distances. The new ALCM, known as the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO), is projected to cost nearly $11 billion in acquisition costs. In April 2020, the Air Force made a surprise, early decision to select Raytheon as the sole-source contractor on the LRSO.
A new nuclear cruise missile could amplify the risk of nuclear escalation. Deploying a new cruise missile increases the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation, since other countries cannot determine if a launched missile is conventional or nuclear, writes Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. While unnecessary for deterrence, the nuclear cruise missile is seen by some proponents as a tool for “limited” nuclear war. The proliferation of nuclear cruise missile technology to other countries, like China, could increase the likelihood of a future nuclear exchange.
References and Resources also include: