Naval Weapon of Choice

By Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen

Early U.S. Cruise Missiles

Since the era of smoothbore cannon, warships have fired against shore targets. Later, rifled guns were used against such targets, the largest being the 16-inch guns of the Iowa (BB-61) and her sister dreadnoughts in the Pacific during World War II. Attempts to use rockets and then missiles for attacking land targets followed. One of the early missiles was the U.S. Navy’s Regulus, a land-attack cruise missile carrying a nuclear warhead that was launched from surface ships and surfaced submarines. Regulus missiles, in the fleet from 1955 to 1964, were retired with the advent of the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The demise of the Regulus ended the initial efforts by the U.S. Navy to put to sea land-attack cruise missiles. More than a decade later, in January 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Soviet leaders in Moscow to discuss strategic arms limitations. A key issue was the Soviet plan to produce 300 Tu-22M Backfire bombers, a supersonic, variable-sweep-wing aircraft. In response, Kissinger argued for 375 cruise missiles—then called ship-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs)—that would be carried in 25 surface warships. 2

One year later, on 12 January 1977, the U.S. government made the decision to develop a ground-launched variant of the SLCM, in large part to counter Soviet deployment of the SS-22 Saber (Soviet RSD-10 Pioneer), an intermediate-range ballistic missile being emplaced in the western Soviet Union to threaten European NATO countries. Operated by the Air Force, the U.S. ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) was named Gryphon after the mythical beast with the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle, powerful on land and in the air. Virtually identical to the naval cruise missiles—by then called Tomahawks—GLCMs were fitted in mobile launchers that would be based in Belgium, Great Britain, Holland, Italy, and West Germany as partners to the Army’s Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Both were to be deployed in Europe—108 Pershing IIs and 464 GLCMs—in response to the Soviet SS-20 missiles.

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States led to termination of the Air Force Gryphon missile as well as the Army Pershing II along with the Soviet IRBMs. The Gryphon cruise missiles were destroyed after having been withdrawn from service between 1988 and 1991. 3

The First Tomahawk

The Navy’s Tomahawk—the basis for the SLCM and GLCM programs—had been initiated as a long-range, antiship cruise missile in the early 1970s under the aegis of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. At the time the Navy was developing the Harpoon, a short-range antiship missile that could be launched by aircraft, surface ships, and submerged submarines. Zumwalt accelerated Harpoon development, initially with a 30-mile range, and it became operational in 1977. 4

Admiral Zumwalt also pushed the development of a long-range missile based on the Williams International turbofan engine, which promised a considerable range in a relatively small missile. This became the Tomahawk. Further, Zumwalt insisted that the missile be held to a 21-inch diameter and approximately 20-foot length to ensure that it could be launched from standard submarine torpedo tubes as well as from surface ships and aircraft. (Submarines could launch Harpoon missiles from their torpedo tubes.)

The first missile in the Tomahawk “family” was the Tomahawk antiship missile (TASM). With a range of several hundred miles and a 1,000-pound warhead, TASM used an inertial navigation system and a terminal radar seeker for attacking surface ships. It became operational on board U.S. surface ships in 1982 and submarines in 1983. The destroyer Merrill (DD-976) received the first Tomahawk installation in October 1982 for at?sea evaluation; the battleship New Jersey (BB-62) was the second ship, receiving the Tomahawk in March 1983.

The missiles were deployed in armored box launchers (ABLs) on board the four Iowa -class battleships reactivated in the 1980s by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman. The ABLs also were fitted in five cruisers and in seven destroyers of the Spruance class. Each ABL held four Tomahawks, providing 32 missiles per battleship (plus 16 Harpoons) and eight Tomahawks per cruiser and destroyer.

A major breakthrough for the Tomahawk cruise missiles occurred when the Navy developed the vertical-launch system (VLS) for surface ships and, later, for submarines. A surface ship’s VLS “cells” could hold Tomahawks as well as the various Standard surface-to-air missiles. Designated Mark 41, the VLS cells soon were being installed in the new cruisers of the Ticonderoga class and destroyers of the Arleigh Burke class—122 and 96 cells, respectively. Also, the modular nature of the VLS permitted removal of the antisubmarine rocket (ASROC) launcher and magazine from 24 Spruance -class antisubmarine destroyers and installation of a 61-cell VLS. While the CG/DDG-type ships had mostly Standard missiles in their VLS magazines, the Spruances were all-Tomahawk ships.

Meanwhile, submarines were being armed with TASMs. A missile was successfully launched from the nuclear attack submarine Barb (SSN-696) on 1 February 1978, and the Guitarro (SSN-665) became the first submarine armed with Tomahawks in 1983. The ability to launch from torpedo tubes later was provided in many attack submarines. Subsequently, beginning with the San Juan (SSN-751) commissioned in 1988, submarines of the later Los Angeles and the Virginia classes have a 12-cell vertical-launch Tomahawk battery. And when the first four Ohio -class ballistic missile submarines were removed from service because of U.S.–Soviet strategic arms agreements, they were modified to become cruise missile craft (SSGN), each able to carry 154 Tomahawks.

