Editor’s Note: To allay some confusion, this article is about the end of the Tomahawk program, not the elimination of existing stocks.
Tomahawks are on the chopping block. The most recent Defense budget, announced this month, outlined plans to shrink the number of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) for use by U.S. Navy ships and submarines. And the cuts are drastic – $128 Million in Fiscal Year 2015, reducing the number to just 100 next year and zero in 2016. Phasing out weapons systems in favor of new systems capable of meeting current and future threats is a normal course of action. Cutting a highly successful program when there is no replacement on the horizon is shortsighted and threatens to eliminate the Navy’s offshore strike capabilities.
TLAMs have a long and decorated service history. They were first deployed onboard Iowa-Class Battleships, as well as integrated into the Navy’s Vertical Launch System (VLS), installed on Destroyers and Cruisers. They were also installed on some submarines. During the Persian Gulf War, Navy surface combatants struck targets within Kuwait and Iraq throughout the conflict. Superior performance during the Gulf War made TLAM a preferred stand-off weapon throughout the 1990s, and was utilized during Operations Allied Force and Deliberate Force in the former Yugoslavia. In the War on Terror, TLAMs have been used to strike al-Qaeda training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan, as well as during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most recently, over 120 TLAMs were fired by US and UK assets at targets in Libyan territory in 2011.
TLAMs provide the capability to strike deep into hostile territory, eliminating communications, air defense, and command and control from a safe distance, assuring successful secondary strikes by air and ground forces. Further developments have made TLAMs even more versatile – they can be prepped and ready for launch on short notice, and upgraded models can receive in-flight targeting updates and loiter in-air until ready to strike. TLAMs have been revamped and re-introduced multiple times throughout their history, and the latest block is a mainstay of offensive naval force.
Despite its success, replacement is inevitable. The platform is over 30 years old, and it is only a matter of time before a new system, upgraded with the latest technology and engineered to meet today’s threats, replaces the reliable TLAM. However, the new defense budget is instead stripping the U.S. arsenal of a proven strike capability and leaving it gapped for upwards of ten years.
The Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) is a much-needed weapon to replace the aging Harpoon anti-ship missile and maintain superiority in surface warfare and Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). It has also, for some reason, been mentioned as a replacement for the TLAM. This isn’t a viable replacement. LRASM has a range less than half of that of TLAMs, and isn’t designed for deep strike into hostile territory. Even as a stopgap measure, LRASM isn’t an optimal strike weapon and in any case won’t be operationally ready until 2024. As a result, the U.S. will be without a primary strike weapon for the foreseeable future.
Operating with a tight budget, lawmakers are looking for any way to trim defense spending. Eliminating a weapon that is a proven success and vital for offshore strike demonstrates a complete disregard for warfare requirements and unnecessarily places warfighters in harm’s way, without a vital support weapon.
Tomahawk won’t be around forever; but it’s a vital weapon that has pulled its weight for 30 years. The U.S. already has outdated weapons systems and requires upgrades to keep pace with a rising Chinese military. Cutting more weapons systems and eliminating strike options in the name of fiscal restraint is the definition of shortsighted.
LTJG Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.