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, theacrimony 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.