Is The US Running Out Of Tomahawk Missiles?

The U.S. is running low on a critical munition used in multiple theaters, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation, amid worries the Navy has expended too many of the munitions to strike Houthi targets.

The Navy expended more Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missiles — abbreviated as TLAMs, or just Tomahawks — in one January 2023 strike on the Houthi rebels in Yemen than it bought in the entire previous year, according to Navy budget documents and media reports. At about $2 million a piece, the medium-range, subsonic cruise-missile Tomahawks may not be available in sufficient quantity during a serious conflict, such as one with China, military experts told the DCNF.

“Firing off more weapons than America buys causes stockpiles to decline quickly. These are the same weapons reserve the nation would need should Beijing seek to use force to take Taiwan while the United States is supporting wars in two other regions,” McKenzie Eaglen, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an editorial on Feb. 12. (RELATED: Pentagon Officials Are Realizing US Munitions Stockpiles Aren’t Nearly Big Enough To Take On China)

The Tomahawk is launched from ocean platforms like destroyers and submarines, although the Army fields an experimental variant launched from land-based platforms. It has a range of more than 900 miles and is often the military’s go-to missile for hitting precise targets on enemy territory at long distances, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defense Project.

The Tomahawk’s range and precision enables U.S. troops to keep far from the line of enemy fire.

“Tomahawks, therefore, serve as the Navy’s primary land-attack capability without putting aviators at risk,” Eaglen wrote.

Defending against the Iran-backed Houthis’ near-daily missile and drone attacks on international shipping and naval vessels in the Red Sea, the U.S. Navy has expended dozens of munitions. However, the Pentagon has only hinted at the quantity or varieties of munitions used in three instances of combined, large-scale counterstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen itself.

On Feb. 3, the U.S. and U.K. combined struck as many as 36 targets across 13 locations, using Tomahawks and Joint Direct Attack Munitions that are fired from U.S. Navy aircraft, USNI News reported.

On Jan. 22 the U.S. and U.K. attacked eight locations with Tomahawks and JDAMs. A senior defense official provided initial estimates in the hours following the strikes that  between 25 and 30 munitions of various kinds were dropped.

Aircraft, surface ships and submarines fired munitions to hit Houthi missiles, drones and weapons storage sites, using munitions including Tomahawks, the official said.

“Precision-guided munitions were used to destroy the targets and also to minimize collateral damage,” the official said.

Both strikes appeared to take place on a smaller scale than the initial round of joint attacks on Houthi targets associated with their dozens of attacks on ships. The Pentagon has not provided an updated tally on the number of munitions used overall or targets struck.

On Jan. 11, the U.S. and Typhoon fighters from the U.K. attacked more than 60 targets, including radars, missile launch sites and storage facilities, in nearly 30 different locations with 150 munitions of various types from maritime and air platforms, Pentagon officials said.

U.S. Navy Aircraft from Carrier Air Wing Three, which is assigned to the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, as well as the the USS Gravely, Philippine Sea, and Mason — all either guided missile cruisers or destroyers — participated in the strikes, the official said. An Ohio-class guided-missile submarine also participated.

More than 80 of the munitions expended in those strikes were Tomahawks, according to, citing a Navy official. That’s more than the Navy procured in the entire year prior.

“The way I was trained is you use us as the least capable — but still able to do the mission — weapon on the target, and so I would suspect we’re using the older, less survivable Tomahawks inside Iraq, Syria and Yemen today, because those are not real challenging threat environments. We may just be getting rid of stuff that we can’t update, or it’s just very old,” Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow for naval warfare at the Heritage Foundation and former senior Navy officer, told the DCNF.

But, experts said it’s impossible to get an accurate count of how many Tomahawks have been fired at the Houthis in an unclassified setting. Another consideration is that some Tomahawk variants disperse into sub-munitions as they fly and can attack several targets at once, further complicating efforts to tally up the number expended.

“It’s very hard to do that. … You’re not gonna get an answer,” Sadler told the DCNF.

The military’s full inventory is also classified, he explained.

The Pentagon and the Navy’s Mideast command did not respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

“Some estimates put the inventory at 4,000 Tomahawks, based on how many have been purchased and some information about what’s been expended. I would give that plus or minus 100 or 200. It’s a ballpark figure,” Sadler said.

