The news last week that the Navy was being forced to stop production of two key missiles in its arsenal - the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Hellfire air-to-ground weapon - was a shock. It seemed as if President Obama was about to defang both the Navy and the armed drone program, for which the Hellfire serves as a primary weapon.
The news is somewhat better and somewhat worse than it first appeared.
The Tomahawk has been a mainstay for decades in both the ship-launched role and the Air Force's air-launched configuration. The program will be greatly reduced this year and eliminated next year. Sources say that the Navy now has about 4,000 Tomahawks in hand and that it plans to maintain its current stock ready for use until they're expended or replaced.
Fortunately, we're not in a shooting war because when the Tomahawks go, they go quickly. American and British ships fired about 110 Tomahawks in the first stage of Obama's Libyan adventure. More than 200 were fired in that operation alone. In Operation Desert Storm in 1991, 288 were fired.
The problem is in replacing the Tomahawk before the current stock is used up. The Navy plans to replace part of its mission function with the long-range anti-ship missile. But that program has been delayed, so far more than 10 years. And that’s only part of the Tomahawk mission profile. How will they replace the rest? It is probably sensible to cut production of the Tomahawk missile while one or more replacements are being developed. But when you cancel a program like Tomahawk, the contractor has to lay people off – losing the skill level of production workers – and may shut down the program, disposing of the tooling and testing equipment. That’s hugely expensive and time-consuming to replace if you decide to restart the program.
That’s about the same problem as the Navy faces with the Hellfire missile. Like the Tomahawk, it’s old but reliable and thoroughly combat-proven. The Navy wants to replace it but, like so many other programs, the “Joint Air-to-Ground Missile” is very late. Not because it’s technology or production is delayed by defects in the design: JAGM is delayed because its funding is being taken to pay for other – supposedly more urgent – programs.
This is the result of the Pentagon's thoroughly skewed priorities. Right now, according to the Government Accountability Office, the F-35 fighter jet is going to absorb 25 percent of the entire major weapon system acquisition budget for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force over the program's lifetime -- about the next 50 years.
Neither Obama nor Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel knows whether in cutting Tomahawk or Hellfire (or anything else for that matter) we're cutting fat or muscle.
In more than a decade no one has done the deep dive into intelligence materials necessary to determine the real threats we face. And no one has accomplished the intense analysis needed to compare those real threats with the assets we have or need to deter or defeat them. Every four years, the Defense Department does a “Quadrennial Defense Review” which is supposed to do that. But the QDR has become a political hairball that does nothing more than paper over the budget cuts that have already been decided.
When the latest QDR came out, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon tossed it back at the Pentagon for just that reason. He needs to press Hagel for a real study or get one done himself. That's the only way to tell how to cut fat instead of muscle and to reset the Pentagon's priorities to reality.Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.