U.S. TLAMs Give Britain More Options

By Lee Willett

Why Sell to Britain?

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps budget alone is nearly twice that of Britain's entire armed forces. The U.S. Navy has nearly 250 major combatants, compared to fewer than 60 in the Royal Navy. Raw statistics certainly question the relevance of Britain and its navy in supporting U.S. interests.

But the key word here is "supporting," and its context is political. The nature of Britain's influence is as a dependable ally and a political index of approval for U.S. policy. In today's geopolitical environment, the United States—the accidental hegemon—needs and values this grand strategic gesture of political support more than ever. The two nations are each other's strongest allies; their partnership now taken as the norm. Former U.S. Secretary of the Navy John Dalton has called this relationship indispensable, "without which a good deal of [the] collective political will to shape the security environment would be for naught."

Indeed, current U.S. thinking shows a developing understanding of the role of multinational, combined forces in U.S. policy and operations, and naval force is an important factor in establishing multinational coalitions. As seen in the Gulf and Bosnian operations, it conveys "a degree of political prominence perhaps not justified by raw considerations of military power." The Anglo-American maritime partnership—the substance of the broader U.K.-U.S. relationship—provides a central axis in such coalitions.

There are, of course, many strategic, political, economic, linguistic, and cultural commonalities, but other military issues also are influencing the direction of the U.S.-U.K. relationship: interoperability, the use of the space dimension, intelligence, ballistic missile defenses, and strategic, operational, and tactical logistic and command-and-control capabilities. In naval terms, commonalities in strategy and technology exist in warfighting style and culture, operating standards and procedures, equipment, professionalism and leadership, investment and training, and command-and-control networks.

The Royal Navy's global influence provides "neat congruence" with that of the U.S. Navy. And there is no doubting the importance of, or the growing U.S. appreciation for, this fact. During a recent Iraq crisis, the deployment of the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious provided not only a signal of political solidarity but also—according to one U.S. admiral involved—an "unquantifiable" level of military support.

For Britain, TLAMs will provide a key policy tool. The broad aim of British defense policy is "to protect the freedom and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and its dependent territories, and to help maintain the nation's wider security interests." This global foreign policy perspective is reflected in the 1998 Strategic Defense Review (SDR), which outlines Britain's option to exercise choice in using sea-based expeditionary force to provide pivotal international support for allied burdens outside traditional U.K. and NATO areas. Tomahawk will be an important component of the Royal Navy's new operational concept of the maritime contribution to joint operations.

Tomahawk Use

Today, conventionally armed Tomahawks are the backbone of British and U.S. joint and combined military force structures. The state-of-the-art U.S. conventional TLAM has three launch options: vertical-launch system (VLS) or torpedo-tube launched from nuclear attack submarines; and VLS launched from surface ships. Ultimately, the United States will have more than 3,400 TLAM variants on some 130 platforms.

The United States has fired TLAMs on seven occasions in combat:

  • 288 were fired during Desert Storm.
  • Salvoes of 45 and 23 were fired during Southern Watch at Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities on 17 January 1993 and at the Iraqi intelligence headquarters on 26 June 1993.
  • 13 were fired against the Bosnian Serb Mount Lisina air defense network on 10 September 1995 under Operation Deliberate Force.
  • 31 were fired in two waves against Iraqi air defense targets during Desert Strike on 3-4 September 1996.
  • 79 were fired against suspected terrorist sites in Khost, Afghanistan, and suspected production sites for weapons of mass destruction in Khartoum, Sudan, on 19 August 1998 under Operation Infinite Reach.
  • Some 330 were fired against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, military command, control, and communications, and political leadership targets in December 1998 during Desert Fox

The Block III TLAM/C that Britain is procuring carries a 750-pound WDU36/B reactive titanium PBXN 107 highexplosive/incendiary warhead over ranges of 1,000 miles. It is guided by the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS), with terminal-phase support from Terrain Contour Matching and Digital Scene-Matching Area Correlator IIA guidance technologies, to accuracies of under ten feet.

As a weapon that can erode air defenses to shape and prepare the strategic and operational battlespaces, TLAM has significant military use. The projection of naval power as a form of seaborne artillery has been a key military capability long appreciated in the Royal Navy. Britain's primary rationale for deploying TLAM, however, is to strengthen conventional deterrence, or more precisely, to improve Britain's ability to exercise strategic coercion.

Coercion is viewed as a tool for applying political pressure in contexts short of full hostilities. Current British maritime doctrine defines it as the use of military force "to threaten the destruction of items [an opponent] values so as to compel him to abandon his objective." TLAM provides Britain with a dramatic coercive capability, and maritime forces are well suited to exercise it, with their ability to poise in international waters with no political footprint. In this diplomatic context, Tomahawk is the tip of Britain's maritime coercive spear.

