How the Tomahawk has changed the nature of US warfare

If war today is something like a video game fought from a computer terminal, it is because of the Tomahawk cruise missile. It lets you hit the enemy without giving him a chance to hit back. Mostly.

Published: 08th April 2017 06:35 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th April 2017 06:48 PM   |  A+A-

A Tactical 'Tomahawk' Block IV cruise missile conducts a controlled flight test over the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) western test range complex in southern California. (File photo | AFP)

By Express News Service

The US fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield from two ships out out at sea on Thursday. Ever since its induction into the American Navy in 1983, the Tomahawk has changed the nature of warfare. Its use has marked every major American engagement in conflict since 1991.

What’s a cruise missile?

Imagine a small airplane with a bomb fitted to it. A cruise missile is basically that, about 20 ft long and 21 inches in diameter, weighing about one-and-a-half ton. When they are launched, a 250 kg solid rocket booster propels them into flight. Once the fuel is burned, the booster falls away and the wings (8.5 ft wingspan) and tail fins unfold. At this stage, the turbofan engine takes over and the many navigation systems built into the cruise missle guide it to its destination as per the coordinates fed into it.

They can be launched from anywhere, from ships, missile launchers, or aircraft. They fly at low altitudes and are programmed to deliver the bomb at a precise location. The bomb, or warhead, explodes when the missile reaches its destination. The missile itself is destroyed, and the damage depends on the warhead. The 59 Tomahawks fired at the Syrian air base in Homs were basically meant to destroy massive fortified structures around the airfield.

What’s a Tomahawk missile?

The Tomahawk missile is named after the one-handed axe used by Native American tribes. The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) is an all-weather, long-range, subsonic cruise missile used to hit targets on land. They are designed to fly at extremely low altitudes at high subsonic speeds (880 kmph) and strike targests over a range of They have a range of 2500 miles, which makes them intermediate-range cruise as distince from intercontinental missiles. Just for the benefit of homegrown war gamers, India’s naval base at Mumbai could comfortably hit Islamabad (1629 miles) or any other Pakistani target if only India had Tomahawks.

 Who makes it?

The missile was iniaitally given to General Dynamics for manufacture.Some Tomahawks were also manufactured by McDonnell Douglas. The present contractor is Raytheon Systems, located in Tucson, Arizona. The missile’s subsystems are made by various other contractors.

Who uses it?

Tomahawks are stationed on US Navy submarines and surface ships. The UK Royal Navy’s submarines are also fitted with Tomahawks.

To watch how Syrian aircraft were destroyed in the US strike on Friday, click here

What is it used for?

The Tomahawk was initially designed to carry both nuclear and conventional bombs, or warheads. But in the latest  upgrade, the nuclear capability was dropped.  The warhead used depends on the objective of the mission. In ‘normal’ long-range warfare, the Tomahawk is used to strike at high-value or heavily defended land targets.  The conventional Tomahawk carries a 1000 pound warhead plus 166 bomblets, which are designed to produce what are called combined effects.

When was it first used?

The Tomahawk was inducted into the US Navy in 1984 but it wasn’t until Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that it was first put to use. That operation was launched after Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US launched airstrikes to soften up Saddam Hussein’s troops before sending in troops to clear the invaders from Kuwait. The Tomahawk was the ideal weapon for that objective. Desert Storm was the first war to be covered live by satellite TV. The fireworks you saw on CNN from your living room were mainly produced by Tomahawks. Since then, the missile has been used over 2,000 times in combat.

What are the advantages of the Tomahawk?

They say about the Tomahawk missile that it can fly 1,000 miles and hit a target the size of a single-car garage.

However, the Tomahawk is not designed to just go from point A to point B. The missile has a mission-tailored guidance system that enables it to evade obstacles and anti-missile defence systems and strike at a highly localized target. So they can’t easily be shot down.

Plus, as the Tomahawk flies very low altitudes, it is difficult for radar to detect it.

Also, Tomahawks obviate the need to send fighter pilots on bombing runs that would expose them to enemy ground fire. In the US, bodybags are always a sensitive political issue, so the Tomahawk fired long range is an ideal weapon for warfare from a safe distance.

Unlike other missiles, the Tomahawk does not take a high, ballistic trajectory. It flies close to the ground, veering around terrain features, propelled by a turbofan engine. It has a small radar signature so it avoids radar-guided defences. 

What are its capabilities?

The Tomahawk has a mission-tailored guidance system, which means that its performance can be tweaked as per the objective of the mission. It has a time-of-arrival control so that the speed can be preset and controlled. Its navigation capability has a GPS-synced Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator (DSMAC) which gives it pinpoint accuracy. For instance, Thursday’s hit on the Syrian air base was designed to hit bunkers in which Assad’s aircraft were being maintained while avoiding his chemical weapons storage facility nearby and to leave the airfield untouched.

As it cruises over enemy territory, the Tomawak talks to a satellite by a two-way communication system. This enables the mission controller to alter the terminal point or even set a new target altogether during flight. It also does some tourism along the way, by mapping and relaying back images of the terrain and ground  installations as it cruises toward its target. In case the target has moved during the flight, the Tomahawk can even loiter around while Houston resets the coordinates. Tomahawk maker Raytheon boasts,

What guides a Tomahawk?

There are basically four systems that guide a Tomahawk, indeed any cruise missile, to its target:

1. Inertial Guidance System (IGS): Keeps track of the location as it flies.

2. Terrain Contour Matching (Tercom) : Matches the target terrain with its database

3.Global Positioning System (GPS): Talks to the tracking satellite

  1. Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation: Photographs the target and matches it to the target data.

Once it is close to the target, the Tomahawk missile’s terminal guidance system takes over and the projectile is directed to the chosen point of impact.

What does it cost?

In 1999 the US Navy stated that the unit cost of each Tomahawk cruise missile was approximately $569,000. Today, that cost would be $832,000, according to CNN. The US Navy fired 59 missiles in the airstrike on Syria on Thursday. That’s an eye-popping 49 million dollars.


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