Nevertheless, the TASM variant was relatively short-lived. The problems of identifying and targeting ships at distances of several hundred miles were—at the time—beyond fleet capabilities. And, given that the Tomahawk is a subsonic (Mach 0.75) weapon, a high-speed ship could move a significant distance during a long-range missile attack.

A Revolutionary Weapon

The TASM was followed by the TLAM—Tomahawk land-attack missile—which became operational in 1984. It was soon the weapon of choice for U.S. political leaders and military commanders. The land-attack missiles—first used in the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—heralded a new era in naval warfare, giving warships attacking land targets unprecedented range and accuracy.

The TLAM of 1991, after being launched from a surface ship or submerged submarine, initially was directed toward its target by an inertial-guidance system that used the Tomahawk’s sensors and gyroscopes to measure acceleration and changes in direction. Once the missile crossed the shoreline, the more precise TERCOM (Terrain Contour Matching) guidance method took control, drawing information from the weapon’s computerized contour maps and comparing it with what the missile “saw” as it flew toward its target.

Skimming at altitudes of 100 to 300 feet, the Tomahawk relied on a third guidance system as it neared the target: DSMAC (Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator), which compared the target to a “picture” in its computer memory and made final course changes for a precise hit. Published accounts credit the TLAM with an accuracy of about 12 feet with a range of approximately 1,000 miles.

The Department of Defense summary report of the 1991 Gulf War stated: “The TLAM played an important role in the air campaign as the only weapon system used to attack central Baghdad in daylight. The cruise missile concept—incorporating an unmanned, low-observable platform able to strike accurately at long distances—was validated as a significant new instrument for future concepts.” 5

The TLAM—like the TASM—has a basic conventional warhead of approximately 1,000 pounds of high explosives. A TLAM-D warhead also was developed that dispensed 166 BLU-97 “bomblets,” each weighing 3.4 pounds, in packets of 24. These submunitions could be armor-piercing, fragmentation, or incendiary, and could attack multiple targets. In 1991, for example, a submarine-launched TLAM-D struck three separate targets in Iraq and then performed a terminal dive to strike a fourth.

A third Tomahawk warhead was developed for use against Iraqi electric-generating plants. Several of the 116 missiles fired on the first day of the Gulf War carried these still-experimental munitions that contained thousands of spools of carbon-graphite fibers. Upon detonation, the spools were released over the electric plants’ outdoor switching and transformer areas. They unwound in the wind and dropped onto power lines and transformers, causing massive short circuits but no permanent damage. The resulting blackouts disrupted the Iraqi electric-power grid, helping to blind air-defense and command-and-control activities—as well as civilian electricity.

Yet a newer Tomahawk, the Block IV—designated TLAM-E—is an improved land-attack missile with enhanced abilities, including in-flight retargeting. Its camera can provide a snapshot of the battlefield via a satellite data link.

On the heels of the conventional TLAM variant came the nuclear-armed TLAM(N), which became operational in 1987. This missile had the “common” W80 warhead that was also used in the Air Force’s air-launched cruise missile and in the B61 gravity bomb. The warhead is credited with an explosive force of 5 to 150 kilotons. (The atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki had explosive forces of just over 15 kilotons. 6 ) But TLAM(N)s,too, had a brief service life; because of arms-limitation agreements, they were removed from the fleet in 1992 and dismantled.

Although air-launched Tomahawks were tested by naval aircraft and proposed to the Air Force for use on B-52 Superfortress bombers, they were not produced. The Air Force preferred its own air-launch cruise missile (ALCM) rather than accepting a Navy-developed weapon.

Instrument of Policy

On 17 January 1993—three days before his White House tenure ended—President George H. W. Bush again turned to Tomahawks to attack Iraq. Three destroyers launched 45 missiles at what American officials described as a nuclear fabrication plant near Baghdad. The raid was in response to Iraq’s defiance of a no-fly zone established by the United States and its allies. A Pentagon official said the target was “a perfect candidate for a strike by cruise missiles because of the need for pinpoint accuracy and because Baghdad is so heavily defended.” 7

The Tomahawk’s accuracy, range, launch-platform flexibility—and lack of a vulnerable human pilot—all combine to make the TLAM politically attractive. President Bill Clinton continued to use the Tomahawk as an instrument of policy. On 26 June 1993, he ordered U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea to launch Tomahawks against the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service in downtown Baghdad. This was in response to evidence of an Iraqi plan to assassinate former President Bush. 8

Five years later, on 20 August 1998, President Clinton again ordered a Tomahawk attack, this time in retaliation against terrorists who bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in a synchronized operation masterminded by Osama bin Laden. Warships in the Arabian and Red seas launched Tomahawks that struck at the same moment, some 2,500 miles apart, a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, where U.S. intelligence officials believed bin Laden was making chemical weapons, and terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. 9

In December 1998, when Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with United Nations inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction, the United States began Operation Desert Fox, the biggest bomb and missile attack since the 1990–91 Gulf War. The primary mission, according to the Department of Defense, was “to strike military targets in Iraq that contributed to its ability to produce, store, maintain, and deliver weapons of mass destruction.” In a 70-hour campaign against nearly 100 targets, U.S. warships launched 325 Tomahawks while Air Force B-52 Stratfortress bombers released 90 cruise missiles. 10

Additional TLAMs were fired in the lengthy Balkans confrontations and conflict during the Clinton presidency. In the 1999 campaign to free Kosovo, U.S. surface ships and submarines launched a total of 202 TLAMs, which were used selectively to destroy more than 50 percent of Yugoslavia’s (i.e. Serbia’s) key military headquarters and electrical power-station targets. The Tomahawks achieved a 90 percent success rate in all kinds of weather. Additional TLAMs were fired by the British submarine Splendid . 11 Earlier in 1999, U.S. surface ships and submarines had carried out missile strikes against reported terrorist targets in Sudan (30-plus missiles fired) and Afghanistan (60-plus missiles).

