The Tomahawk cruise missile used in the attack on a Syrian airbase is considered a workhorse offensive weapon of the U.S. Navy but the Obama administration once considered scaling back production and funding of it.
Defense analysts say the Pentagon’s stockpiles of the Tomahawk — a weapon manufactured by Raytheon — could quickly be depleted if the U.S. were to face a two-theater war or any action against North Korea.
“You can run out of these things pretty quickly,” said Daniel Goure, vice president of Lexington Institute, a non-profit public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. “They tend to be very good against targets like radar installations, communication centers and things of that sort.”
During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, the U.S. military used an estimated 900 Tomahawks on day one of the conflict, and 100 to 200 of them were fired in 2011 against targets in Libya. The U.S. military, which also has used the Raytheon-guided cruise missile against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, is believed to have an inventory of around 3,000 to 4,000 Tomahawks although the exact number is considered classified.
The U.S. military used about 60 Tomahawk missiles in this week’s operation against the Syrian government airbase. It followed a chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed more than 100 people. The U.S. believes the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad conducted the chemical weapons attack and now is investigating whether the Russians had a role.
Goure estimates a larger attack on the Syrian government could end up requiring about 400 to 500 missiles. The Tomahawk originally was designed in the 1980s to carry a nuclear warhead but was later converted to conventional weapon use.
The Navy and Raytheon declined comment for this story.
Indeed, the Tomahawk is sometimes one of the first weapons that U.S. military reaches out to when looking to respond to a threat or send a message to an enemy. It can strike targets from far away and thus keep warships safely out of harm’s way and lessen the need to send bombers and crews on dangerous missions.
Tomahawks can fly more than 1,000 miles at very low elevations and its warheads switched out depending on the mission. The missiles cost between $600,000 to $1 million apiece, depending on the version. The Russians also have developed a similar missile they can fire from warships.
NBC News reported that all but one of the Tomahawk missiles hit their intended target in Syria. Experts say the Tomahawks are very reliable and use GPS tracking to lock in fixed targets but also have the technology to be reprogrammed in flight to new targets.
Raytheon also disclosed in a press release in 2015 that the Tomahawk can hit moving targets. They conducted a test in 2015 of a vessel at sea carrying shipping containers and it rocketed directly to the moving target.
President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis have made modernization of the U.S. military and readiness a top priority and want to increase weapons spending. One of the priorities is adding more warships to the Navy fleet, both destroyers as well as submarines — a decision likely to result in more need for the Tomahawk missiles.
Yet the Obama administration had proposed a plan a few years ago to stop buying Tomahawks and instead use up the existing inventory and spend the money instead on research and development of a new offensive weapon system.
At the time, some members of Congress criticized the strategy saying it was wrong since a next-generation version of the military’s current Tomahawk variant could take a decade or longer to develop and that there was no guarantee it would be a better weapons system.
“Congress said it was a hugely valuable and flexible weapon,” said Dakota Wood, research fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “The Tomahawk is deployed on just about every surface combatant ship, whether submarine or destroyer.”
Moreover, some lawmakers said slowing the buying of the Tomahawk or stopping production entirely was foolhardy because it would let the production line on the weapon system go idle at a time of uncertainties and rising geopolitical tensions.
“You can’t predict that you won’t find yourself using a whole bunch of Tomahawks at some point,” said Goure. “If you allow the production line to go cold, it can be years before you’re able to get it up and running again if ever.”
In the end, the Obama administration’s Pentagon reversed its decision and restored some of the Tomahawk funding. Even so, the current procurement by the military is still just under 200 missiles per year and could quickly be depleted in a major war.
Experts suggest that 200 missiles is roughly the minimum sustainment rate needed to keep the Tomahawk production line going. Also, at the current level there’s a expectation that Raytheon could ramp up production if needed by the Pentagon.