Replenishing stockpiles of weapons must be a top priority

It is astonishing, even to a community like ours, how quickly and decisively the U.S.-led anti-terrorism war in Afghanistan toppled the ruling Taliban.

by John Keller
chief editor Military & Aerospace Electronics

It is astonishing, even to a community like ours, how quickly and decisively the U.S.-led anti-terrorism war in Afghanistan toppled the ruling Taliban. Now the way is open for a new government to emerge that we all expect will create a forbidding place for global terrorists.

Yet this war against terrorism may be starting to levy a steep price on U.S. military preparedness, which may adversely influence how American military leaders carry out future battles to rid the world of terrorism.

Granted, the combination of U.S. air power, Northern Alliance soldiers on the battlefront, and a few well-chosen U.S. forces on the ground have achieved in weeks what the Soviet Union failed to do in years of fighting in the Afghani cities and countryside.

On the face of it, the victory of U.S.-led forces has come at relatively low cost — at least for American military forces. Only a relative handful of U.S. soldiers, Marines, and intelligence agents have been killed or wounded in battle in Afghanistan — and Afghani terrain for centuries has proven to be one of the most grueling military challenges even for the most powerful nations.

Yet the real price of the war in Afghanistan may only now be coming to light. Recent news reports indicate troubling chinks in what has appeared to be the virtually impenetrable armor of American military operations in South Asia. Shortcomings such as these may appear trivial today, but are likely to assume worrisome proportions the longer the war on terrorism grinds on, and the broader the war's boundaries grow.

The first concern revolves around the U.S. Air Force inventory of the Boeing AGM-86B/C air-launched cruise missile — otherwise known as ALCM. Supplies of this weapon reportedly are becoming dangerously low. The ALCM, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, launches from U.S. B-52 and B-1 strategic bombers. Conventional versions of this weapon, along with the U.S. Navy Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile, represents the cornerstone of U.S. deep-strike capability.

Cruise missiles are perhaps the nation's most important first-strike conventional weapon, and are considered crucial in destroying enemy air defenses to pave the way for precision-guided bomb attacks from manned aircraft. Without the cruise missiles, U.S. planners say, American aircraft and pilots are at acute risk to enemy anti-aircraft weapons.

News reports place the U.S. inventory of conventional AGM-86 cruise missiles at fewer than 100; some reports place the inventory at around 20. This is the result of heavy U.S. reliance on this weapon during the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, during the war in Yugoslavia, during attempted and ineffectual retaliatory strikes against terrorists during the Clinton Administration, and most recently during operations in Afghanistan.

One alternative to the air-launched cruise missile is the Navy's ship- and submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, which carries warheads of similar size. Still, the Tomahawk is a legitimate alternative to the ALCM only to a degree. The important difference between the AGM-86 and the Tomahawk lies in their ranges; the AGM-86 ALCM can fly as far as 1,500 miles, almost twice the range of the Tomahawk, which can fly a maximum of 870 miles.

The substantial range advantage of the ALCM over the Tomahawk is an important factor in U.S. war plans — and is an important consideration for any potential defender. The shortfall in ALCM stockpiles could be a decisive weakness in how U.S. forces carry out the war on terrorism.

Some news reports claim that the shortage of ALCMs may be delaying plans for an anti-terrorism attack on Iraq, and that U.S. officials are pressing Boeing to speed up new AGM-86 production, and alteration of nuclear-tipped ALCMs to a conventional configuration. Only the Pentagon's top war planners know this for sure.

The second concern involves U.S. capability for long-range aerial surveillance. In a little-noticed incident Dec. 30, a U.S. long-range Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) reportedly crashed in the United Arab Emirates. The aircraft, one of two in use for Afghanistan operations, reportedly carried the only remaining electro-optical infrared payload for that type of UAV.

The U.S. magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology reported the Global Hawk crash. It is not clear when the payload's manufacturer, Raytheon Co., will be able to replace it, the magazine reports. The Northrop Grumman Aeronautical Systems Center in San Diego builds the Global Hawk.

What reports like these indicate is that U.S. military forces are formidable and sophisticated, yet may not be as deep as a prolonged global war on terrorism will require.

These revelations come at a difficult time. The U.S. defense budgeting process not only is slow, but also is still in transition between two different presidents, two different political parties, and two different visions of how American defense forces should be used and maintained.

If members of Congress, the Bush Administration, and the Department of Defense are serious about fighting a prolonged war on global terrorism, they must take a close look not only at military capability, but also at the depth of forces they will need to carry out such a war.

They need to do what they can to fast-track budget authority through Congress to rebuild stockpiles of cruise missiles, electro-optical sensor payloads, precision-guided munitions, and any other technology necessary to root out world terrorism.

The memories of the Twin Towers disaster demand it.

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