Why the Tomahawk Cruise Missile Won't Go Away

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Why the Tomahawk Cruise Missile Won't Go Away

This powerful missile just keeps getting better with new maritime and land-based versions now ready for action.

The U.S. Navy is now producing a first-of-its-kind next-generation Tomahawk missile able to fire from Navy ships and destroy moving targets at sea, a new variant of the combat-tried cruise missile bringing another dimension to maritime warfare. 

It is called the Tactical Tomahawk, a newly configured Tomahawk missile with adjusted software, radio-throughput and guidance technology enabling it to adjust course in flight to an unprecedented degree. The Tactical Tomahawk, in development now for several years, greatly expands the attack envelope for the cruise missile which has historically been largely restricted to attacking fixed land targets such as enemy bunkers, command and control centers or other high-value enemy locations. 

Due in large measure to its precision, two-way data link and 900 nautical mile range, Tomahawks have long been a “first-to-strike” weapon of war given that they not only bring a standoff ability but can also fire from submarines as well as surface ships. 

The $145 million Navy deal with Raytheon called for “production and delivery of 90 full rate production Lot 17 Block V Tactical Tomahawk All Up Round Vertical Launch System missiles, including related hardware and services for the Navy.” 

Built to counter Soviet air defenses years ago, Tomahawks often fly parallel to the surface of the ocean to elude enemy radar. The combat success of the Tomahawk, and the Army’s need for ground-based fires at longer ranges, has inspired what is now an emerging land-launched Tomahawk variant to enter service in the next year or two. Described in part as a post-INF Treaty weapon, meaning one now emerging following the Russian violation of the medium-range missile agreement, the land Tomahawk could likely target enemy air defenses and offer new supportive fires to advancing armored units moving to contact with an enemy. 

The current Tomahawk is built with a “loiter” ability allowing it to hover near a target until there is an optimal time to strike. As part of this technology, the missile uses a two-way data link and camera to send back images of a target to a command center before it strikes. 

Tomahawks have been upgraded several times over their years of service. The Block IV Tomahawk, in service since 2004, includes a two-way data link for in-flight retargeting, terrain navigation, digital scene-matching cameras and a high-grade inertial navigation system, Raytheon officials said. The current Block IV Tomahawk missile continues to receive upgrades, to include added abilities to conduct battle damage assessments and a new, more explosive warhead option for commanders seeking alternative blast effects. As part of this, Raytheon and the Navy have been developing a new payload for the weapon involving a more-penetrating warhead called the Joint Multiple Effects Warhead System, or JMEWS. The JMEWS gives the Tomahawk better bunker buster type effects, improving its ability to penetrate hardened structures like concrete and reach greater depths if needed. 

The weapons have been used for decades in combat. Roughly 800 tomahawks were fired in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and about 200 were used in Desert Storm, Raytheon officials said. More than 200 Tomahawks were fired in allied action in Libya in 2011.Tomahawk missiles weigh 3,500 pounds with a booster and can travel at subsonic speeds up to 550 miles per hour at ranges greater than 900 nautical miles. They are just over 18-feet long and have an 8-foot, 9-inch wingspan.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University

Image: Reuters.