Impact of the Depletion of U.S. Cruise Missiles
1 April 99

The status of U.S. cruise missile inventories has become a matter of concern among U.S. defense analysts and officials, with even Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon admitting that the stocks have been run down. Bacon asserted that there are sufficient stocks to carry on with the current mission, but the question remains open as to whether there will be enough for subsequent missions.

Two distinct cruise missiles have been used in Operation Allied Force, the air-launched AGM-86C CALCM and the BGM-109 TLAM, better known as the "Tomahawk." The AGM-86C is a conventionally armed version of the nuclear armed AGM-86B and is delivered by U.S. B-52 bombers. The Tomahawk, which can be fired from U.S. ships and U.S. and UK submarines. According to the Defense Department, "nearly half" of the 112 AGM-86Cs that were deployed on B-52s to the RAF base in Fairford England have been used. The U.S. Navy has reportedly used 55 Tomahawks thus far in Operation Allied Force. The Defense Department has reported that about 100 AGM-86Cs remain, along with some 2,000-2,500 Tomahawks.

Tomahawk missiles are still in production, and the U.S. Navy ordered 300 more after the strikes on Iraq last year. However, according to Boeing, the AGM-86C is no longer in production, nor has it been in some time. The Air Force has reportedly requested 92 of the missiles in next year’s budget, though it could take up to two years after Boeing receives the order to produce the weapons.

Produce may not be the appropriate word, since all conventionally armed AGM-86Cs have been conversions from the nuclear armed AGM-86B. A total of 1,715 AGM-86Bs were produced between 1982 and 1986, and all AGM-86Cs were conversions from weapons in this total. Open source reports of exactly how many AGM-86Cs have been produced vary slightly, but range around 300. 35 AGM-86Cs were used during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and an additional 13 were used during Operation Desert Strike in 1996. Prior to operation Allied Force, the U.S. Air Force claimed to have 1,142 of the nuclear armed AGM-86Bs in its inventory, along with 239 AGM-86Cs – 48 Block 0 and 198 Block 1.

Subtracting the remaining nuclear and conventional missiles and previously expended missiles from the original production number leaves about 286 missiles unaccounted for, either scrapped, used for practice, or converted for other purposes. Jane’s reports that some of the missiles were converted to decoys, carrying electronic countermeasures, chaff, and flares. Jane’s also cites unconfirmed reports that some missiles were painted with radar absorbent paint and fitted with EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) warheads. Or there may be more of the AGM-86Cs in store than is officially admitted.

Both cruise missiles are centerpieces of current U.S. administration policy, which seeks to avoid U.S. casualties at all costs. Cruise missiles can attack heavily defended targets that would pose a substantial risk to manned aircraft. However, while no military planner would argue that the U.S. should do without the missiles, they are still of limited effectiveness. The $1.6 million AGM-86C carries a 2,000 or 3,000 pound warhead, while the Tomahawk carries only a 1,000 pound warhead. The Tomahawks proved to have only limited success against hardened bunkers in Iraq, necessitating the use of laser guided "bunker buster" bombs. Even the AGM-86C has limited use against hardened targets.

Depletion of the weapons is certainly cause for concern, as is the questionable planning that juxtaposed a foreign policy reliant on cruise missiles with apparently inadequate production of the weapons. However, cruise missiles are niche weapons that, like air strikes in general, are insufficient on their own to accomplish the overall missions they are deployed to carry out. Tactically, cruise missiles do allow the U.S. to strike well defended targets without putting U.S. soldiers and pilots at risk. But strategically, they perpetuate the impression that foreign policy objectives can be achieved through military engagement without risking U.S. lives. Tomahawks did not end Osama bin Laden’s career when they rained down on Afghanistan and Sudan. Cruise missiles were always accompanied by air strikes and, when it mattered, by ground action in Iraq. And no one suggested that cruise missiles alone could sway Milosevic. Missiles and air strikes together have not yet succeeded in that mission.

The depletion of U.S. cruise missile stocks, however temporary, will constrain U.S. military options for some time after Operation Allied Force. It will also be one of the focal points of post-Allied Force evaluations of lessons learned from the operation. The relative success of NATO actions in Kosovo, like U.S. actions in Iraq, will likely have a substantial impact on U.S. military policy in the future.

Air Force Fact Sheet on AGM-86C:

Navy Fact Sheet on BGM-109 Tomahawk: