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Op-Ed: Closing the Tomahawk line is risky business

A Tomahawk is launched from the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey. (Pentagon)

The Department of Defense budget request for 2019 does not include funding to purchase Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM). Instead, the DoD asked for $98 million to extend the service life of the latest variant by 15 years. Unless Congress steps in to provide funding, this year will mark the end of one of the most critical and effective tools available to the military.

The move to close the Tomahawk production line is risky business at best, and may ultimately put the lives of aircrews unnecessarily at risk. Why? For all intents and purposes, the TLAM is an unmanned guided weapons system capable of precisely delivering warheads to targets 1,000 miles distant. Its accuracy and low-altitude cruise profile make TLAM the Commanders-in-Chief weapon of choice.

Since 1991, the U.S. Navy has expended 2,193 TLAMs into some very hostile territory without the loss of a single American life delivering the missiles. In fact, since President Trump assumed office in January 2017, the U.S. Navy has expended at least 125 missiles against Syrian targets in response to the use of chemical weapons in April 2017 and April 2018. Lest there be any doubt about the missile’s survivability, the Russian-backed Syrian air defense system is among the most sophisticated and modern in the world and yet the missiles reached their targets, even when the Russians boasted they would shoot them down. President Obama also recognized the value of this most capable of unmanned systems, ordering the use of 178 TLAMs during his two terms in office.

The U.S. Navy has the capability to launch TLAMs from a variety of platforms using the Vertical Launch System (VLS), including Virginia Class submarines, Ticonderoga Class cruisers and Arleigh Burke Class destroyers. Additionally, four Ohio Class submarines, modified for the single purpose of executing land attack missions with 154 TLAMs each, provide commanders a robust set of stealthy, and not-so-stealthy options to recommend to the President.

The inventory carried by Virginia Class submarines in the VLS is 12 missiles. VLS has been replaced by the Virginia Payload Tubes (VPT) in newer versions. Beginning in 2019, the U.S. Navy will add four additional VPTs to new-construction Virginia submarines, adding 28 more TLAMs to their arsenal. Clearly, the Navy is fully invested in TLAM capability. These submarines are built to last 30 years, so those under construction today will be at sea way past the middle of the century.

Since 1991, the Navy has expended on average about 80 TLAMS per year and in this increasingly dangerous world, we can expect that TLAM will be called upon again and again to deliver deadly payloads to the enemy. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has testified on the Hill that things are likely to get worse before getting better. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in June 2017, he described the current global security situation as “a more volatile security environment than any I have experienced during my four decades of military service.” Secretary Mattis is not alone in his assessment. NATO Secretary Gen. Jens Stoltenberg recently said the world is at its most dangerous point in 30 years. Any notion that we will not be using TLAMs again is sheer folly.

While the Navy is increasing its capacity to carry TLAM, it is retiring about 1,000 Block III missiles, reducing its inventory. As justification for closing the TLAM line, the Navy says it’s investing in the mid-life service extension of Block IVs to retain TLAM capability until the notional Next Generation Land Attack Weapon (NGLAM) comes on line in the 2028. Given the Department’s track record on delivering new technology weapons systems, an Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of 2028 is highly doubtful. Back in 2014, The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program was already $163 Billion over budget and seven years behind schedule. (We have spent more on the JSF program than we did to put men on the moon.)

Betting on the JSF, the DoD decided to curtail procurement of the aircraft JSF was to replace, based on the clearly false assumption that JSF would deliver on time. The Navy now faces severe shortages of flyable airplanes to fill its carrier decks and has been forced to continue to purchase F/A-18s and expend large sums in Operations and Maintenance (O&M) funds to keep earlier Hornets flying long beyond their expected service life. By 2028 we can expect to have expended almost 900 TLAMs if we continue to expend at the historical rate and could reasonably expect to use even more. By closing the TLAM line now with no reliable replacement in sight, we are at risk of repeating history, forcing our military leaders to request expensive emergency restarts to the program and risk sending manned aircraft in harm’s way because of dwindling TLAM inventories. If restoring readiness to our forces is a top priority within the DoD, why then would the Pentagon reduce the readiness of one of its principal weapons systems? This is risky business.

The United States is not the only nation with TLAM capability. In the TLAM business since the late 1990s, the British Royal Navy currently has fitted TLAM Block IVs on all of its Trafalgar and Astute Class submarines. Their presence is a welcome addition in capability in any conflict and gives commanders more options. Given the challenges faced by the U.S. and its allies in several regions of the world, additional Foreign Military Sales (FMS) may make sense, as well. In the highly contentious area of the South China Sea, Japan has been considering talking to the U.S. about developing TLAM capability. Their Kongo Class destroyers have the Aegis combat system installed and development of TLAM capability would be relatively quick and easy, adding more firepower to the region at no cost to the United States. Without an open TLAM line, this option is off the table or severely delayed.

Fortunately, Congress has this issue in its sights. The recent markup of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) added funds for 198 TLAMs in 2019. But this is just the first step in ensuring the integrity and sustainment of the TLAM production line. The Senate still has to produce its version of the 2019 NDAA, and both the House and Senate Appropriations committees must agree to authorize the necessary funds to sustain the line.

The actions of the HASC confirm that it recognizes the importance of keeping the TLAM production line open and enhancing military readiness. It is unwilling to take the risk of running low on the nation’s principal weapon in recent conflict. It’s survivable, lethal, feared and most importantly, keeps our sailors and airmen far from the battlefield. Its use puts no aircrew at risk and is available whenever and wherever needed. It has been the weapon of choice for five Commanders-in Chief. It is risky business indeed to bet on an as-yet-to be-determined weapon, while ignoring the reality of an increasingly dangerous world. The sure bet is that we will use TLAM in defense of our nation again and their stocks must be replenished. We had better be ready.

Vice Admiral Lou Crenshaw (Ret.) is the former Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources, Requirements and Assessments. During his over 30 years of service in the United States Navy, he commanded a Medium Attack Squadron (VA-85), a Carrier Air Wing (CVW-1) and an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group (John F. Kennedy Strike Group/ Carrier Group SIX). Lou is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and an experienced test project engineer at the Naval Air Test Center, Patuxent River, MD. As a Flag Officer, he specialized in financial operations and budgeting, serving three tours of duty in the Navy’s N-8 Programming and Budgeting Directorate, culminating his career as the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources, Requirements and Assessments (N8). Additionally he served as the Commander of U.S. Navy Activities, Europe where he commanded all Naval Bases located in Europe.

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