CHICAGO — HIGH-TECH munitions are being expended rapidly by United States forces fighting Iraq. But it's too early to tell if defense contractors will win lucrative reorders, say defense and congressional analysts in Washington. The amount of these munitions used in the war is only one variable. Others, these analysts say, include how many the military had at the outset, how many will be needed by the smaller US force expected in the future with the end of the cold war, and whether defense officials decide to replace expended munitions with identical items or a more advanced new generation.
Several high-tech weapons have been heavily used in the opening phase of the war, and with great effect. Fifty of the first 51 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles found their target. Even more impressive has been the Patriot antimissile system in swatting down incoming Scud missiles.
The High-speed Anti-Radar Missile (HARM) hasn't received as much publicity as the Tomahawk and Patriot have. Deliberately so, according to an employee in the Naval Air Systems Command (NavAir) office in Washington. He says it's better to keep Iraqi forces guessing whether or not HARMs are being used against them, since the missile can only find its target if the Iraqis turn on their radar.
``There were probably more HARMs fired [on the first night of the war] than any time in history,'' says Lt. Col. Piers Wood, a US Army reservist who works at the Center for Defense Information, a private, nonprofit research center on national military policy.
The immediate question is whether the US has enough munitions to fight the current war. On Monday, the fifth day of war, the Pentagon asked Raytheon Company of Lexington, Mass., to speed up delivery of Patriot missiles already on order.
Texas Instruments Inc. of Dallas, maker of the HARM, had delivered more than 10,000 to the military before the war. The Navy had received under 1,000 conventionally-armed land-attack Tomahawks from General Dynamics Corporation's Convair Division in San Diego and McDonnell Douglas Missile Systems Company in St. Charles, Mo.
None of these companies would comment about possible reorders.
``I don't think we can continue to expend Tomahawks at the rate we did'' on the first night of the war, Colonel Wood says. By Tuesday, over 200 of the million-dollar missiles had been used.
That's more than a fifth of the Navy's Tomahawk inventory in six days. And the Navy only had 100 of the type that scatter cluster bombs over fuel storage sites or among aircraft parked on a runway. The rest have unitary payloads for knocking out buildings like command centers, communications centers, and air defense systems, says Robert Holsapple, director of public affairs in the Navy's cruise missile project office.
Of the 900 or so conventionally armed land attack cruise missiles delivered to the Navy, 400 to 500 are in the Gulf. The contractors make 20 per month of this type. They could easily double that production rate or more if directed to do so.
A year-old study by the Congressional Budget Office of munitions sustainability noted that senior military commanders often complain that not enough advanced munitions are available to sustain combat longer than a few weeks or, in some cases, days.
The study looked at 30 advanced munitions, including the Tomahawk, the Patriot, and the HARM, and found that by 1994 the military would have only 73 percent of its requirements.
However, the requirement was based on ``a potential global war that features intense combat in all theaters.'' The current conflict is much more limited in scope. But it apparently will now take longer than initially expected for the US-led coalition to destroy Iraq's mobile Scud launchers and hundreds of aircraft hidden in underground bunkers.
Looking beyond the current conflict, three scenarios remain open: that none of the munitions will be replaced, that they will be replaced with exactly the same item, or that they will be replaced with the next generation of that item.
Wood says he expects the high-tech munitions to be replaced on a one-for-one basis or greater, considering the wartime tendency of Congress to act out of ``patriotic fervor.''
Other analysts point to the fact that, with the US intending to reduce its force size by 25 percent regardless of the current war, fewer weapons will be needed.
``There could be very little replacement,'' says Alexis Cain, research director at the Defense Budget Project, a Washington- based think tank on defense issues. ``If [the war] were to end tomorrow, my guess would be that we wouldn't replace most of the munitions. We're not going to need as large stockpiles of tactical missiles when we're going to have a tactical air force that's probably going to be reduced by a third.''
``There will be particular things that we'll want to replace,'' Mr. Cain adds. ``The requirement for the number of Tomahawks is going to be probably a little bit less affected by the reduction in the size of the force.''
A reorder of Tomahawks would benefit McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics, two companies that were stung when Defense Secretary Richard Cheney on Jan. 7 canceled their $4.8 billion project to build the A-12 aircraft.
Conversely, those firms are also among the companies doing advance studies for the next generation of cruise missile.
``I would imagine that [the war] would create pressure in Congress to start up programs to buy things that were canceled and to continue to buy things that are potentially on cancellation lists now,'' a congressional analyst says. ``But on the other hand there's pressure to stop buying things so we can buy the next generation. The military is going to continue to argue in all probability that they need to buy newer things - whatever the newer things happen to be.'' ``They'll imply that they're not losing lots and lots of planes and pilots as a result of having such wonderful weapons systems, and that therefore we need to buy new ones,'' the analyst adds.
The NavAir employee says that the war ``absolutely'' brings opportunity for defense contractors. ``But it's a function of time and money. In the case of munitions there is a practical and common-sense requirement to keep a sufficient amount of ordnance around so that you can address a problem such as this without worrying about running out of ordnance the day after tomorrow.''
The employee notes plans to reduce the number of aircraft in the Navy from 14 to 12. ``In fact, depending on who you believe, it could be nine. But people seem to accept that we're headed for 12.'' Only so many aircraft are needed per carrier, he says. The same logic generally applies to munitions.