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Opinion: U.S. Army Missile-Buying Spree Is A Waste Of Money

David A. Deptula March 15, 2021

Credit: U.S. Air Force

The article “Will U.S. Army Missile Buys Mean Fewer U.S. Air Force Bombers?” (AW&ST Feb. 22-March 7, p. 63) requires correction and a clear answer to the question itself. In an era when national security demands are increasing while resources allocated to defense are decreasing, leaders must prioritize solutions that optimize U.S. power-projection capabilities at best value. To those points, the choice between Air Force bombers and Army long-range missiles yields a very clear determination: Bombers win, hands down. 

First, the statement that once new Army surface-to-surface missiles arrive, “the Army will no longer rely on the Air Force’s inventory of bombers and fighter-bombers to hunt and destroy targets deep inside enemy territory” is categorically incorrect. The number of aimpoints targeted during Operation Desert Storm was approximately 40,000. In a major regional conflict with China, Russia or one of their surrogates, that number could exceed 100,000. The U.S. cannot afford, nor will the Army ever have, the inventory of missiles necessary to offset the strike requirements of Air Force bombers and fighters.

From a cost-effectiveness perspective, building a new inventory of missiles to maintain the Army’s relevance in a peer conflict is both unnecessary and unaffordable. The first combat use of the Army Tactical Missile System (Atacms) was in 1991. In the following 30 years, it has been reported that 560 have been fired. A wing of Boeing F-15Es could deliver the same effect in less than a week—and it could deliver that punch over and over again. Similarly, if the Army’s new hypersonic missile is going to cost upward of $40 million a shot, as reported, two shots could buy one Lockheed Martin F-35 that could achieve the same effect and go back again to multiply the effect repeatedly.

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The real issue in play is the Army’s building of a set of weapons duplicative to capabilities that already exist in the Air Force and to a degree in the Navy and Marine Corps. Unfortunately, the Army weapons being developed are prohibitively expensive, nonreusable and require extensive deployment logistics support. Nor are large missiles rapidly deployable to meet unforeseen security challenges. Based on cost alone, they cannot be fielded in numbers large enough to be operationally significant in a major regional conflict.

Second, the Army wants to build its own command-and-control (C2), air- and space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) architecture that duplicates what is provided by Air Force air and space operations centers. The notion that the Army should build its own “Multi-Domain Sensor System” to “be able to identify and locate targets from the air and space” is the height of wasteful duplication and excessive redundancy. It is another example of encroachment on Air Force roles and functions and flies in the face of “joint” cooperation and interdependency.

Third, the article’s description of the raid that opened Operation Desert Storm is simply wrong. The purpose of that assault was not to create a corridor for Lockheed F-117s—the stealthy Nighthawks were already inside Iraq headed to various locations at the time of the helicopter raid. The helicopter attack was to prevent two early-warning sites from notifying Iraq’s leadership that aircraft flying at low level were inbound to Iraq. Their shutdown was to allow several F-15Es to enter western Iraq to bomb Iraqi Scud missile sites aimed at Israel at the same time that F-117s were conducting the first attacks in Baghdad.

Lastly, it is a welcome change to learn from Gen. John Murray, commander of Futures Command, that the Army wants to expand the way it used missile systems in Desert Storm. During that conflict, requests were made to use the Army’s Atacms as part of the air campaign to suppress Iraq’s surface-to-air missile systems and reduce threats to our aircrews, but those requests were denied. The rationale for denying their use was that “Atacms was an Army corps asset” and must be “saved” for when the Army moved into Kuwait. This was the opposite of joint doctrine, the concept of interdependency and the cost-effective use of defense resources.

The bottom line is that our nation can ill afford to proceed with programs that replicate effective proven weapon systems and C2ISR architectures merely to bolster a single service’s “footprint” in the battlespace. The next few years will require hard choices in the defense budget. Finite dollars must be directed toward programs that optimize combat options and capability across all the services, not just one.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. (ret.) David A. Deptula was the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign. He has twice been a joint task force commander. He is dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies and a senior scholar at the Air Force Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.