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

U.S. Air Force combat aircraft
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.

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.


This is an old argument with very superficial trade offs. The bottom lines should be the efficacy of attack (timeliness, accuracy, TDA) and friendly assets and lives lost attacking the target. Seems to me the general is trying to work the USAF budget.
If this article had been written by an Army general it have a lot more gravitas.
These missiles might be a waste of money, but China certainly doesn't think it is a waste of money to develop their "Guam Killer" DF-26. Sure, we could send waves of F-15Es to try to know out their DF-26 force, and lose 2 crew for each aircraft. As a taxpayer and veteran, I would rather spend the money to field a weapon that can counter other similar weapons (i.e. deterrence) with the risk of fewer lives.
The cynic in me hears echos of the old "the Air Force can do it all" trope we've all heard since 1945. The realist in me hears an AF General being willing to send the crews to die, just so long as the AF gets the $$$.
I agree with the comments already posted. A retired general advocates a position biased in favor of his career service branch, who could have imagined this? If bombers are clearly more cost-effective in projecting power than long-range missiles, is this also a call for the USAF to phase out its ICBM force? :-)

While the cost equation should favor aircraft over single-shot missiles as a confict drags on, it also assumes future conflict with a near-peer will last weeks or months (versus a fast-and-furious affair lasting days). The argument also assumes that long-range and tactical aviation assets will survive multiple missions and return for maintenance, rearming and refueling at bases that haven't been destroyed or significantly degraded.

It's interesting that North Korea and Iran are regarded as major threats in their respective regions not because of their outdated air forces but because of their significant stockpiles of short, medium and (NK) long-range missiles. Like most debates, the truth probably lies in the middle. China, now considered to be the pacing threat, has made significant and broad investments in its air, naval, and land-based missile forces.

Instead of holding back funds from the Army as it seeks to develop and expand its long-range missile capabilities, the greatest cost efficiencies may come from USAF efforts underway to evaluate alternatives to its costly F-35A fighter program while also developing promising technologies such as intelligent UAV swarms. UAV swarms, along with increasingly popular loitering munitions, blur the line between missiles and aircraft and point to revolutionary concepts of warfighting that will and must transcend parochial service rivalries.
The author's argument is based on an unwarranted assumption...that the AF is willing to enter heavily protected airspace at the behest of the Army. That is not always going to be the case. The Army is planning for situations where the enemy has considerable ground-to-air defenses in place.