The U.S. Is Running Low on Hellfire Missiles

Reaper Aircraft Flies Without Pilot From Creech AFB
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, NV - AUGUST 08: An MQ-9 Reaper takes off August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. They can fly twice as fast and high as the smaller MQ-1 Predators, reaching speeds of 300 mph at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet. The aircraft are flown by a pilot and a sensor operator from ground control stations. The Reapers are expected to be used in combat operations by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq within the next year. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Photo by Ethan Miller—Getty Images

America’s 16-month bombing campaign targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is growing costly for the Department of Defense, and not just in dollar terms. The Air Force has dropped 20,000 bombs and missiles on ISIS since it began its air war in August of last year, burning through stocks of some of the Pentagon’s most popular precision weapons, according to the Air Force.

The U.S. is “expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” Air Force chief of staff General Mark Welsh said recently in a statement. That’s prompted the Air Force to dig deep into its own reserves of munitions (such as the AGM-114 Hellfire missile) to keep both its own planes and those of its anti-ISIS allies running and gunning over Syria and Iraq.

But resupplying on short notice can be problematic as such weapons have a production lead time that can be difficult to accelerate, an issue acknowledged by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James last week. “We’re in the business of killing terrorists and business is good,” James said. “We need to replenish our munitions stock. Weapons take years to produce from the day the contract is assigned until they roll off the production line.”

The fight against ISIS has significantly changed the nature of the exchanges between the U.S. defense contractors and the countries battling ISIS alongside the U.S. In terms of dollars spent, the anti-ISIS campaign hasn’t moved the needle too significantly. Data provided by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency—the office of the U.S. Department of Defense that, along with agencies, approves foreign arms sales—indicates that roughly $46 billion worth of arms have been sold to countries battling ISIS over the last 16 months. That’s only a few billion more than the $43 billion in deals approved for the same countries in the 16 months prior to August 2014.

The kinds of systems involved in those deals has changed substantially, however, as states deplete their weapons stockpiles. Prior to August 2014 those same countries were investing in equipment upgrades, maintenance, vehicles, and aircraft. In the months since those same countries’ needs have transitioned to more expendable, tactical hardware: anti-tank weapons, aerial bombs, and air-to-ground missiles.

Saudi Arabia is at the center of this appetite for weaponry, with roughly $24 billion in deals completed or pending since airstrikes against ISIS (as well as its controversial bombing campaign in Yemen) began. A $1.2 billion deal approved in November will send 22,000 smart and unguided bombs to Saudi Arabia—including 5,000 Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, kits that turn unguided “dumb” bombs into precision “smart” bombs. The Kingdom also has deals for more than $11 billion in U.S.-built naval ships and 600 Lockheed Martin (“LMT”) PAC-3 Patriot air defense missiles in the works.

On Monday, Lockheed also received a fresh $318 million order for Hellfire missile components, reflecting the demand for the air-to-ground missile that has made a name for itself as the weapon of choice for the U.S. Air Force’s weaponized drones but can also be launched from manned aircraft.

Amid the spiking demand for guided weapons and other munitions, the Pentagon is looking for ways to accelerate the processing and approval of foreign arms sales. While the anti-ISIS campaign continues to drive demand for munitions, orders for military hardware are coming in from across the globe, DSCA chief Joe Rixey told Reuters recently.

“It’s worldwide. The demand signal is coming in Europe, in the Pacific and in CENTCOM,” Rixey said. U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, oversees the region stretching from Central Asia through the Middle East.

Total U.S. foreign arms sales in fiscal 2015 (which ended September 30) grew by roughly 37 percent over the year prior, to just more than $47 billion.

For more on Lockheed Martin, watch this Fortune video:

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