Tried and True Tomahawk
Since 2001 the specter of radical Islamic terrorism has dominated the debate on national security, often at the expense of protecting ourselves against equally looming but more traditional military threats. By focusing on land wars in the Middle East for the past 15 years, we have allowed other global adversaries to develop next generation weapons capabilities and upgrade their naval forces much to the detriment of our national interests. With the increased belligerency of Russia, Iran and especially China, it is clear that the United States must adequately fund, upgrade and re-invigorate our military in this new, multi-polar world in which we live.
China has increased its military spending by an average of 11 percent per year for the last two decades. Focusing on sea power and sea denial, the Chinese have built airstrips on Fiery Cross Reef and in the Spratly Islands in order to effectively dominate the commons of the South China Sea - an area where the U.S. has maintained stability for over 70 years. Similarly, Russia poses a renewed threat on the other side of the world. Putin seeks nothing less than a restoration of Soviet-era sea power over the next five years. Meanwhile, Iran has devoted years to strengthening its anti-ship missile capabilities, with the clear intention to deny and humble the U.S. in the Arabian Gulf, and across the greater Middle East. Our adversaries are testing our resolve.
In this chaotic environment where our enemies continue to redefine and shape events, it is baffling that the Obama Administration seeks to end the incredibly successful Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM). The Tomahawk is our only all-weather, long-range, subsonic cruise missile that can be launched from U.S. ships and submarines, and has been instrumental in maintaining U.S. naval superiority since Desert Storm. In the last 30 years the Tomahawk has become an incredibly useful tool that provides first-strike capability, which can downgrade and diminish our adversary’s ability to fight. The Tomahawk has been used more than 2,000 times in combat accruing over 90 percent reliability, and with the latest GPS upgrade, it is capable of receiving in-flight target updates to readjust and correct its course to attack moving ships at sea. It is the only weapon that can serve as a reliable naval deterrent for the foreseeable future.
Despite its success and reliability, the Obama Administration attempted to drastically reduce Tomahawk procurement in 2015 by cutting the program by $128 million and even planned to phase out the program altogether in fiscal year 2016. Those plans were luckily tabled due to public outcry but as we live in an increasingly destabilized world, the desire for President Obama to cut funding for the Tomahawk is bewildering. Representative Randy Forbes (R., VA), a member of House Armed Services Committee, recently stated, “The Administration’s proposed budget dramatically under-resources our investments in munitions and leaves the Defense Department with dangerous gaps in key areas, like Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles.” Not only is this administration’s action perplexing, but they are dangerous as well.
Despite these facts and comments from Congress, some defense analysts are pushing for a surface-launched variant of a new weapon system, called the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile system (LRASM), as an alternative to the Tomahawk. We have to be forward-thinking when it comes to the threat, but the devil is the details when it comes to this next-generation system.
To date, the government has awarded $321.8 million for research and development in support of the LRASM program with the sum of the program totaling over $1.1 billion. Not only will this weapon system still be in development for years, it’s failed to perform as advertised when tested—according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) LRASM has missed some critical milestones, and is vastly more expensive than Tomahawk.
Perhaps more worrisome, on its current development path the LRASM can only be fired from the air, not the surface, which essentially makes it a non-starter for our Navy, especially with the need to rebalance approximately 60% of our Naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. We need more ships and more missiles to arm these ships in the very near-term.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul, this Administration seeks to take millions typically spent on procurement of additional Tomahawk missiles and invest those dollars into an experimental program that will not be battle-ready for years to come. This reckless side-stepping of a tried and proven weapon system stands to jeopardize U.S. Naval supremacy - at a time when our leaders continue to call upon our diminished forces to blunt belligerent activities from China and North Korea in the Pacific, Russia in both the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and Iran in the Arabian Gulf.
In this austere environment where every penny counts, we ought to re-invest in and procure more Tomahawks to provide operational capabilities that are needed now and into the future. This would be the most effective, efficient and practical approach to reinforce and enhance our capabilities, protect our interests and deter our adversaries.