By Steve Russell, Lt. Col. Steve Russell, US Army (Ret.)
President Obama has announced plans to shrink the military to pre-World War II levels. This is staggering given the U.S. role in the world. Our nation will be weakened such that we’ll no longer have the capacity for a two-front war, for the first time since 1942.
When President Obama launched operations against Libya in 2011, he spoke of bringing “America’s unique capabilities” to the table and justified the launch of Tomahawk missiles to destroy Libyan air defenses as the preferred method to “not deploy US troops on the ground.”
That may soon change. In President Obama’s 2015 budget request, he plans a 50 percent chop in cruise missiles and their complete termination beginning in 2016. No replacement is scheduled for a decade. Even that may not work out.
Such a dangerous lag between the Tomahawk and its notional replacement exposes the United States to increasing global threats. Think Syria. Think Iran. Think North Korea. And if we want to think only small despots are a threat, think China and Russia.
Every president since George H. W. Bush has relied on the versatility, accuracy, and safety of these missiles and their upgrades to flex U.S. muscle when tyrants, terrorists, or contenders have overstepped the bounds of U.S. interests and international civility. More than 2,000 have been used. They continue to be our instant, tough response should other options preclude us.
It’s not difficult to see why. The current generation of Tomahawks takes less than an hour to target and launch. The missile has a range of more than one thousand miles and carries a 1,000 pound-class warhead. It flies at high subsonic speed, and once launched it can be re-targeted in midair or asked to stay in a holding pattern for hours at a time.
Tomahawks also feature anti-jamming technology ensuring their ability to operate within GPS-denied environments. The Tomahawk remains the only missile that can swim, transition to a rocket, and then to a jet before accurately and consistently striking within a few feet of its exact target. It is a marvel of American ingenuity.
Even the president’s budget admits the “(Tomahawk) provides a premier attack capability against long range, medium range, and tactical targets on land... The Block IV Tactical Tomahawk preserves Tomahawk’s long-range precision-strike capability while significantly increasing responsiveness and flexibility.”
Unfortunately, an unfair perception has grown among non-experts that the system is out-of-date. This is false. Like our tanks, planes, rifles and ships, the Tomahawk has consistently been upgraded and improved over time to achieve things it was not imagined to do.
Even so, the Pentagon is pondering a Tomahawk swap with the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Currently, the technology behind the LRASM is largely conceptual. The new missile has yet to meet such basic benchmarks as a successful surface launch that hits its target and completing a flight of more than 300 miles.
Furthermore, the LRASM won’t be ready to deploy until 2025 - assuming it’s delivered on time. Even then, U.S. warships that currently deploy Tomahawks will need to be retrofitted to accommodate the new missile, a time-consuming and expensive process.
The appeal of the LRASM is that it purportedly offers capabilities that the Tomahawk does not, such as stealth and an ability to hit moving targets. But over two decades, the Tomahawk has proven to be an exceptionally adaptable weapons platform. A study on how to further modernize the Tomahawk concluded last year, and tests on how to best incorporate new technology into the Tomahawk are now getting underway.
We shouldn’t scoff at a program proven to be so capable, delivered on-time, and at-cost – rarely the case with large-scale weapons programs. Moreover, the cost of continuing and upgrading this system would be immensely cheaper than leaving us vulnerable and broke when and if the expensive new capability gets developed.
Because of its wartime utility, more than a third of America’s Tomahawk supply has been depleted. The current budget proposal further diminishes the stockpile.
This is a huge mistake. America’s military must remain at a high level of readiness. In an era of forced austerity, it is madness to abandon such battle-tested and dependable weaponry in favor of conceptual technology promised a decade from now. Congress must prevent the Tomahawk chop.
Lt. Col. Steve Russell, US Army (Ret.) is running for the United States House of Representatives in Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district. He is the author of We Got Him! A Memoir of the Hunt and Capture of Saddam Hussein (Simon & Schuster, 2011).