Mysteries behind the US Navy’s depleting Tomahawk missile stockpile

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The US military is grappling with a significant but silent crisis, colloquially referred to as “shrinkflation”. Basically, this term denotes the military’s dwindling capacity and readiness due to the yearly budget failing to keep pace with inflation. Consequently, the US’s ability to manufacture new aircraft, ships, and precision weapons is not meeting the escalating demand for these resources. 

Photo credit: US Navy / Flickr

As America counters threats posed by rebel groups aligned with Iran, a growing sense of unease is permeating Washington. The concerns aren’t solely focused on the increasingly perilous global threats. They also include a dwindling stockpile of weapons and a strained production output. 

Rising threats primarily drive escalated defense spending in the Red Sea area, propelling the US towards more offensive strategies. This shift notably highlights the fact that the US Navy‘s potent and costly weapons are being expended at a faster rate than usual due to the broader range of threats being targeted. 

Depletion of missile inventories

Recent military operations undertaken by the US have led to the depletion of missile inventories that took several years to amass. Since January 11, US Navy vessels have regularly deployed both carrier-launched aircraft and sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles to target radar, drone, and anti-ship missile sites controlled by the Houthis. 

The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile [TLAM], explicitly engineered for land attacks and sea-launched, forms a cornerstone of the Navy’s arsenal. The Tomahawk’s impressive track record spans various conflicts, including those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. This missile, capable of being launched from ships or submarines over a range exceeding 900 miles, serves as the Navy’s go-to weapon for land attacks, eliminating the need to jeopardize pilots’ safety. 

Photo credit: US Navy

The Navy relies on Tomahawk missiles for its land-attack missions. However, of late, these missiles are being expended faster than they can be replenished. The Navy has launched over 80 of these missiles to neutralize 30 targets in Yemen alone. 

Only 55 units

Examining the past year’s Tomahawk missile acquisitions, the Navy purchased only 55 units. That sum equates to just 68% of the precision missiles fired at the Houthi forces in Yemen in a single day. While this usage rate might seem unsustainable, it is in line with recent trends. 

In 2017 and 2018, we observed substantial use of Tomahawk missiles in Syria – fifty-nine in 2017 and sixty-six in 2018. Despite this heavy usage, the Navy did not procure as many units as it ideally should have. The Navy acquired only 100 Tomahawks in 2018 and didn’t make any purchases in 2019. This data indicates that the Americans are firing more missiles than they are procuring, a potentially alarming trend. 

Photo by Taylor DiMartino / US Navy

If they continue to use more weapons than they purchase, they’ll run out quickly. This is a concern because the US could need these weapons in emergencies. Just imagine, for instance, if Beijing suddenly tried to take Taiwan while the U.S. was materially occupied in wars elsewhere. They’d need their reserves then, wouldn’t they? 

Some bumps

Just like many of the United States‘ high-tech weapons, the Tomahawk has experienced some bumps in its recent procurement journey. Over the past decade, the Navy has spent a staggering $2.8 billion to acquire just 1,234 missiles. 

While this number might seem reasonable, it’s insufficient for a global naval force that needs to tackle threats worldwide simultaneously. The U.S. Navy, with over 140 vessels and submarines capable of firing Tomahawks, implies that recent missile orders are thinly distributed. To give you a clearer picture, the number of Tomahawks bought over the last ten years averages at only 8.8 new missiles per vessel. 

The president’s budget doesn’t significantly address the shortage of Tomahawks in the Navy either. According to the 2024 White House budget proposal, the Navy won’t be ordering new land-attack Tomahawks. Instead, the plan is to divert funds to a trial project that converts fifty standard land-attack Tomahawks into the Maritime Strike Tomahawk [MST] variant, which is designed specifically to hit sea targets. 

Possible increase in production

Navy officials have spoken about increasing the production of Tomahawk missiles. Unfortunately, budget plans reveal that there may initially be a decrease in the number of missiles produced and delivered before any increase happens. The White House budget seems focused on upgrading existing Tomahawks, rather than purchasing new ones. 

To keep Tomahawks’ production alive, they need to manufacture at least ninety missiles every year. Although the Army and Marine Corps have bought a few prototype missiles for land use, whether or not mass production will continue, remains uncertain. The Navy hopes to bolster Tomahawk production through international sales, but how much this will augment capacity remains cloudy. 

Concerns are escalating over whether the manufacturing industry can meet a higher demand if the Navy needs more missiles. Inconsistent orders for Tomahawk missiles have resulted in unstable production rates and inefficient planning. These erratic demands have caused troubles during the manufacturing process, particularly when producing crucial parts like rocket engines. This disruption makes it challenging to quickly ramp up production when needed. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Two years

The concerns are further amplified by the fact that it takes two years to build each new Tomahawk missile. According to Navy records, missiles ordered this past year won’t be delivered until January 2025, and then only at a slow rate of five missiles a month. 

Being prepared for future conflicts requires the US armed forces to have an ample supply of ammunition. To put this into perspective, approximately 800 Tomahawk missiles were utilized during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. With the current production rate, it would take an entire decade to manufacture replacements. If the Americans find themselves in a conflict with China, they would need even more missiles—a fact they’re no doubt aware of. 

If the US runs short of Tomahawks, the Navy will have to rely heavily on naval aviation for ground attacks. However, operating within the reach of China’s extensive air defense system and advanced rocket force may pose a risk. 

Photo credit: Wikiepdia

‘Unclear’ budget

A closer look at the Senate’s proposed national security fund of $2.4 billion, earmarked to cover Red Sea mission costs, reveals that this money is not specifically for combat expenses. Instead, it’s intended for the total cost of the operation. Based on the Secretary of Defense’s guidance, the funds will be distributed among different departments. This may not adequately fill the Tomahawk’s gap. 

The bill does allocate an additional $133 million for cruise missile rocket motors which might provide some aid, but it’s critical for Congress to strongly encourage the Navy to maintain a definite number of missiles on hand for future needs. 

The proposed Senate supplement could guide the Americans in the right direction, but Congress members need to understand their role in supporting the US Navy’s capability to strike targets. We need to see Defense budgets stimulating critical programs and securing necessary weapon purchases.

A Pentagon guarantee is required

Without a doubt, there’s a necessity to launch attacks on the Iran-backed Houthis and terrorists in the Red Sea, with the Tomahawk being the suitable weapon for the job. However, the Pentagon must ensure these actions don’t compromise the Navy’s readiness and capabilities in other areas.

If the Pentagon fails to purchase enough weapons, the US fleet will end up with empty launch cells and won’t be able to establish the rules of engagement in the next war.

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