Money Isn’t Enough: Getting Serious About Precision Munitions
“We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them … We need the funding in place to ensure we’re prepared for the long fight. This is a critical need.”
At first glance, one might assume this quote was drawn from recent testimony by U.S. military leaders about the “incredible consumption rates of conventional munitions” in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Several weeks ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned of the potential for “off the charts” munitions expenditures in a great-power war with China or Russia. Despite Milley calling this fact a “lesson learned” from Ukraine, the leading quote is actually over seven years old, drawn from a statement by then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh about munitions consumption in Iraq and Syria.
Although the Russia-Ukraine conflict has shed new light on the inadequacy of Western munition stocks, insufficient inventories of weapons, particularly the precision-guided munitions central to American military operations, are nothing new. In fact, shortages of precision munitions have been a recurring feature of nearly every U.S. campaign since the 1990s. The U.S. military suffered from dangerously low stocks of precision munitions in Desert Storm, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, and more recently in Iraq and Syria.
Now, the staggering quantities of munitions expended by both Russia and Ukraine have once again drawn attention to this chronically underprioritized aspect of defense readiness. After years of inattention, the potential for conflict in the Indo-Pacific has led to widespread calls for upping munitions purchases and expanding the weapons industrial base.
These cries for increased spending on munitions and their industrial base are long overdue, but they ignore the glaring problem facing the U.S. military in the near term. Current precision munition inventories and production rates are simply insufficient to meet the demands of a war with China in the coming years before improvements can be made. As Milley cautioned, even a rapid Indo-Pacific conflict could consume the U.S. military’s on-hand inventories of key weapons in a matter of days or weeks. And the existing munitions industrial base will not be able to surge production and replace these weapons at sufficient rates.
The Department of Defense should maximize production of critical weapons, and expanding the defense industrial base is critical in the long run. Sustaining America’s precision-strike advantage in the near term, however, will require the U.S. military to rethink how it designs, buys, and employs its precision-guided munitions. The Department of Defense should quickly bolster its existing arsenal of precision weapons with modular kits to increase their capability and lethality. These upgraded weapons could be paired with innovative employment concepts that leverage the enduring American technological advantage to ease the total munitions requirements of a great-power conflict.
New Light on an Old Problem
Unparalleled increases in effectiveness and efficiency have made precision munitions essential to the American way of war, so why have policymakers consistently underinvested in them? The reasons are myriad, but primarily rest on outdated assumptions about munitions consumption and production. Short and decisive campaigns like the Gulf War and the opening acts of Operation Iraqi Freedom allowed military leaders to repeatedly underprioritize munitions, resulting in limited stockpiles of advanced weapons. However, recent analysis has convincingly argued, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict has further reinforced, that great-power conflict is increasingly likely to be protracted and last months rather than weeks.
This expectation of rapid conflict is combined with the flawed belief that in the unlikely event of a longer war, munitions demands would, as in the Cold War, be met by surge production. But after decades of downsizing and consolidation, today’s weapons industrial base lacks the capacity to surge production of many precision munitions because of inconsistent demand signals, fragile supply chains, and aging workforces. Manufacturers have struggled to increase production of relatively simple weapons like the Javelin and Stinger, let alone advanced cruise missiles like the long-range air-launched Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile. Despite its obsolescence, reliance on surge production as a “hail Mary” has led planners to view munitions as bill payers during budgeting that can be underfunded in favor of the costly platforms loved by Congress and the armed services alike. Without the dedicated service communities enjoyed by platforms like submarines or aircraft, precision munitions funding has mostly followed operational usage rather than the requirements of long-term strategy or analysis.
All of the Money and None of the Time
Now, the United States appears to be trying to make up for these mistakes by prioritizing funding for munitions and their industrial base. These efforts are absolutely critical to preparing the U.S. military for the potential of great-power conflict. The Department of Defense should be maxing procurement of critical munitions and working to expand production capacity, but amassing substantial quantities of weapons and building new manufacturing lines is going to take years, not weeks or months. The reality is that, short of a full-fledged industrial mobilization, these improvements are bound to be insufficient for the overwhelming munitions demands of a protracted war in the Indo-Pacific.
