Tomahawk missiles in dwindling supply

Navy is firing fewer of its favorite at Iraq

Weapon no longer manufactured

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq has taken its toll on the United States' stockpile of Tomahawks, depleting supplies of the Navy's favorite long-range cruise missile at a time when production lines are shut down and new missiles won't be ready for a year or more.

Pentagon planners say they have more than enough Tomahawks to finish the war, and a major naval resupply operation in the Persian Gulf region is keeping the Navy stocked with Tomahawks and other armaments.

But the frequency of Tomahawk strikes in Iraq has slowed, partly because of dwindling supplies, Pentagon officials say.

And some analysts say the punishing assault on Iraq has left the nation's supply of Tomahawks spread precariously thin throughout the rest of the world - with no quick means of replenishment.

`Didn't buy enough'

"This is a major misstep in terms of Pentagon planning," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Northern Virginia think tank.

"The whole value of the surface fleet depends on its ability to use Tomahawk missiles to attack inland targets. They didn't buy enough of them."

The Tomahawk has emerged as one of the Pentagon's most favored airstrike weapons. It can deliver a 1,000-pound bomb as far as 1,000 miles away, with a high degree of accuracy and without putting a pilot and aircrew at risk.

Most of the United States' recent conflicts have begun with a Tomahawk strike. The nation fired more than 300 during the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and launched hundreds more in the subsequent decade against targets in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo.

No previous strike compares, however, to the assault unleashed over the past two weeks.

Through yesterday, more than 725 Tomahawk missiles had been fired into Iraq during the latest war, according to Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

320 in one night

On one night - the "shock and awe" air attack of March 21 - the Navy launched 320 Tomahawks from 30 ships and submarines.

The Navy brought only about 1,000 Tomahawk missiles to the region in preparation for the war, roughly half the nation's stock worldwide. Still, Pentagon officials say the supply is adequate.

More missiles have been moved into the area, and the Tomahawk's long-distance strike role has become less important as the Army and Marine Corps advance toward Baghdad with tanks and artillery, the officials say.

"You can't do the math and subtract 700-some from 1,000 to see how many Tomahawks we have left, because we have been resupplying," said Rear Adm. Stephen R. Pietropaoli, the Navy's chief spokesman. "Our inventory is fine."

Tomahawk missiles still play a daily role in the war, mostly striking targets inside Baghdad where Iraqi fighters maintain some surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery that threaten allied planes and helicopters, Pietropaoli said.

If American and British forces win the complete "air dominance" over Baghdad that they have achieved in other parts of Iraq, the Tomahawk's role will diminish further, he said.

Costly weapon

While Pentagon officials appreciate the Tomahawk missile's long-range capabilities, the weapon has a distinct weakness: its $1 million price tag.

Military commanders in the first gulf war said they were discouraged from firing Tomahawks because the missiles were so expensive.

The Navy has other weapons, of course. Each aircraft carrier leaves port loaded with about 3 million pounds of ordnance - enough for 1,500 of the Navy's biggest bombs - and can be restocked regularly by vessels and helicopters that shuttle supplies from nearby ports.

Attack aircraft carry the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, a free-falling, satellite-guided bomb manufactured by Boeing Co. at a rate of nearly 2,500 a month. The company gets unguided bombs from the military and attaches $20,000 guidance systems to them.

American and British forces, both Navy and Air Force, have dropped more than 12,000 precision-guided bombs since the war began, according to the Pentagon.

Unlike the military's supply of JDAMs, however, the Tomahawk stockpile is not being replenished. The Pentagon stopped buying Tomahawks in the late 1990s, choosing instead to invest in upgraded cruise missiles that can "loiter" over an area and search for targets. Those missiles aren't expected to be ready for battle until the middle of 2004 at the earliest.

"Eventually the Navy will have to use less appropriate weapons to try to achieve the same goal, because they won't have the supply of Tomahawks that they need," said Thompson.

"And if we get into another war, who knows what we'll do?"

The U.S. Navy has five aircraft carriers in the waters around Iraq - three in the Persian Gulf and two in the Mediterranean Sea. Each of those carriers travels in a group of roughly 10 ships, which includes destroyers, guided-missile cruisers, a frigate, one or two submarines and a supply vessel.

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