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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Libya Air Strikes: Why Million-Dollar Missiles?
Libya Air Strikes: Why Million-Dollar Missiles?
It is a sign of the times that one of the many controversies related to U.S. military air strikes in Libya is the cost of the weaponry.

In previous conflicts such as Desert Storm in Iraq, Allied Force in Kosovo, and others that showcased expensive precision-guided “smart” bombs, critics did question the use of million-dollar missiles against “low end” targets that could have been struck by far less sophisticated and less costly weapons.
Now, the acrimony over how much it is costing the United States to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya is more about the political environment, the country’s war fatigue, and the fact that the operation happens to coincide with Washington’s fiery debate over budget deficits and mounting national debt.

Pricey weaponry is regarded as the American way of war, and the reason the public expects minimum U.S. casualties. But as citizens and politicians grow increasingly war weary and worried about the nation’s economy, the standard assumptions no longer apply.

In the Libya operation to enforce a no-fly zone, the Navy so far has launched 161 Tomahawk cruise missiles that, according to a senior U.S. Navy official, cost between $1.4 million and $1.5 million apiece. The Navy is so well stocked that it can fire up to 255 of these weapons a year without making a significant dent in its budget, or its capabilities to replenish supplies, said the official, who was speaking off-the-record at a private meeting. The Navy purchases 196 Tomahawks each year. In economic terms, the official said, the missiles are “sunk costs” that already have been incurred and could not be recovered.

From a military tactical standpoint, the Tomahawk is the perfect weapon to use in the initial stage of a conflict such as this one, says Eric Wertheim, military analyst and author of "Combat Fleets of the World."

“That’s where the risk is the highest” and the military wants to avoid putting airplanes in harm’s way, he says.

When million-dollar weapons were used in the past, complaints about their price tag didn’t make headlines the way they are now. That may be one reason why the Pentagon did not deploy a Navy aircraft carrier off the coast of Libya, says Wertheim. “It sends a strong message that we are not going to be dominating for the duration of this campaign and we do not want to hold the lion’s share of the burden.”

The outcome of the Libyan conflict is less of a practical concern for the United States than it is for Europe, where more than 70 percent of Libya’s oil exports go. But European militaries, other than the U.K. Royal Navy, don’t have the “kick down the door” weapons such as the ship- or submarine-launched Tomahawks, which “prep the battle space for a no-fly zone,” Wertheim says. “That’s really where U.S. forces come into play.” Although U.K. forces do have Tomahawks, their stockpile is far smaller than the U.S., says Wertheim.

If an aircraft carrier made a presence in the region, not only would the expense soar tremendously, but it would “completely dominate the air power equation,” which would run counter to the Obama administration’s intent to have the United States play a support, rather than a leading role. “One aircraft carrier is more powerful than most air forces in the world,” says Wertheim.

As to whether there are any less-expensive substitutes to the Tomahawk, the answer is not really. Pundits have suggested that other weapons, such as naval guns or aerial bombers, could do the job at far less cost. But the Navy no longer has battleships, and its 155 mm guns are still in development. Even if such surface-based fire support were available, it would lack the range and precision that the U.S. military would want for a Libya-like mission, Wertheim says. There are air-launched cruise missiles, but those are just as costly as the Tomahawk, he adds.

“From a financial perspective, absolutely, Tomahawks are expensive. But waging war is expensive,” Wertheim says. Ringing alarm bells about the price tag of weapons misses the point, he says. “The real question is, ‘Do you want to wage war’? … Because you can’t wage war on the cheap.”

Wertheim recalls that, even during the Cold War, the Navy’s F-14 jet fighter carried the Phoenix air-to-air missile, which cost a million dollars a piece.


Re: Libya Air Strikes: Why Million-Dollar Missiles?

Is there a possibility than air force deploy bombs like those used 25 years ago in Golden Cannyon Operation? In that operation were used paveway II boms. That kind of technology was very advance in that years and even now I think there are a lot of  laser guided bombs with good accuracy.
But the pilots lives are most important than hundreds of  millon dollars. That was the principal reason to use tomahawk in this operation. And other question is around my mind. What about armed UAVs? This could be a good time to use them.
Marcelo Martinez at 3/23/2011 7:54 PM

Re: Libya Air Strikes: Why Million-Dollar Missiles?

Begging your pardon but hasn't the press made it patently clear during both of the prior administration, that "blood" is as significant in combat calculus as is "treasure"?

What is the running count of deaths (oh, yes, un-uniformed "civilian" combatants, too) in Iraq and Afghanistan lately? What, you have not heard daily and weekly since Obama?

In the current, politically correct calculus, every cheaper means of exacting a toll on Ghadaffi forces entails an  unacceptably high cost (99% of U.S. trial lawyers would never condone such trade-offs) in body-counts than the present practice of relatively inexpensive, ship-launched TLAMs at $1-million+ each.

This calculus is hardly relevant, however, when then entire episode is a transparent episode of tale wagging dog.  Voters are hardly susceptible to such trite  Clintonian shenanigans these days. 

How can a bright perso like you possibly be so blinded?

Vigilis at 3/23/2011 9:23 PM

Re: Libya Air Strikes: Why Million-Dollar Missiles?

It's not accurate to quote prices of weapon systems already paid for, the question is "What are the replacement costs?" In the case of the Tomahawk's it might be zero as the number of units being expended will not be replaced in stockpile by future appropriations.

The "real" cost of Operation Odyssey Dawn is in Navy, Air Force & Marine manpower accounts. This is the real reason why the USS Enterprise wasn't diverted from it's planned deployment to support Operation Enduring Freedom, it would have required keeping the USS Abraham Lincoln CSG on station in the Arabian Sea, delaying her return to CONUS and delaying the planned service cycle. This would have cost billions of dollars, compared to the relatively miniscule cost of air and naval operation currently underway in the Med.
@notpjorourke at 3/24/2011 9:28 AM

Re: Libya Air Strikes: Why Million-Dollar Missiles?

These goodies seem cheap compared to the opportunity costs of not using them.How much is a F16 with flight personal worth? They create a security rent that is nowhere mentioned when talking about costs of these. Singular concentrating on the costs of these systems is a neglect of the overall effects of their usage.
lacek at 3/24/2011 11:46 AM

Re: Libya Air Strikes: Why Million-Dollar Missiles?

These goodies seem cheap compared to the opportunity costs of not using them.How much is a F16 with flight personal worth? They create a security rent that is nowhere mentioned when talking about costs of these. Singular concentrating on the costs of these systems is a neglect of the overall effects of their usage.
lacek at 3/24/2011 12:27 PM

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