WASHINGTON - The war in Iraq has taken its toll on the United States' stockpile of Tomahawks, depleting supplies of the Navy's favorite long-range cruise missile at a time when production lines are shut down and new missiles won't be ready for a year or more.
Pentagon planners say they have more than enough Tomahawks to finish the war, and a major naval resupply operation in the Persian Gulf region is keeping the Navy stocked with Tomahawks and other armaments.
But the frequency of Tomahawk strikes in Iraq has slowed, partly because of dwindling supplies, Pentagon officials say.
And some analysts say the punishing assault on Iraq has left the nation's supply of Tomahawks spread precariously thin throughout the rest of the world - with no quick means of replenishment.
'Didn't buy enough'
"This is a major misstep in terms of Pentagon planning," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a Northern Virginia think tank.
"The whole value of the surface fleet depends on its ability to use Tomahawk missiles to attack inland targets. They didn't buy enough of them."
The Tomahawk has emerged as one of the Pentagon's most favored airstrike weapons. It can deliver a 1,000-pound bomb as far as 1,000 miles away, with a high degree of accuracy and without putting a pilot and aircrew at risk.
Most of the United States' recent conflicts have begun with a Tomahawk strike. The nation fired more than 300 during the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and launched hundreds more in the subsequent decade against targets in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo.
No previous strike compares, however, to the assault unleashed over the past two weeks.
Through yesterday, more than 725 Tomahawk missiles had been fired into Iraq during the latest war, according to Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
320 in one night
On one night - the "shock and awe" air attack of March 21 - the Navy launched 320 Tomahawks from 30 ships and submarines.
The Navy brought only about 1,000 Tomahawk missiles to the region in preparation for the war, roughly half the nation's stock worldwide. Still, Pentagon officials say the supply is adequate.
More missiles have been moved into the area, and the Tomahawk's long-distance strike role has become less important as the Army and Marine Corps advance toward Baghdad with tanks and artillery, the officials say.
"You can't do the math and subtract 700-some from 1,000 to see how many Tomahawks we have left, because we have been resupplying," said Rear Adm. Stephen R. Pietropaoli, the Navy's chief spokesman. "Our inventory is fine."
Tomahawk missiles still play a daily role in the war, mostly striking targets inside Baghdad where Iraqi fighters maintain some surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery that threaten allied planes and helicopters, Pietropaoli said.
If American and British forces win the complete "air dominance" over Baghdad that they have achieved in other parts of Iraq, the Tomahawk's role will diminish further, he said.
While Pentagon officials appreciate the Tomahawk missile's long-range capabilities, the weapon has a distinct weakness: its $1 million price tag.
Military commanders in the first gulf war said they were discouraged from firing Tomahawks because the missiles were so expensive.
The Navy has other weapons, of course. Each aircraft carrier leaves port loaded with about 3 million pounds of ordnance - enough for 1,500 of the Navy's biggest bombs - and can be restocked regularly by vessels and helicopters that shuttle supplies from nearby ports.
Attack aircraft carry the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAM, a free-falling, satellite-guided bomb manufactured by Boeing Co. at a rate of nearly 2,500 a month. The company gets unguided bombs from the military and attaches $20,000 guidance systems to them.
American and British forces, both Navy and Air Force, have dropped more than 12,000 precision-guided bombs since the war began, according to the Pentagon.
Unlike the military's supply of JDAMs, however, the Tomahawk stockpile is not being replenished. The Pentagon stopped buying Tomahawks in the late 1990s, choosing instead to invest in upgraded cruise missiles that can "loiter" over an area and search for targets. Those missiles aren't expected to be ready for battle until the middle of 2004 at the earliest.
"Eventually the Navy will have to use less appropriate weapons to try to achieve the same goal, because they won't have the supply of Tomahawks that they need," said Thompson.
"And if we get into another war, who knows what we'll do?"
The U.S. Navy has five aircraft carriers in the waters around Iraq - three in the Persian Gulf and two in the Mediterranean Sea. Each of those carriers travels in a group of roughly 10 ships, which includes destroyers, guided-missile cruisers, a frigate, one or two submarines and a supply vessel.
The cruisers and destroyers exist largely to fire missiles. They are outfitted with MK-41 vertical launchers, built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in Middle River, and can carry more than 60 Tomahawks at a time.
The ships also help to protect the carrier from enemy aircraft and vessels, and so the Navy has typically spread Tomahawk launches among the entire battle group so empty ships don't have to race back to port for more missiles.
Because of the unprecedented Tomahawk barrage of the past two weeks, however, some vessels returned to ports in the region for new missiles, said Lt. Garrett Kasper, a spokesman for the Navy's regional command in Bahrain.
Reloading at sea
Others performed the delicate maneuver of reloading Tomahawks at sea, Kasper said. Helicopters from nearby supply ships placed the missiles onto the cruiser or destroyer, and a crane built into the launcher threaded them into the launch tubes beneath the main deck.
"It's obviously a mission you'd rather perform while you're tied to a pier," Kasper said. "But it's an important capability."
Missile loading is one of several tricky procedures that the swarm of American and foreign vessels are performing throughout the confined waters around the Arabian peninsula.
Most of the United States' surface ships, including two of the five carriers in the area, are diesel-powered and get topped off with fuel every two or three days. Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers don't have to refuel, but they take on about 400,000 gallons of jet fuel every week from resupply ships that pull alongside.
Carriers are loaded with a collection of guidance systems, tail fins, bomb bodies and explosives that are assembled at sea into complete bombs as needed.
The components can be replenished at sea, though Kasper said the supplies with which they started the war have generally been sufficient.
Supply vessels also feed ships with spare parts, food, refrigerated goods and other items. More than 150 American and allied ships are sailing the waters near Iraq as part of the war, including Navy ships, supply and cargo ships, Coast Guard vessels and vessels from foreign navies.