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U.S. Is Low on Cruise Missiles

Arms: Balkan and Iraq conflicts have drained stockpiles of the key air-to-ground weapon needed to strike Yugoslavia.


WASHINGTON — The U.S. military, strained by continuing operations against Iraq as well as NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, is running low on some of the very weapons it needs to fight the wars of its choice.

The nation's stockpile of cruise missiles--the most versatile of the current generation of "smart" weapons--is being depleted by the unexpectedly large number of attacks--and at a time when there are no production lines in operation.

Low supplies of the missiles are unlikely to hurt the Balkan campaign, but key members of Congress and a wide spectrum of defense analysts say the shortages could limit, perhaps severely, the ability of the U.S. to respond to future provocations. Shortages also could make it more dangerous for the military to fulfill its key post-Cold War goal of being able to fight two major conflicts nearly simultaneously in different parts of the world.

"We don't know how long this current bombing campaign will continue," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, a high-ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Obviously, if it goes on for some time, we could have a problem."

Only days after the air war against Yugoslavia began March 24, Defense Department officials acknowledged that the Air Force was running short of conventional air-launched cruise missiles, the stubby, small-winged weapons that allow the nation's aging B-52 bombers to strike targets from great distances without substantial risk to themselves.

More recently, Navy officials have said they are replenishing supplies of a sea-launched version of the cruise missile--called the Tomahawk--by, among other things, refurbishing some 200 older missiles now in storage.

"We need more than we have in order to be comfortable," said John Douglass, assistant Navy secretary for research and acquisitions until he became president of the Aerospace Industries Assn. in September. "It's gradually dawning on all of us that the mean time between crises where we might want to use them is much shorter than anybody thought a few years ago."

Analysts and key lawmakers say the missile shortfall illustrates some of the conflicting pressures on U.S. armed forces in an era of changing goals and declining budgets. And it offers a case study in the mismatch between public expectations, which were sent sky high by the performance of missiles and other smart weapons during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and military capacities, which lag behind.

"We were spoiled by Desert Storm," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a Republican presidential aspirant. "The lesson [from Yugoslavia] is that if you are going to bomb with these kinds of expensive weapons for a long time, you're going to have shortages." As long as the U.S. strategy is to strike from long distances to avoid casualties, he said, "you're never going to have enough."

Exactly how much of a threat the missile shortfall poses is difficult to judge. At least in part, analysts say, this is because the military measures readiness against its two-conflict yardstick at a time when the typical conflict consists of the quick, punitive strikes that the United States, often with a coalition of allies, has conducted in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"Basically, we have a defense strategy that measures what we are least likely to do and a defense practice for which we have done very little planning," said Daniel Goure, a former Bush administration Pentagon official and now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The shortage of air-launched missiles is startling. Although the Air Force will not release exact figures, most observers estimate that stocks have fallen from a high of about 300 to fewer than 100. At that level, many analysts say, military leaders may soon have to slow or even stop their use of the easily detectable B-52s, which make up one-third of the nation's long-range bomber force.

The ship-launched Tomahawks are more plentiful, with 2,000 missiles in stock out of an original supply of about 2,700. In addition, Navy officials acknowledge that only about half the 2,000 are immediately available for firing, with the rest in storage or under repair. The Navy has fired more than 400 Tomahawks during a December attack on Iraq and the current conflict against Yugoslavia.

The Clinton administration has asked for $6 billion to pay for the current campaign, almost 10% of it for missiles. "We're short across the board in munitions, and this is the time to do something about it," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on procurement.

But Pentagon officials and defense analysts say missile supplies are unlikely to be replenished quickly. There are no cruise missile production lines in operation, and it takes months and, in some cases, more than a year to restart them.

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