In commenting on President Clinton’s use of Tomahawks, Time magazine called the missiles the “weapon of choice to provide the explosive oomph to back up his foreign and security policy. It is small and expensive, but it has the immense advantage of purring off to its targets by itself, putting no Americans at risk.” 12

Tomahawks also were fired into Afghanistan in October 2001 in the opening phase of Operation Enduring Freedom—the U.S. assault on Afghanistan. And, during the March–April 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. surface ships and U.S. and British submarines fired 802 TLAMs into the country.

Present and Future

The present-day U.S. fleet has the more advanced Block III TLAM that features a smaller but more lethal warhead and an extended range permitted by additional fuel. These missiles also have a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and an improved Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator (DSMAC) for improved accuracy and time-of-arrival control to permit coordinated missile or aircraft and missile strikes against a specific target. That variant has a Williams International 402 turbofan engine with a 19 percent increase in thrust and a 2 percent decrease in fuel consumption. And, the new tactical variant of the TLAM is capable of in-flight retargeting via a two-way satellite data link, can “loiter” near emerging targets, and allows the monitoring of its in-flight “health” and status using the satellite link.

But the Tomahawk is getting “long in the tooth”—it has been in use for more than three decades. And while there have been major improvements in conventional Tomahawk guidance and payloads, the weapon is still a subsonic missile and, in its current configuration, strictly a land-attack weapon. The Navy now is searching for a more versatile missile, preferably one that could be launched against ship or land targets, at long ranges, with guidance invulnerable to jamming and other distractions, and, of course, compatible with the vertical-launch cells of surface warships and submarines. At this time, the Navy and Raytheon are planning to overhaul the existing TLAM inventory through a “recertification” process intended to add another 15 years to the weapon.

“The Tomahawk is doing very well and the [recertification line] will not only extend its life but give it additional capability. Incrementally it will enable us to put in [enough] capability into the missile so the next-generation strike weapon isn’t such a big jump,” Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said during a talk on future naval capabilities recently hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute. 13

Today some 85 U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers and more than 50 nuclear-propelled submarines are armed with Tomahawk land-attack missiles. The only other nation to procure Tomahawks has been Britain, with Royal Navy nuclear-propelled attack submarines launching TLAMs from their torpedo tubes. For the foreseeable future the Tomahawk land-attack missile will remain in the fleet—and the weapon of choice for presidents and military leaders when a precision strike is required.

1. Thomas B. Allen, F. Clifton Berry, Norman Polmar, CNN War in the Gulf (Atlanta, GA: Turner Publishing, 1991), 115.

2. Henry Kissinger, Years of Renewal (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 853–61.

3. Two each of the SS-20 and Pershing missiles were retained—disarmed—in Moscow and Washington, DC. Those in Washington are on display at the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall.

4. Elmo R. Zumwalt, On Watch (New York: Quadrangle, 1976), 81–82.

5. Department of Defense, Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1992), 244.

6. Estimates of the yields of these bombs vary; this number is based on John Malik, The Yields of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki Nuclear Explosions (Los Alamos, NM: Los Alamos National Laboratory, September, 1985).

7. Eric Schmitt, “Raid on Iraq; The Day’s Weapon of Choice, the Cruise Missile, Is Valued for Its Accuracy,” The New York Times , 18 January 1993.

8. David Von Drehle and R. Jeffrey Smith, “U.S. Strikes Iraq for Plot to Kill Bush,” The Washington Post , 27 June 1993.

9. James Bennet, “U.S. Cruise Missiles Strike Sudan and Afghan Targets Tied to Terrorist Network,” The New York Times , 21 August 1998.

10. Eugene Robinson, “U.S. Halts Attacks on Iraq After Four Days,” The Washington Post , 20 December, 1998. “Operation Desert Fox,” Air Force Historical Support Division, .

11. The nuclear-propelled Splendid fired the first British Tomahawk missile, on 18 November 1998.

12. Bruce Nelan, “Tomahawk Diplomacy,” Time , 19 October 1998, 60.

13. VADM Joseph P. Aucoin, Maritime Security Dialogue, Washington, DC, 5 August 2015.


BGM-109C Tomahawk

Length (with booster): 20 feet, 6 inches

Wingspan: 8 feet, 7 inches

Diameter: 21 inches

Range: Approx. 1,000 miles

Cruise speed: 375 to 560 mph

Warhead: 1,000 lb. high-explosive



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