Canceling the Tomahawk is a gamble we can’t afford
Once again, our military leaders face a tradeoff. Can the United States meet the serious new security challenges we face while staying within strict budget limits?
To do so, policymakers will have to make some very tough choices that leverage our existing capabilities while also planning for the future. Foreign threats to America and her allies will not diminish simply because of American fiscal restraints.
Indeed, Iran and North Korea are both well on their way toward developing the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead on target. Violence is spreading throughout northern Africa and the Middle East. Terrorist groups continue to cultivate the next generation of dangerous radicals.
The United States military needs to be able to both meet these threats and stay on guard for new ones. Yet budget cuts could compromise our ability to accomplish either goal.
One way the Department of Defense can make the best use of limited funds is by investing in battle-tested technologies. A case in point is the Tomahawk cruise missile. By upgrading rather than replacing the iconic Tomahawk, policymakers can improve America’s military capabilities in a way that is both strategically sound and fiscally responsible.
Military technology has long been shifting toward greater precision from greater distances. No longer do we have to take out entire city blocks, or even entire buildings, to hit our target. And like the Athenians employing archers against the Spartans, long range missiles allow our troops to keep a safe distance when engaging the enemy.
Given that this is the nature of modern warfare, sophisticated and accurate weapons like cruise missiles will play an increasingly large role in national defense.
That’s why Tomahawk missiles have been a mainstay of the U.S. arsenal since Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The missiles launched during that conflict allowed our forces to carry out precise strikes on sensitive targets without putting military personnel in harm’s way.
In 2011, Tomahawks were once again used in the NATO mission against the forces of Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi. And they are standing by as the weapon of choice if the United States needs to launch a mission to protect America’s interests.
Some policymakers have expressed support for replacing the Tomahawk program with an alternative weapons system known as the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), which has half the range of the Tomahawk and is more expensive.
LRASM proponents hope to start putting it on aircrafts by around 2018, but delays could push this date back even further. And as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile program demonstrates, a number of factors ranging from technical problems to cost overruns consistently push back the operational dates for new defense weapons.
The Tomahawk, meanwhile, is already fully integrated with all major U.S. combatant ships and submarines. And work is already underway to improve the Tomahawk to meet the next generation of threats our nation will face.
Fortunately, some high-ranking lawmakers now recognize the danger in replacing the Tomahawk wholesale. A recent appropriations bill from the House Armed Services Committee registered members’ concern with the prospect of “terminat[ing] procurement...of the Nation’s only long-range, surface-launched land-attack cruise missile” with a replacement “not planned to be operationally fielded until 2024 at the earliest.”
The bottom line? Upgrading the Tomahawk system is less expensive and less risky than phasing it out in favor of a missile still at the early stages of development. Going “all in” to a new system is a gratuitous risk we should not be taking when we already have an effective weapon in our arsenal.
Michael James Barton served as the deputy director of Middle East policy at the Pentagon from 2006 through 2009 and is currently a director at ARTIS Research.