A staple of the Air Force’s long-range strike portfolio has come to the end of the road. The AGM-86C/D Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM), the non-nuclear sibling of the AGB-86B that remains in service as the backbone of the B-52’s nuclear strike mission, is being put rest after decades of service. The last download of these missiles from a B-52H occurred at Barksdale AFB on November 20th, 2019, marking the final end to the weapon’s service.
CALCM was born out of the nuclear-armed ALCM program from the 1970s that eventually produced the AGM-86B. The potential for the missile to carry a much heavier payload than a nuclear warhead in trade for less range was seen early on. By the mid-1980s, the CALCM program was borne. It was the first munition of any type to use GPS guidance and saw its combat debut as part of the opening strikes of Operation Desert Storm. This mission was, at the time, a highly secretive operation aptly dubbed “Secret Squirrel” and was seen as something of a game-changer when comes to the evolution of modern weaponry. You can read all about it here.
CALCM, which uses GPS, inertial navigation, and terrain matching for guidance, has received various upgrades over the years, but it’s three decades old and based on a missile design that is over a decade older than that. This means that supporting has become increasingly troublesome and costly. CALCM’s lack of high-end stealth capability and other modern navigational features means that it has become more vulnerable, as well.
These factors paired with the introduction of the AGM-158 Joint Air-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), point to the reality that the CALCM is due for replacement. JASSM has a plethora of new features including very low-observability (stealth) and passive infrared target-matching/homing, makes it a far more survivable and accurate missile on a modern battlefield that can include heavy doses of electronic warfare, including GPS and radar jamming.
JASSM cannot carry the size of payload that CALCM could. The AGM-86C model carries a 1,500 or 3,000 lb blast fragmentation warhead, while the D carries a multi-warhead penetrator for attacking hardened targets. JASSM carries a dual-mode blast-fragmentation/penetrator warhead in the 1,000lb class. Still, modern warhead design has allowed for similar effects in lighter and smaller packages, which could offset some of this warhead weight gap.
While JASSM has a range of almost 250 miles, its extended range cousin, JASSM-ER can reach out nearly 600 miles, which is fairly close to the range of CALCM. Another variant of JASSM, the JASSM-XR, that is under development, will be substantially larger than the JASSM-ER and will offer a range of over 1,000 miles while carrying a larger 2,000lb warhead. JASSM-XR is slated for operational service around 2023.
With this in mind, it’s not like the Air Force is losing all that much capability with the retirement of CALCM, but there are still a couple of tradeoffs. Yet even those will be fully mitigated and then some by the upcoming JASSM-XR.
Beyond JASSM, the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) missile is currently in development to replace the AGM-86B ALCM in the standoff nuclear-armed cruise missile role. LRSO will also have a conventional variant that will incorporate the latest navigation, low-observable (stealthy), and warhead technologies.
This missile, which is a key component of the initiative to upgrade America’s geriatric nuclear arsenal, is planned to be operational around 2030, leaving the AGM-86B ALCM to soldier on another decade via a life-extension program. ALCM has a range of 1,500 miles, it is likely the LRSO will have equal if not considerably enhanced standoff capability. It will be interesting to see what type of payload the conventional version will be able to carry and over what distance, and as a result, how it will significantly outperform the JASSM-XR. You can read all about the LRSO in this past War Zone article.
The AGM-86 family of missiles really represented huge leaps in capability when they were designed. In fact, the type even starred in a James Bond movie. But technology has certainly moved on and freeing-up funds that would be allocated to supporting old, less capable missiles that could be used to purchase new, cutting-edge ones, does make some sense. This is especially true as standoff cruise missiles will be absolutely critical in kicking-down the enemy’s air defenses in the open stages of any major conflict. In the future, they will be able to swarm cooperatively as well, bringing a whole other level of lethality to what is an established and high-demand capability.
It’s not clear exactly how many AGM-86s remain in the inventory at this time, but the Air Force fact sheet as of August of 2019 states:
AGM-86B, active force: 536; AGM-86C: 186, Block 0: 12; Block I: 174, AGM-86D: 34
So, we are talking about a maximum of 406 missiles being disassembled or set for disassembly as the CALCM program winds down once and for all.
As for the B-52’s standoff conventional strike mission, the iconic bomber is capable of carrying 20 JASSMs at a time—six on each wing pylon and eight on its internal rotary launcher. Combined with the stealthy missile’s enhanced capabilities, the BUFF has never been more capable of delivering devastating conventional attacks from far over the horizon.
Photo: JASSMs loaded into the bomb bay of a B-1B prior to strikes on Syria on April 13th, 2018.