This month marks 40 years since Boeing was selected by the U.S. Air Force to produce the AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missile, known as the ALCM, which is still serving as a key component of the U.S. nuclear triad to this day.
The nuclear triad collectively refers to the nuclear-capable air, land and sea-based weapon systems and platforms that have served as the backbone of U.S. national security since the Cold War. The triad exists to ensure peace through strength by deterring adversaries from carrying out attacks on the nation, its allies and international partners.
“We’re honored that the Air Force has entrusted us with the ALCM mission since 1980, and we look forward to sustaining its readiness in the years to come,” said Ted Kerzie, director of Boeing’s Strategic Deterrence Systems. “The ALCM was built to last and is a true testament to Boeing’s quality and integrity.”
The ALCM is a 3,200-pound, self-guided missile that electronically “sees” the terrain it flies over by collecting readings and comparing them with electronically stored maps—adjusting its trajectory as needed to reach its destination.
After launch, the wings and tail unfold, and the turbofan engine powers the missile at subsonic speeds. With a range of more than 1,500 miles and low altitude cruising capabilities, it keeps pilots at a safe distance and is difficult to detect on enemy radar.
Today, Boeing employees are working to keep the ALCM viable for another 10-15 years. To accomplish this, engineers at the Boeing Guidance Repair Center in Heath, Ohio, are working with a design team in Oklahoma City to upgrade the ALCM on a component-by-component basis.
But the ALCM doesn’t work on its own. It’s carried to the skies on the wings of Boeing’s venerable B-52 Stratofortress— one of the backbones of America’s bomber force.
The B-52, with a weapons payload of more than 70,000 pounds, is capable of carrying a diverse range of weapons, including 20 ALCMs.
“The B-52 is the most combat capable bomber in the U.S. inventory and provides immediate nuclear and conventional global strike capability,” said Scot Oathout, Boeing’s bombers program director. “It’s a critical component to our national security because of its high mission-capable rate, large payload, long range and ability to employ both nuclear and conventional precision standoff weapons, including the ALCM.”
The B-52 also depends on tanker support in order to enable truly global reach for the ALCM. That’s where Boeing’s KC-135 Stratotanker comes into play—rounding out Boeing’s own “triad” of support for air-based nuclear deterrence.
The KC-135 has long been the aerial refueling mainstay for the Air Force, enabling the service’s global reach. Boeing Global Services provide sustainment, parts, maintenance, and modernization support to the Air Force’s KC-135 fleet, ensuring mission readiness and extending its service life.
“Boeing tankers are critical to ensuring our country’s ability to project strength and maintain air superiority,” said Rick Bach, Boeing’s director of legacy tanker services. “The Air Force is looking to fly the KC-135 Stratotanker beyond 2050, a reflection of how robust and durable the KC-135 has proven itself to be, as well as how we effectively sustain and support our products throughout their lifecycle.”
In the years to come, Boeing’s new KC-46 Pegasus will join this mission and help fuel deterrence into the future.
“The KC-46 is a next-generation tanker, offering cutting-edge technological developments in refueling and transport,” said Jamie Burgess, KC-46 vice president and program manager. “Its ability to extend the range of all coalition aircraft, including the B-52, in complex environments brings unmatched capability and operational flexibility to the Air Force.”