As with any use of force, successful coercion is based on four criteria:

  • Capability—the deteree knows that you have the requisite military ability
  • Credibility—neither using a "cannon to shoot a sparrow" nor taking a "popgun on an elephant shoot"
  • Commitment—to use force if required
  • Intent—communicating to the enemy that you will use force

Coercion has several subsets. First, and second, "coercion may be used in support of diplomacy to persuade an opponent . . . by the threat or isolated use of [force] ... to desist from a course of action (compellence) or to dissuade him from undertaking one (deterrence)."' Third, there is the preemptive use of force to deny an adversary his military assets (denial). Fourth, coercive force can be used as a retaliatory, punitive measure. Threatening to use or using force, such as Tomahawk, in this context is part of a process of ratcheting up the pressure, of applying force as a unit of political cost escalation.

Examples of each can be found in U.S. TLAM uses. The Deliberate Force strike was to compel the Bosnian Serbs to come to the negotiating table and to deny to them a vital command, control, and communication node. In addition to punishing Osama bin Laden for his alleged involvement in the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Infinite Reach was designed to deter further terrorist actions and to deny him the assets to carry them out. The Southern Watch and Desert Fox strikes were intended as punishment for Saddam's repeated failures to comply with U.N. weapons inspection requirements, for continuous violations of the no-fly zone, and for the alleged plot to assassinate President George Bush. Desert Fox also was aimed at degrading Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and conventional forces, to deny him the ability to threaten his neighbors.

TLAM and Lessons for Britain

Yet TLAM's use and role sometimes are misunderstood. There are lessons for Britain to learn from this.

Political Clarity . The paramount lesson is the need to ensure the validity, credibility, and cohesiveness of the political context within which force is used. This is critical when maritime force is employed in the absence of host-nation support: if the political situation is such that land-based access is denied, the legitimacy of presence is questionable.

TLAM use must be selective, and backed by a clearly articulated military and political objective. The use of Tomahawks in Desert Storm was a political and, thus, a military success. The political aim and the readiness for military and political follow-up were always evident, meeting the key criteria of "[matching] the military punch to the political objective." In contrast, the June 1993 strike against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters later drew fire from former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency James Woolsey, who believed that it should have targeted "the instruments of state power" and instead only showed the U.S. response as "exhibit number one of a paper tiger."

In Desert Strike, U.S. policy—using expensive TLAMs against politically and militarily insignificant Iraqi air defense targets—was criticized. The mission's apparent ineffectiveness arguably was attributable to the political decision makers' failure to select the right military means to achieve the political end. Military capability was evident, but political credibility, commitment, and intent were weakened by inconsistent and indecisive political support. Thus, it was widely predicted that further action would be required, and, indeed, Anglo-American forces were back in theater the following year to communicate commitment to extend the use of force to its conclusion.

A few months later, the United States and Britain unleashed Desert Fox. The implementation of a campaign of such length and depth showed an understanding of the need for sustained, rolling commitment to achieve military and political ends and to ensure both policy credibility and long-term regional stability. Tony Blair underscored Britain's commitment by deploying Invincible to the region, and the now-Tomahawk-capable Splendid may follow. Recent evidence that the Iraqi government may be seeking talks with domestic opponents is perhaps the first glimmer of political success resulting from the sustained U.S.-British military operations.

The question of the political legitimacy of any use of force remains. The United States was rebuked, for example, for firing TLAMs against bin Laden in the third-party territory of Afghanistan, and the targeting of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory sparked a wave of anti-American propaganda. If Britain is to achieve political influence with TLAM, it cannot afford to undertake an operation or strike targets that will mobilize public opinion against its cause. By procuring U.S. Tomahawks, however, Britain will become more involved in U.S. decision making—and, consequently, will have to share the blame in cases of political and military error. It is a case of both glory and guilt by association. In addition, with Britain deploying limited numbers of TLAMs, it is more important for Britain to tailor its military responses to convey the required political message. The question is not how to use force, but why.

Strategic Credibility . Deriving directly from this is the question of whether Washington's repeated use of Tomahawk has overplayed its utility as a silver bullet and thus eroded Britain's politico-strategic rationale for procuring it as a weapon of political influence.

A key problem has been the presentation of Tomahawk as a wonder weapon. U.S. Navy Commander Sam Tangredi argues that:

precision weapons, when used repeatedly as the first weapon of choice to announce resolve, to punish, or to send diplomatic signals, can gradually lose their ability to dissuade.... This is true of Tomahawks . . . and other precision weapons that rely on shock and surprise. Like the electrician who becomes less careful after surviving a major electrical shock, adversaries who now weather a Tomahawk attack may also assume that they are now immune to "the big one."

There is a political danger, he notes, in "using war-winning weapons to blow up mud huts." Tomahawk is perhaps becoming a victim of its own success.

Strategic Commitment . Britain must be prepared to sustain military means until its political end has been achieved. An adversary may feel he can overcome the shock of a one-off strike, but if there is a political commitment to keep turning up the heat, sooner or later he will boil. Pinprick strikes will not suffice: U.S. intelligence analysts argue that such strikes (even Desert Fox) have only strengthened Saddam's power base.

Psychological Vulnerability . To bolster perceptions of strategic commitment, force should be applied only after an accurate assessment of potential vulnerabilities in an opponent's centers of gravity. In the case of Iraq, Republican Guard units and Saddam's palace were targeted during Desert Storm and Desert Fox to achieve this.

