The Saga Of The AGM-129 Cruise Missile That Was Basically A Stealth Jet Designed Upside Down

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Lorenzo von Matterhorn
Jan 31, 2009
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The Saga Of The AGM-129 Cruise Missile That Was Basically A Stealth Jet Designed Upside Down
The Advanced Cruise Missile was too far ahead of its time, so much so that it was eventually succeeded by the missile it was supposed to replace.
4 Dec 2019

[snip - for specific tech and design rational of the missile, see link]

It also included laser detection and ranging system (LADAR) to aid in low-altitude flight, which further allowed it to fine-tune its endgame attack run down to as accurate as 90 feet according to stated metrics, although the system likely became even more accurate as it matured. Considering it still packed the same W80 variable yield warhead (5kt-150kt) as the AGM-86B, its better accuracy substantially increased its effectiveness, especially against reinforced targets or those that are partially shielded by terrain.


It can't be stressed enough how advanced the ACM was for its time. It had many elements that hadn't yet emerged from the classified manned aircraft realm, but was an autonomous system meant to fly thousands of miles to its target without aid and to be built by the hundreds. It was truly a highly sensitive modern marvel of its era.

[huge snip]

In retrospect, the decision not just to retire [in 2012 - W], but fully destroy the AGM-129 cadre seems like a very poor one. Today, the Air Force is working on developing a new stealthy long-range nuclear-tipped cruise missile, the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, a program that will cost tens of billions of dollars and won't produce an operational missile until at least 2030. Raytheon, which owns the AGM-129 design after it bought Hughes Missile Systems, which bought General Dynamics' missile portfolio prior, is competing with Lockheed for the LRSO contract. In the meantime, the AGM-86B is supposed to remain a viable deterrent even in an era of ever more capable highly integrated air defense systems, ones that now rely on look-down-shoot-down sensors more than they did 35 years ago [look-down-shoot-down sensors even way back then were the reason the AGM-129 was designed "upside down" - W] and that are far more advanced in general than what existed when ACM was conceived. This begs the question, is the AGM-86B really a survivable deterrent at all? The true answer, that we will never officially get, is probably less comforting than we may want to hear.

The truth is, the AGM-129 was way ahead of its time. Today, there are numerous stealthy cruise missiles in production or will be in production soon and they are becoming an extremely sought-after item. The USAF can't get enough of Lockheed's JASSM family of missiles, which continues to rapidly grow in capability, while the Navy is procuring the anti-ship LRASM cousin of JASSM, the stealthy Naval Strike Missile, and a powered version of the JSOW. Multiple foreign militaries have their own stealthy cruise missiles, as well.

But these are conventionally armed weapons. It will be at least another decade until a nuclear-armed stealth cruise missile hits the USAF's inventory again. That weapon, the LRSO, will be in many ways the son of AGM-129 and from what we are hearing, it will be absolutely loaded with the latest and greatest technology that will allow it to survive in the most inhospitable of combat environments. It is also meant to equip the USAF's new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider.