The million-dollar weapon

Libya missile assault cost quarter billion dollars

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Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from the sea flattened Libyan defenses over the weekend. The $1.41 million missile has become a staple of the Pentagon's war arsenal. Missile-maker Raytheon posts this photo of a submarine-fired Tomahawk on its website.

In the opening days of the assault on Libya, the United States and the United Kingdom launched a barrage of at least 161 Tomahawk cruise missiles to flatten Moammar Gadhafi’s air defenses and pave the way for coalition aircraft.

In fiscal terms, at a time when Congress is fighting over every dollar, the cruise missile show of military might was an expenditure of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. Each missile cost $1.41 million.

Raytheon Corp. is the manufacturer of the Tomahawk Block IV, a low-flying missile that travels at 550 miles per hour. During a decade of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, the Pentagon has increasingly relied on the Tomahawk. A year ago, Raytheon boasted of its 2,000th Block IV delivery to the Navy.

The 20-foot missile is particularly attractive for the military in current conflicts because it can be launched from submarines and surface ships at a safe distance and can be used to take out air-defense systems that could pose a threat to manned aircraft.

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation and author of the book Prophets of War, said the use of the Tomahawk helps explain, in part, the high cost of the operations in Libya. “The no-fly zones in Iraq averaged about $1 billion or so per year, while the Libyan operation cost $100 million or more on the first day, largely due to the use of cruise missiles,” Hartung said.

“I would stop short of calling it a boondoggle, as it does seem to be getting the job done, just at a very high cost,” Hartung told the Center for Public Integrity.

Some members of Congress are nervous about yet another war, cost being one of their complaints.

“It is hard to imagine that Congress, during the current contentious debate over deficits and budget cutting, would agree to plunge America into still another war,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, in a statement. “Our nation simply cannot afford another war, economically, diplomatically or spiritually.”

Tomahawks have high accuracy rate

The Tomahawk was first used operationally in the 1991 Gulf War, when 288 cruise missiles were fired at Kuwait and Iraq to destroy Iraqi forces. The Navy claimed the missiles, which were used to target everything from air defense sites to Saddam’s presidential palace, had an 85 percent accuracy rate.

The low-flying cruise missile was used again, in 1998, against Serb forces, and over 325 Tomahawks were launched against Iraq that same year in Operation Desert Fox. During the Iraq war in 2003, the number of Tomahawks used more than doubled compared to the first Gulf War, with over 725 of the cruise missiles launched at Iraq, according to Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Tomahawk, which is guided to its target by GPS, has tended to work well for fixed sites, like air defense systems, but perhaps less well for so-called fleeing targets, which depends on precise and up-to-date intelligence. In August 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered U.S. Navy vessels in the Arabian Sea to strike suspected Al Qaeda sites in Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for the Africa embassy bombings.

“Though most of them hit their intended targets, neither Bin Ladin nor any other terrorist leader was killed,” the 9/11 Commission wrote in its final report. “[Former National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger told us that an after-action review by [CIA] Director [George] Tenet concluded that the strikes had killed 20-30 people in the camps but probably missed Bin Ladin by a few hours.”

In some cases, it’s hard to judge the Tomahawk’s record: Amnesty International claims 41 civilians were killed by a U.S. Tomahawk strike against Yemen in 2009, but neither U.S. nor Yemeni officials ever confirmed the attack, which was reportedly directed against Al Qaeda sites.

In Libya, the government claimed the recent Tomahawk strikes killed 48 civilians, though those reports have not been confirmed.

Missile cost nearly tripled since 1999

From the standpoint of helping set up the no-fly zone, the Tomahawk’s use has been a success, according to U.S. officials.

The most current version of the Tomahawk has some noted improvements, most significantly its ability to be reprogrammed in flight via two-way satellite communication. It that sense, the Tomahawk is roughly similar to an unmanned drone aircraft, except that it doesn’t ever come back.

It’s not clear, however, how often its ability to be reprogrammed is actually used.

“In the real world, you’re just not going to have the sort of precise intelligence that would tell you, after you launch a Tomahawk and it’s halfway there, that now there’s a bus full of widows and orphans” and it needs to be diverted, said John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org. “That just doesn’t happen.”

The cost of the Tomahawk has long been an issue. The Navy, according to a public fact sheet on its website, places the price tag of a Block IV missile at $569,000, but that’s in fiscal year 1999 dollars. However, Rob Koon, a spokesman for the Navy, on Wednesday placed the current price tag at $1.41 million, close to three times the cost listed on the Navy's website.

A spokesman for Raytheon, citing current operational use of the Tomahawk, directed all questions about the Tomahawk to the Navy.

Whether the increasing use of the Tomahawk will translate to more orders is unclear. The Navy declines to discuss inventory numbers, citing operational security, but in February 2010, Raytheon announced that it had delivered its 2,000th Tomahawk Block IV missile to the Navy. The company’s trademarked motto is “Customer Success is Our Mission.”

With $25 billion in revenues and $1.84 billion in profits companywide in2010, Raytheon is one of the five largest defense contractors and has benefited from the military’s increasing reliance on cruise missiles. Missile sales have also been paralleled by its lobbying effort. Raytheon, now the world’s biggest producer of guided-missiles, spent just shy of $7 million on congressional lobbying in 2010, compared to $2.32 million a decade earlier, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org.

Raytheon has liberally sprinkled campaign contributions across Congress, including more than $2.1 million in 2009-2010. The contributions were balanced between parties, with 53 percent going to Democrats and 46 percent to Republican candidates, according to OpenSecrets.

Even in an era of staggering weapons costs, the price tag for a Tomahawk stands out because it’s only used once. So, is the Tomahawk worth well over $1 million a shot?

”They are expensive rounds, but they give you the potential to attack heavily defended targets up front,” said Barry Watts, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“How do you value not putting a bunch of pilots in harm’s way?”