August 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 4 
Historical Perspective

ALCM-B leapfrogged air defense gains


ALCM-BFrom swept-wing jets to pilotless aircraft, Boeing historically has been at the forefront in advancing new technologies. Twenty-five years ago this month, Boeing again exhibited its leadership in developing innovative, cutting-edge technology, when it flew the first production Air Launched Cruise Missile, the ALCM–B.

The Air Launched Cruise Missile program began in 1974 in response to the increasing capability of Soviet-bloc air defenses to check the effectiveness of manned bomber forces. Along with submarine-launched ballistic missiles and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, the manned bomber force was one of the indispensable legs of the U.S. nuclear deterrent triad. The ALCM was seen as the answer to how to provide an effective, airborne strategic deterrent in the face of upgraded air defense capabilities.

In 1977, Boeing successfully flight-tested six short-range AGM-86A ALCM missiles. Then, in August 1979, the first of the long-range ALCM-B models (AGM-86B) were tested in a series of flights over the Utah desert. In May 1980, Boeing won a U.S. Air Force contract, and full-scale production began.

The ALCM-B was a long-range, subsonic, 3,200-pound, self-guided, stand-off cruise missile that could be delivered by a B-52. Its more than 1,500-mile range allowed it to be launched from well outside hostile airspace, protecting the launching bomber from opposing air defenses. Flying just a few hundred feet above the ground, and only 21 feet long and with a 12-foot wingspan, the ALCM was difficult to detect with radar.

The B-52 can carry 20 ALCMs, 12 externally on under-wing pylons and eight more on a rotary launcher in its bomb bay. After launch, an ALCM’s wings and tail unfold, and a turbofan engine powers the missile at speeds up to 500 mph.

One of the innovative features of the AGM-86B was its terrain-following ability. Using electronic data captured by a radar altimeter in its nose, the ALCM would make course corrections by comparing the radar with maps stored in its computer. This preprogrammed autonomous flight ability is part of Boeing’s long experience in pilotless aircraft that contributes to today’s unmanned systems technology.

AGM-86B was armed with a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead. Boeing began in 1986 to convert the nuclear-armed B model to the conventionally armed C model, or Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile, armed with a 3,000 pound-class, high-blast fragmentation warhead.

As part of the modification to the conventional AGM-86C configuration, the ALCM’s terrain-following system was replaced with a more accurate and reliable Global Positioning System.

By October 1986, Boeing had built 1,715 AGM-86B missiles at its Kent Space Center facility in Washington. In 1995, work on a contract for 200 improved CALCMs began at Boeing’s facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

CALCM first went into battle as part of the opening salvo of Operation Desert Storm, in what was called Operation Secret Squirrel. On the morning of Jan. 16, 1991, seven B-52Gs from the 596th Bomb Squadron took off from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., beginning a 35-hour, 14,000-mile, nonstop mission. From points outside of Iraqi airspace, the B-52s launched 35 CALCMs that, along with strikes from F-117 Night Hawk Stealth Fighters, crippled Iraq’s command and control system.

In December 1998, CALCMs were used once again, this time targeting possible storage sites for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in Operation Desert Fox. In 1999, CALCMs were used during Operation Allied Force, NATO’s air campaign in the Balkans, and, most recently, in Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.

CALCM conversion work was moved in 1999 to the Boeing Missile Center in St. Charles, Mo., where the most recent version, the CALCM-D (AGM-86D), is manufactured. The AGM-86D program modifies additional ALCM missiles with an advanced penetrating warhead that can destroy buried or reinforced targets. This latest version of the ALCM provides theater commanders with a versatile long-range weapon that can precisely attack an enemy’s most valuable facilities from hundreds of miles away.

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