Key point: The Tomahawk missile was a big deal and another similarly accurate and reliable weapon would have been needed.
For the past three decades, America’s signature weapon of war has been the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, or TLAM. The TLAM has helped bust down the doors of air-defense networks from Iraq to Libya, and has become a favorite tool of political influence for several presidents.
But what if the TLAM had never existed, or at least not in the form that we have grown accustomed to? What if the United States had given up the TLAM in arms control negotiations with the USSR?
Land Attack Cruise Missiles:
The TLAM was hardly the first cruise missile launched from a ship, or submarine. Rudimentary anti-ship cruise missiles began to appear during World War II, and by the 1960s the Soviet Navy was arming every ship bigger than a torpedo boat with ASMs. Both the USN and the USSR developed nuclear tipped cruise missiles to attack coastal targets in the late 1950s.
But precision land attack cruise missiles are more complicated than anti-ship missiles, as the former need to negotiate difficult terrain in order to find their targets. The ocean is relatively flat, meaning that targets (ships, cities) are noticeable even to rudimentary AI. Inland targets are much more difficult to find, and the terrain is much more challenging to avoid. Hitting such targets requires either inertial guidance (difficult in context of a ship or submarine that will not launch from a fixed location, and prone to error in any case), terrain mapping capability, or a satellite connection. Consequently, it took a very long time for the United States to develop a missile that could plausibly strike the interior of a country with any kind of precision. The TLAM used a terrain mapping system that allowed it to recognize contours on the Earth, then decide how to alter its course. Until Russia struck Syria with sea-launched cruise missiles during its recent campaign, no other country had mastered the necessary technology.
But the United States did master this technology, and has since used Tomahawk missiles early and often. The first operational use of the TLAM came during the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States Navy (USN) launched 288 Tomahawks against Iraqi targets from surface ships and submarines. For many, however, the first intellectual experience of the TLAM likely came from Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising, when a group of USN and Russian Navy submarines attacked Soviet bomber bases, thus denying the Soviets access to the Atlantic.
In any case, Tomahawks have made an appearance in virtually every conflict that the United States has decided to associate itself with since the 1990s. TLAMs can do significant damage at virtually no risk to U.S. planes and pilots, and can hit targets from over one thousand kilometers away. Because of their relatively small size and ability to fly low, they are difficult to shoot down. They can bust down air-defense networks, and they can “send messages” about U.S. power and commitment to any number of international miscreants. Indeed, “missile diplomacy” has become shorthand for the use of Tomahawks to inflict damage on the cheap.
The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), negotiated in the mid-1980s, restricted the deployment of intermediate ranged missiles by both the United States and the Soviet Union. Both countries had become concerned about the escalation risks posed by missiles such as the Pershing II and the Soviet SS-20. These missiles offered very little warning before striking their targets, creating very serious escalation concerns. In addition to the Pershing II, the United States had deployed the BGM-109G ground launched cruise missile (GLCM) which was essentially a ground-based version of the Tomahawk. The GLCM deeply worried Soviet planners, as they lacked the capacity to detect launches or defeat the missiles in the air.
Consequently, the INF eliminated the GLCM, along with the intermediate ranged ballistic missiles. U.S. negotiators resisted the idea of killing the TLAM, however, as there was no ready Soviet alternative, and it gave the US Navy a huge conventional strike advantage. In the end, while the GLCM was killed the TLAM survived, and became one of the core weapons of US naval forces in the post–Cold War era. Had negotiations gone differently, however, the Navy could have lost what has become its premier long-range strike weapon.
The TLAM has filled an important gap in U.S. military capabilities, giving the U.S. Navy the ability to strike hard against an enemy target set without risking the loss of aircraft and aircrew. Had the TLAM (or a similar missile) not been available, the Navy might have attempted to fill the gap with the A-12 Avenger, a carrier-based stealth bomber designed to replace the A-6. The A-12 was cancelled during the post–Cold War drawdown because of cost overruns and design problems, and because the TLAM could fulfill the same core mission. Had the A-12 survived, it could have conducted many of the same missions performed by the Tomahawk, albeit at greater risk to pilots. The A-12 would also have offered the USN’s carrier battle groups the kind of long-range strike option that they lost when the A-6 Intruder retired.
Alternatively, the USAF could have doubled-down on its own fleet of stealth aircraft, particularly the B-2 stealth bomber. If the US had not had TLAMs available in the early 1990s, the Air Force could have made a more compelling case about the need for a stealth aircraft capable of deep penetration strikes into contested airspace. The B-2 is a much more expensive option than the TLAM, but in conventional conflict it can perform a similar mission. In the absence of the B-2 or the A-12, attacks into contested airspace would resemble the vast strike packages of the Vietnam War, involving dozens of aircraft tasked to different missions, and always running the risk of losing U.S. planes and U.S. pilots.
Shifting away from the air, the United States could have focused more heavily on long-range artillery, both land- and sea-based. Although the Crusader artillery system was cancelled for reasons largely unrelated to the Tomahawk, work in the Army had been done on using extended range munitions with some configurations of the system. This could not have offered precisely the same capabilities as the Tomahawk, but would have given policymakers some additional options. Similarly, the Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) developed for the Advanced Gun System on the Zumwalt class destroyer would have helped close the gap left behind by the TLAM.
Finally, the United States could simply have avoided reliance on cruise missiles as a delivery system for diplomatic messages. While Tomahawks have been operationally necessary in some cases (attacks into Iraq and Serbia, for example) in many others the missions could have been undertaken with relative safety by conventional manned aircraft. Whether U.S. presidents would have been as eager to launch attacks against Sudan or Syria if actual pilots had been at risk is a different question entirely.
The Final Salvo:
As much as anything, the Tomahawk missile is the symbol of America’s post–Cold War military ascendancy. Destroying things cheaply, risk-free has been a hallmark of U.S. military policy since the 1990s, largely because of the TLAM. In its absence, the United States might have found itself less eager to intervene in conflicts around the world.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. This first appeared in July 2019.