Strike campaigns in Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom incorporated thousands of aim points targeting Iraqi command and control, air defenses, basing, ground forces, and military infrastructure. A campaign with similar objectives against just a portion of the People’s Liberation Army could entail thousands more targets. Recent wargaming has suggested that even a limited campaign to counter a Chinese invasion force in the Taiwan Strait could require as many as several thousand anti-ship cruise missiles. Should the U.S. military pursue more expansive objectives that involve targeting Chinese command-and-control systems, basing, forces, or military-industrial capabilities, it is not difficult to envision tens of thousands of potential targets. These targets could be distributed and concealed in an area 22 times the size of Iraq — a single Chinese Theater Command occupies nearly 1.5 times the target area of previous campaigns in that nation. The longer a conflict endures, the more recurring targets (such as airbases) will be repaired and require re-attack.
Moreover, the Chinese military has spent decades observing U.S. strike operations and preparing its defenses to drive U.S. precision-weapon expenditures to unfeasible levels. U.S. munitions will first have to survive a gauntlet of modernized, mobile active defenses that include airborne interceptors, long-range surface-to-air missiles, and close-range point defenses. The remaining weapons that reach their target area will then contend with many forms of passive defense, the most visible being the thorough hardening of Chinese basing and infrastructure and the extensive use of concealment, camouflage, and decoys, even around non-military facilities. These measures combine to exponentially increase the quantity of weapons required in a strike campaign. For instance, a target set requiring the expenditure of 150 precision munitions would jump to needing 450 munitions to be effective if Chinese active and passive defenses are each successful in stopping just 20 percent of U.S. weapons.
With limited surge capacity, the U.S. military would be forced to rely on existing precision munition stocks and production rates to meet these targeting demands. Exact inventory numbers are classified, but the degree to which recent campaigns have stressed U.S. stocks gives reason to doubt the sufficiency of short-range munition inventories. For more complex weapons, procurement documents tell a concerning story. Despite the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile being the U.S. military’s premier air-launched stand-off cruise missile, it purchased only 3,243 missiles between fiscal years 2010 and 2021. With analysis suggesting that the Air Force could muster around 30 bomber sorties per day, this entire inventory could be expended in less than a week of sustained long-range strike operations. Ongoing production would be unable to refill stocks. During Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. military expended 802 Tomahawk missiles in 30 days, firing an average of 27 missiles per day. At this rate, a single year of production at the historically average rate of 209 missiles per year would supply just enough Tomahawks for a week of strike operations.
Some might suggest that the United States could purchase foreign munitions or rely on its allies to conduct a portion of any campaign. But as their efforts to supply Ukraine have exposed, many U.S. allies are even worse off than the United States. The weapons-industrial bases of many allies are similarly limited in their capacity, and several key U.S. allies are at least partially dependent on the United States for critical munitions as well. It is true that the use of cyber or other military instruments may reduce munitions requirements, but these tools are typically supporting efforts and it is doubtful that they could be utilized against many targets typical of a precision-strike campaign. Likewise, there may be a set of high-value targets that, if destroyed, could more quickly push China toward conflict termination. But the destruction of these targets could risk escalation beyond the conventional level, particularly if the conflict’s stakes are higher for Beijing than Washington.
Maintaining America’s Precision Advantage
Clearly, the United States has a precision munitions problem — one that it cannot easily spend or produce its way out of in the immediate future. Maintaining America’s precision-strike advantage in future conflicts, especially those protracted in duration, is going to require the U.S. military to embrace innovative weapon designs and rethink strike operations.
Modern technologies can be applied to make precision weapons producible in volume and to field more effective weapons that reduce munitions requirements. In the near term, modular kits that draw on the success of the Paveway and Joint Direct Attack Munition series, which augment existing dumb bombs with precision capability, could be further improved with new propulsion, sensor, and payload technologies. Glide kits and add-on engine kits could harness advanced energetics and propulsion systems to extend the ranges of proven precision weapons at reduced costs and shortened timelines. These kits could also be enhanced with affordable multi-mode sensors developed in previous defense programs and refined in modern loitering munitions and smart bombs. The inclusion of inexpensive datalinks pioneered in commercial drones could also pave the way for these weapons to collaborate semi-autonomously to attack target sets more efficiently. Existing munitions could also be modified to deliver payloads that leverage combinations of more powerful energetics, non-kinetic effects, persistent sensors, and intelligent, policy-compliant area effects. Together, these features could enable more weapons in America’s precision arsenal to service greater numbers of targets with more lethal effects.