More importantly, he added, it’s impossible to know how many of the most advanced version of the Tomahawk, which are more likely to survive China’s more sophisticated defenses, it must procure and maintain.

However, the Navy probably does not have enough Tomahawks in reserve to meet the needs of a future conflict.

“In a war with China, this doesn’t necessarily last very long,” Sadler added.

In January 2023, the Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted a series of war games to test the U.S. military in the first battle of a possible war with China over Taiwan. A subsequent analysis found that the Navy would expend 400 Tomahawks in the first three weeks of conflict.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, who was lead author of the report on the war games, was less concerned about the rate of expenditure in the Red Sea.

“In 2026, the wargame project estimated 4,100 Tomahawk missiles of both [block] IV and V models. Today the inventory might be around 3,800, large enough that the campaign against the Houthis will not make a big dent for many months,” Cancian told the DCNF.

Operations against the Houthis may have depleted years’ worth of missile stockpiles in a matter of weeks, Eaglen wrote. But, the Pentagon remains locked in a trend of refusal to invest in the capabilities and quantities needed to sustain operations, particularly in the event of a conflict with China

“Like most of the United States high-tech precision-guided munitions, the Tomahawk suffers from a recent history of inadequate and unstable procurement,” Eaglen wrote.

Over the previous decade, the Navy has devoted $2.8 billion to the TLAM program for just 1,234 missiles, she said.

“Mackenzie’s numbers are a little misleading, although overall she is correct that the Navy is not buying enough Tomahawks to meet the needs of a future conflict,” Bryan Clark, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute and naval operations expert, told the DCNF.


A Tomahawk has a lifespan of about 30 years, undergoing modernization upgrades at some point during that period. Some of the missiles purchased in the 1990’s and 2000’s are still in service, meaning the Navy’s true inventory is likely much higher than 1,234, Clark told the DCNF. He estimated that the U.S. has expended between 100 and 200 over the previous decade.

Most of the future funding for the Tomahawk will go toward modifying and upgrading existing missiles rather than building new ones, according to budget documents.

The Navy received 55 Tomahawks for $211 million in 2023 — for a flyaway cost of $1.8 million a piece — and asked for no additional Tomahawk missiles in 2024, Navy budget documents show. It also received more than $435 million for modifications on existing Tomahawks in 2023 and requested nearly $541 million in 2024 for the same purpose.

The Pentagon plans to add 284 tactical Tomahawks of the latest Block IV and V variants to its arsenal in coming years (reaching a projected 9,258 over the program’s lifetime, including those used up in war) by 2028 for an immediate cost at best of $1.3 million — not including research and development, upgrades, parts or maintenance — each, the documents show.

Congress last year authorized the Navy to enter into advance procurement contracts for up to 3,300 new Tomahawk cruise missiles to support Taiwan operations in the 2024 defense policy bill.

The Pentagon may be investing in modernizing some of those roughly 4,000 missiles in inventory to make them more stealthy, Sadler said. Adversaries have had decades to study earlier versions of the Tomahawk, such as those employed in the 2003 Iraq campaign, and devise ways to track the missiles with radar and infrared signals, he said.

Still, the small inventory is distributed across a potential 140 ships and submarines, Eaglen wrote, although other experts clarified the actual density of tomahawks is higher than Eaglen intimated.

About 50 ships capable of launching Tomahawks are deployed at any given time, armed with an estimated 24 missiles per ship, Clark said. U.S. Arleigh-Burke class destroyers have 90 or 96 missile loading cells depending on the type, but they will also need to carry other types of munitions, he explained.

Twenty-four is “more than an attack submarine can carry and probably the max a surface ship would carry given the need to also carry air defense missiles. And the number is likely higher because there are more than 1,234 Tomahawks in inventory,” Clark told the DCNF.

Tomahawk production lines are expanding, primarily for a new land-based variant and to supply foreign orders.

On Jan. 18, the U.S. entered a contract worth roughly $1.7 billion to provide up to 400 Tomahawks for transfer to Japan from 2025 to 2027 under the foreign military sales regime, Naval News reported.

Micaela Burrow on February 20, 2024

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