Air Weapons: Tomahawk Abides


April 27, 2023: Raytheon, the American manufacturer of Tomahawk cruise missiles, recently received orders from Japan and Australia for a total of 600 of the new Mark V (5) version of the Tomahawk. Both countries will install the missiles on their warships to provide a long-range guided missile that can hit moving targets over a thousand kilometers away.

The Tomahawk has undergone a number of improvements in the last decade and is currently one of most effective land attack and anti-ship weapons available to American and allied warships.

The most recent improvement was announced in 2020 when the U.S. Navy introduced Tomahawk Block 5, the first new version since Block 4 in 2005. The block versions actually represent an accumulation of individual upgrades that have turned the current Tomahawk into a substantially different cruise missile than the previous block. The unique new features of Block 5 include being able to hit ship size targets at max range (over 1,600 kilometers) by using a new target seeker. Block 5 also uses a new warhead that has greater penetrating power against large warships and is more effective against all targets. There are also upgraded communication and navigation systems which are more resistant to jamming and other EW (Electronic Warfare) measures. All this means Block 5 communications are more difficult to detect as well as disrupt. The navigation system is better able to function even with heavy GPS jamming thanks to a more accurate, and unjammable INS (Inertial Navigation System). Another notable feature is that Block 5 does not increase the price, which is still between a million and 1.5 million dollars, depending on features, per missile. That’s a lot cheaper than high-speed missiles that cost three or four times more, are heavier and have shorter range. The relatively low cost of the Tomahawk makes it effective for more missions, like attacking land targets or being used in large numbers. All Block 4 Tomahawks are being upgraded to Block 5 and remaining Block 3s will be retired because most were built in the 1990s and now not worth the expense of an upgrade and refurbishment.

Most Tomahawks in U.S. service are carried and fired from surface ship or nuclear submarine (SSN) VLS (Vertical Launch System) cells. There is also a torpedo-launched version which all British SSNs use. The Tomahawk has quietly become the primary offensive weapon for the American fleet.

The RGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missile weighs 1.2 tons, is six meters (18 feet) long and has a range of 1,600 kilometers. It reaches its target at a speed of 600-900 kilometers an hour, flying at an altitude of 17-32 meters (50-100 feet), and propelled by a jet engine generating only 273 kg (600 pounds) of thrust. Accuracy is on a par with JDAM (10 meters/ 31 feet). Tomahawk can be reprogrammed in flight to hit another target and carries a digital video camera to allow someone to check on prospective targets.

With Block 4 came the new JMEW (Joint Multi-Effects Warhead System) warhead. This is a 450 kg (1,000 pound) warhead designed mainly for penetrating underground bunkers, but it will also provide excellent blast effect for less robust targets. Exact penetration was not revealed. JMEW uses laser terminal guidance, enabling it to hit within a few meters (ten feet) of its aiming point. JMEW can also hit moving targets, like ships.

The Tomahawk, when it showed up in 1983, was one of the first combat UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) but it wasn't reusable. The Tomahawk has been a primary land attack weapon for surface ships and submarines since the 1990s. Over 6,000 have been manufactured so far. The U.S. Navy has fired over 2,200 in combat and over 600 for training and testing. The U.S. Navy currently has over 3,000 Tomahawks on its warships or in storage. Tomahawk is expected to remain in service until 2040, with older ones refurbished to extend their useful lives. That usually means batteries and electronics are replaced or upgraded, along with elderly mechanical components.

Block 0, 1 and 2 Tomahawks were introduced during the Cold War, which ended in 1991. Some Cold War versions of Tomahawk were optimized for ranges of up to 2,500 kilometers, or for use from aircraft carrying nuclear warheads. These were gone by the time Block 3 entered service in 1994. In between new blocks, there were often major upgrades. Block 4 got a big upgrade in 2012 with the addition of GPS and remote control in flight. The more recent upgrades added improvements in the guidance system and defensive capabilities against electronic jamming. The need for these new features was seen in 2015 when the navy tested the current Block 4 Tomahawk to see if its new two-way communications capability could enable it to effectively hit moving targets. The Block 4 managed to do so, but not under combat conditions. That is, not with warships using defensive or electronic weapons to shoot down the incoming missile or mislead its guidance system. One navy test used a nearby aircraft (which could be a UAV) that was tracking the exact location of the target ship. That could also be done from a space satellite. A fully developed anti-ship capability for Tomahawk requires regular upgrades in the guidance system to make it capable of operating without constant two-way communications.

The U.S. Navy is aware of the fact that the Tomahawk is not the ideal anti-ship missile. Against modern defenses, anti-ship missiles have to move faster than a Tomahawk and be equipped with a better terminal guidance system. The speed problem cannot be fixed, but the Tomahawk could be equipped with a more capable terminal guidance system. That might be able to handle the tracking and targeting systems for gun and missile systems designed to knock down anti-ship missiles when they get close. In any event, Tomahawk Block 4 has a way to go before it is a competitive anti-ship missile against modern warships. But developing and testing upgrades will give Tomahawk a useful anti-ship capability while not being the most effective anti-ship missile out there.

There are apparently some novel proposals for using a radically new anti-ship warhead that turns Tomahawk into a two-stage missile with the warhead making the final attack at much higher speed. That increases the cost and weight of Tomahawk which has been a stable and reliable design with lots of combat experience. It was easier to tinker with the guidance system, warhead and range and come up with affordable new capabilities that work. One reason for the continued usefulness of Tomahawk is its ability to do more and more things reliably and affordably. Many new cruise missile designs can do high speed attack, but at great expense. Tomahawk can carry out a wide range of missions, many of them not requiring high-speed or a more elaborate terminal guidance system.

Because of these constant improvements and consistent reliability, American (and other) warships continue to use Tomahawks in combat on a regular basis. The targets tend to be on land and not mobile. Most of these uses are publicized, but some are not. Several hundred Tomahawks were used in massed attacks against Libya in 2011, which demonstrated the effectiveness of Tomahawks in delivering major airstrikes on short notice, anywhere in the world without losing more expensive manned aircraft and exposing their pilots to getting shot down and captured. Tomahawk is also an ideal weapon for a potential war in the Pacific against China. This would be a war featuring large distances between targets and Tomahawk can handle that, in addition to many other tasks. The fleet goes to sea with lots of Tomahawks and quantity is an asset as well as reliability and a track record of success.

The planned Tomahawk replacement is currently the NGLAW (Next Generation Land Attack Weapon). Development of a successor to the Tomahawk has been underway since the 1990s and the current (NGLAW) effort is for a cruise missile that will be heavier (2.2 tons), have a longer range (2,000 kilometers), and a larger (one ton) warhead than Tomahawk. NGLAW will be stealthier and use a combination of new guidance and targeting systems to improve the chances of success. Price will probably be the key factor but it is expected to cost at least twice as much as Tomahawk. NGLAW has been going on for so long because it’s not easy to develop a Tomahawk replacement that justifies the higher weight, and cost, of a new missile while so many navies are satisfied with updated Tomahawks.




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