As the United States steps up its battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), defense leaders on Capitol Hill are raising concerns about a looming shortage in the Tomahawk missile supply, a key offensive weapon that the Navy has deployed against militant strongholds in Syria and elsewhere.
The U.S. Navy’s current reliance on the Tomahawk, known as "the world’s most advanced cruise missile," comes just months after the Obama administration attempted to significantly cut funding for the weapon and then eliminate it completely it in 2016, a move that drew heavy criticism from defense experts and lawmakers.
With the military relying on the weapons in its strikes against ISIL targets in Syria, defense leaders have begun to warn that the Pentagon could quickly run through its Tomahawk stockpiles, a problem exacerbated by defense budget cuts known as sequestration, defense sources say.
The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is now expressing concern that the Pentagon has "insufficient weapons inventories" and that the Obama administration’s proposed termination of the Tomahawk missile program in fiscal year 2016 would worsen "a deficient inventory problem," according to defense insiders and sources close to the committee.
The U.S. Navy deployed 47 Tomahawks last week during its strikes in Syria, which amounts to 47 percent of its planned purchases of the weapon in 2015, according to the American Thinker. There are currently enough Tomahawks left "for roughly 85 days of a campaign, at the current rate of use," the report states.
With a stockpile of about 4,000 Tomahawks—and the administration still contending that cuts are needed despite its reliance on the missile—defense insiders warn that the inventory could quickly run low as the military campaign against ISIL continues in Syria and Iraq.
"You could see that if you’re starting to really ramp up [use] and be more aggressive, it wouldn’t take you too long to expend a significant portion of that [inventory]," one defense insider told the Washington Free Beacon. "If you’re firing 600 to 800 during a campaign ... it starts to chip away at it pretty fast."
About 200 Tomahawks were used in the brief 2011 military campaign in Libya; 2,000 have been deployed since the program’s inception.
The low stockpile of Tomahawks has highlighted how deepening defense cuts are impacting on-the-ground realities, according to Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), HASC’s chairman.
"As we saw in this week’s airstrikes against ISIL, Tomahawk missiles are among the most valuable and precise tools in our military arsenal," McKeon said in a statement provided to the Free Beacon. "They provide unmanned, all-weather, deep-strike attack capability against both fixed and mobile targets which makes them particularly useful against terrorist groups like ISIL that transcend nations and borders."
McKeon and his colleagues have fought against the Obama administration’s cuts to the Tomahawk and have attempted to restore funding in part.
"I was deeply troubled that in this year’s budget request, DoD called for significantly reducing the number of Tomahawks in the arsenal and even recommended suspending their entire production line beginning in 2016," McKeon said. "That is why all four House national security committees, including the Armed Services Committee, rebuffed the administration’s request and restored the Tomahawks."
"Unfortunately," McKeon added, "this a prime example of the types of dangerous cuts our military leaders are being forced to consider under the new sequestration budget regime. It is my hope that the next Congress will reverse sequestration and ensure that vital national security programs like the Tomahawk system are adequately funded."
Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, also expressed concern about limiting production of the Tomahawk missiles in the face of new military campaigns.
"All four of Congress’ defense committees have rejected the administration’s reckless plan to suspend the Tomahawk production line beginning in 2016 and have moved to add additional missiles to the budget," Forbes told the Free Beacon in a statement.
"As recent operations in the Middle East show, it is essential that the United States have the sophisticated land-attack capability contained in the Tomahawk missile, especially for striking high-value targets in areas that have advanced air-defense systems," he said. "Even more alarming, because a replacement for the Tomahawk is still years away, it would be a foolish decision to shut down the Tomahawk industrial base and leave the nation without a hot production line."
The administration originally sought to cut the Tomahawk missile program by $128 million under its fiscal year 2015 budget proposal. It also aimed to fully eliminate production of the missile by year 2016, according to budget documents released by the Navy.
Additionally, the Obama administration sought to reduce the actual number of Tomahawk missiles acquired by the United States in 2015 from 196 last to just 100, a proposal that all four congressional defense committees rebuffed in a notable show of solidarity.
The procurement of Tomahawks was slated to drop to zero in 2016 under the president’s original budget proposal.
Now the administration is relying heavily on the very same missile it had sought to eliminate.
"Ninety-five percent of the munitions that we dropped were precision-guided munitions. And that includes the Tomahawk missiles, which are very precise," a senior Obama administration official said on background during a conference call last week with reporters on the strikes in Syria against ISIL.
Between Iraq and Syria, the use of Tomahawks could be significant in the coming months and years, insiders say.
"It’s difficult for anyone to say how much is enough," said the defense insider. "How can you know for certain? God forbid you end up fighting a two front war."
The other concern is that as the administration seeks to ramp down procurement of the Tomahawk, a working replacement for the missile is still years off. And once production of the Tomahawk is ended, it becomes much more difficult to restart the program if more missiles are needed.
"Without a suitable replacement it would be unwise to shut off that production line," said the defense source. "It’s not like flipping a switch to reactivate suppliers who have been turned off."
Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Defense Department official, explained that while the stockpile should be adequate into the near future, replenishments will be needed during the next year.
"Given the fact that most military officials are predicting a years-long campaign against ISIL, there is little doubt that some replenishment will be required over the next 12 months," said Eaglen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). "If and when that happens, it will call into question the Navy plan to shut down this production line."
"Congress was already moving in that direction to reverse Navy plans regarding Tomahawk, but this air war is sure to solidify them," she explained.
A Defense Department official did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the issue.