The Tomahawk strike during Deliberate Force not only was a military success because of its surgical removal of a main Bosnian Serb army communications center, but also had a huge psychological impact on the Serbs. The U.S. (as opposed to NATO) weapons targeted sites very near the largest Serb city in Bosnia, and, in the words of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Tomahawk inflicted "so much damage [for] such a little thing." Any further use of force, however, must be correctly packaged in political and military terms to avoid another "Saddam situation." Milosevic, if "taking his cue from Saddam, may well conclude that thumbing his nose at the West may lead to military retaliation but that he would win the long-term political struggle."

Political Tensions . TLAM will give Britain a means of operating alongside—or independent of—Washington in both political and military terms. But despite a shared capability, the political and military ends Britain should seek to achieve with TLAM will not mirror U.S. experience. First, the United States has a larger and different politico-strategic agenda, upheld by a structurally different navy. Second, the United States faces a unique political tension arising from Tomahawk's inception as a stand-off nuclear strike asset. Today, the U.S. military emphasizes its tactical warfighting capabilities, but U.S. politicians still try to exploit Tomahawk's political value. This policy dichotomy can inhibit effective employment.

The stated British commitment of TLAM to coercive political ends makes it more important to clarify this distinction and to formulate a thorough concept of operations for both independent and combined use. Because Tomahawk is more usable as a warfighting weapon than was first envisaged, Britain no doubt will keep its concept of operations under review as it garners experience from Tomahawk deployments at sea.

Technological Issues . Of the many issues here, two are worth noting. First, Britain must grasp the strategic rationale and potential technological implications of a combined firing—particularly in terms of command and control—even if it is assumed that the United States will carry most of the firing burden.

Second, although Britain has received an extensive targeting package, likely to be sufficient to cover most scenarios, its emphasis on political persuasion requires accurate, real-time intelligence on a greater level than it now possesses, if minimal force is to be used with maximum impact. This issue is highlighted by the criticism of the U.S. strike in Sudan, which suggested that the wrong building had been targeted because of outdated intelligence.

A Wider Fit . Diverse strategic, political, and fiscal issues surround any plan to extend Britain's Tomahawk capability. Britain does not have sufficient missile or platform numbers and types to use TLAM as the United States has done. The U.S. example, however, does suggest useful strategic alternatives if Britain were to consider a wider fit.

Once Britain's initial TLAM capability is fully operational, the most probable—and cheapest—option would be to buy more missiles to extend the submarine fit. With this path, Britain's expeditionary warfare posture could be enhanced if the new batch could include different variants, such as the TacTLAM. These additional missiles also could be deployed on surface combatants.

There is little chance of including VLS in Britain's submarine program. Not only is the new Astute -class program too far evolved, but Britain's SSN designs have insufficient space in the outer pressure hull to retrofit VLS. There has been discussion of fitting TLAM packs into empty Trident ballistic missile tubes—and such a quasi-strategic, subsurface arsenal ship would be useful in meeting joint warfighting requirements—but cost is likely to be prohibitive.

A surface fit was one of the first options considered in Britain, and it has been discussed again under the SDR. If Britain intends to use Tomahawk for its coercive impact, surface forces certainly have greater visibility. Perhaps the cheapest option here would be to procure some U.S. Navy armored box launchers to fit the Type 23 frigates, but questions of deck space may make this a nonstarter.

In the early 1990s, Britain's surfacelaunch debate also included talk of a VLS fit for the Type 23s; today, it is of a VLS fit for Europe's Common New Generation Frigate (CNGF). The French Sylver system already has been chosen, but the entire CNGF program is beset by political obstacles, and Britain reportedly is on the brink of withdrawal. It also may be possible that a second variant of CNGF could be developed to carry the U.S. Mk 41 VLS, which can carry Tomahawk.

Other surface options include the new amphibious platforms and aircraft carriers, but these remain unlikely because of the implications for these platforms' primary missions.

There is no immediate British staff requirement for a further Tomahawk fit. This gives Britain a chance to achieve full operational capability with its current program before considering other options.

The TLAM "Club"

As Prince Otto von Bismarck noted, an essential component in the art of military leadership is the ability to learn from experience. A lesson that Britain can learn from U.S. experience is that TLAM can work as a deterrent and as a coercive tool, but only if used with decisive selectivity and context.

Britain certainly has benefited from the acquisition of Tomahawk, and its unique ability to deter, coerce, and intervene with minimum risk is very much the flavor of U.K. defense policy for the 21st century. A weapon with surgical military accuracy, it improves Britain's global political standing and gives Britain the opportunity to punch above its weight when navigating through the uncharted waters of the new world order. TLAM will provide a warfighting capacity to shape the battlespace and, more important, will add another rung to the ladder of crisis management. As such, it is an indispensable club in Britain's military golf bag for solving questions surrounding the use of force in support of defense policy, providing new dimensions of political and strategic choice.

Dr. Willett is Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Centre for Security Studies, University of Hull, United Kingdom. This article derives from a paper presented to the NROTC and the history and political science departments at the University of Nebraska in October 1998, and is dedicated to the late Rear Admiral Roger Mehle, U.S. Navy (Retired).

 

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