ALCM stands for Air-Launched Cruise Missile. It is both a generic and a specific; in the generic, it refers to any weapon which is employed in this manner. In the specific, it refers to a particular weapon system built and deployed by the United States Air Force.

These weapons were designed to be dropped from a B-52 Stratofortress nuclear bomber in the event of nuclear war to then fly deeper into Soviet airspace towards their targets. They were intended to increase the survivability and likelihood of success of the American bomber force by allowing them to launch their attacks from outside Soviet airspace proper. The ALCM was built by Boeing and consists of a small, pilotless jet aircraft with a guidance system and (originally) a nuclear warhead in the nose. Upon being dropped from the launch vehicle, the ALCM unfolds small wings, ignites its small turbojet and heads off towards its rendevous with apocalypse. The ALCM is designed to fly low, following terrain, in order to avoid detection and interdiction by air defenses.

The U.S. Air Force opened Gulf War I with a large strike on Iraq which included a massive salvo of ALCMs that had been converted to carry conventional high explosives. It seems likely that there is a pressure to 'use them or lose them' since as they age and are removed from the inventory no replacements are to be had.

The original ALCM was designated (as deployed) the AGM-86B (for 'Air-to-Ground Missile') and carried a nuclear payload. Those converted to a conventional role were redesignated the CALCM (yep, Conventional ALCM) and given the designation AGM-86C. A 3,000-lb blast/fragmentation warhead was fitted, and the TERCOM guidance system updated to use GPS. A later variant, the AGM-86D, sports a penetrating warhead to enable it to attack hardened targets.

A total of 1,739 missiles were produced between 1980 and 1985. Some of these were later converted to the CALCM models; no new production was made for CALCM stocks.

The first Air-Launched Cruise Missile was the German V-1 "Buzz-Bomb" which was employed as such in the waning days of World War II. Originally designed to be launched from a steam-driven catapult (similar to the system employed to launch aircraft on some modern aircraft carriers), the success of the D-Day landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, put these plans in serious jeopardy. The catapult systems were easily located and destroyed by patrolling Allied aircraft; indeed, every launching platform had been either destroyed or disabled prior to Operation Overlord. The V-1 did not fly until June 12, 1944. Very quickly the Germans built new launch sites at Par-de-Calais, but these too were vulnerable to assault from the air. The V-1's limited range (approximately 200 miles) meant that further Allied advances might place strategic targets like London entirely beyond the reach of the flying bomb. Another launching solution was required.

Early, proof-of-concept tests in air launch of the V-1 had shown that this was a feasible though less-than-desirable method of deploying the weapons. With the remaining land-based launchers in danger of capture or destruction the German forces turned to this method once again. Beginning in July of 1944 Heinkel He 111 bombers, each with a single V-1 missile mounted inboard of their left engine, took off from airfields in Germany and flew out over the North Sea. After reaching a specified distance from their target (generally London) the weapon was released from the aircraft and sent off to wreak havoc.

Or probably not. Roughly a quarter of all V-1s crashed before they reached land; the air-launched weapons also had the annoying habit of falling into the North Sea, likely due to problems with the craft's pulse jet. Of the remainder, half were destroyed by Allied fighters or land-based anti-aircraft batteries. V-1 air launches were also hampered by the growing Allied air presence in continental Europe, which limited the number of He 111 aircraft available for deployment of the buzz-bomb; of the air-launched V-1s targeted at London on a daily basis it is estimated that at most a handful successfully reached the city. The Germans continued air-launch of the V-1 until January of 1945, when the Allies' growing air superiority over Europe made the practice untenable. Land-launch of the missile ended in March of the same year.

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