In the medium term, weapons developed using digital engineering and modular architectures would be more easily manufactured, be more operationally versatile, and expand munition supply chains by opening the door for more commercial firms to enter the component and subcomponent market. Modular weapons with interchangeable components that can be swapped in a “mix-and-match” fashion could pair a variety of common components with different sensors and payloads to grow the munitions-industrial base and reduce procurement tradeoffs by providing strike forces with versatile weapons tailorable to multiple missions and scenarios. The Department of Defense should work closely with defense manufacturers to overcome the challenges associated with proprietary designs and intellectual property that have previously hindered the adoption of these technologies.
These technologies should be combined with new employment concepts that reduce the total number of targets, increase munition survivability and effectiveness, and generate precision effects in the volume necessary for future conflict. Strike planners can reduce target sets by attacking critical nodes in an adversary’s command, targeting, air defense, or transportation systems. The U.S. military successfully attacked the Iraqi air defense system in Desert Storm and transportation infrastructure in the Balkans. Weapons with improved target-recognition capabilities and specialized payloads could more effectively destroy the single points of failure in enemy operations. Similarly, rather than expending exquisite munitions and valuable resources attacking elusive mobile targets like air defense and ballistic missile launchers, U.S. forces can target the fixed and unhardened elements of these units’ kill chains and support infrastructure. All mobile forces, whether missile launchers or naval vessels, rely on some form of vulnerable infrastructure such as hides, shelters, ports, ammunition dumps, or fueling points — and many mobile targets will remain stationary during tasks such as refueling, rearming, or embarking cargo. Focusing strikes on these fixed elements would allow the United States to utilize GPS-guided weapons, which comprise the majority of U.S. precision inventories, to severely limit the effectiveness of mobile forces.
To increase their survivability and effectiveness, precision weapons should be employed in heterogenous salvos and complex attacks that present adversaries with multiple dilemmas and cannot be defeated by a single defensive system. For instance, inexpensive munitions powered by modular add-on kits could serve as decoys that absorb enemy missiles and overwhelm an adversary’s defenses. Non-kinetic weapons could be similarly used to temporarily disable defenses and enable follow-on strikes. Implementing these concepts will require policymakers to approach munitions as not just effectors, but rather as components in force packages assembled to accomplish specific missions. Optimizing these force packages will grow in importance as the U.S. military fields more long-range penetrating strike aircraft capable of delivering large payloads of inexpensive weapons.
Finally, the Department of Defense should, as Julia van der Colff argued in these pages, consider rapidly fielding “second tier” precision munitions that take advantage of existing technologies to provide large quantities of minimum-capability weapons at reduced costs. Next-generation stealth, sensor, and precision capabilities are key to competing with China in the long run, but these simpler munitions could be more easily (and cheaply) produced in the volumes necessitated by great-power conflict. Combined with unmanned munitions carriers and teamed with manned strike platforms, second-tier weapons could be essential to providing the volume of effects required by these other concepts. As Russia’s use of Iranian drones in Ukraine has shown, not every target requires an exquisite precision munition. Unlike ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Defense should not wait until a crisis to explore and test these designs.
In a protracted conflict with China, the U.S. military may not be able to continue riding its wave of successful precision-strike campaigns in limited and regional conflicts. Rather than looking backwards toward a historic comparative advantage that no longer exists — raw industrial capacity — the United States should embrace the comparative advantage that it still enjoys in the present — high technology. The Department of Defense can start by procuring increased quantities of the advanced weapons it currently fields and augmenting the capabilities of existing precision munitions with modular add-ons and upgraded payloads. These initial steps toward modular weapons can pave the way for the widespread adoption of digital engineering and “mix-and-match” weapons in coming years.
Beyond technology, pairing precision weapons with updated operational and employment concepts is essential to reducing munitions requirements to more manageable levels in great power conflict. The United States may never amass sufficient quantities of long-range cruise missiles to fight China in the same manner as it previously fought Iraq. Targeting the adversary’s critical vulnerabilities, focusing strikes on fixed rather than mobile targets, and employing future weapons in force packages to create heterogenous salvos and complex attacks are all ways in which the U.S. military can use its precision munitions in a more effective and efficient manner.
Of course, innovative technologies and concepts may not be enough to win a prolonged war of attrition. Quantity remains a quality of its own, particularly with expendable weaponry. But relying on outdated assumptions and refusing to utilize America’s enduring technological advantage to its fullest potential risks defeat in future military operations where the demands for precision weapons will inevitably exceed supplies.
Tyler Hacker is a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, where his work focuses on long-range strike, future operational concepts, and great-power competition. He is the author of the forthcoming CSBA report “Beyond Precision: Maintaining America’s Strike Advantage in Great Power Conflict”. He served previously as a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army.