What is a Tomahawk Missile?

On April 6, 2017, the United States attacked a Syrian government airfield with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Known for its range and accuracy, the Tomahawk has been a part of America’s arsenal since 1983, and has seen extensive use in several military actions. Here’s a brief history of this iconic weapon.

History of the Tomahawk cruise missile

A Tomahawk Cruise Missile on a test fire
A Tomahawk submarine-launched cruise missile en route to its target on the Tonapah Test Range in Nevada. April 16, 1983. (Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) is an American-developed weapon classified as a cruise missile, which is an unmanned jet-propelled aircraft that uses guidance systems to seek and destroy targets.

The missiles are approximately 21 feet long, weigh 1.5 tons and can be launched from both traditional torpedo tubes and vertical launch tubes on modern submarines. Once the Tomahawk is in the air, the turbojet engine kicks in and its wings spread, allowing it to reach speeds of 500 miles per hour.

The sophisticated guidance system uses a combination of GPS, TERCOM (Terrain Contour Matching) and DSMAC (Digital Scene-Matching Area Correlator) to ensure the missile accurately destroys its target. TERCOM uses radar signals, while DSMAC uses optical images stored in the electronic system. As it closes in on its target, the missile drops to an altitude of 100 feet or less before impact. In layman’s terms, this type of missile is designed to be used at great distances, with pinpoint accuracy, minimizing risk to personnel and civilians.

What sets the Tomahawk apart from other types of munitions is that combination of size, speed, distance and trajectory. Traditional saturation bombing–in which hundreds of bombs are dropped from a plane–is powerful, but not accurate. Saturation bombing also requires the use of a pilot and crew, which endangers personnel. Ballistic missiles, like the Scud, can travel greater distances at faster speeds, but require much bigger launching pads and a lot more fuel, meaning they can’t be used as covertly The Tomahawk is smaller and flies lower than other missiles, making them harder to detect and intercept.

Development of what would become the Tomahawk began in the 1940s, but the emergence of the Polaris ballistic missile program led to its shelving. Technological advances made it possible for the missile to be revisited in the 1970s, and the new weapon was introduced by defense contractor McConnell Douglas in 1983.

Initially, there were three types of Tomahawk missile: an anti-ship one with conventional warheads, and two land-attack versions with either nuclear or conventional warheads attached. Today, only the land-attack, conventional non-nuclear version is in use. Improvements have been made on the original design, and today’s more accurate and more powerful versions are manufactured by Raytheon.

The Tomahawk Missile in Use

USS Shiloh launching a Tomahawk cruise missile
A Tomahawk cruise missile launches from the stern vertical launch system of the USS Shiloh, as part of Operation Desert Strike on September 3, 1996. (Credit: DOD/Getty Images)

The Tomahawk made its debut in live combat during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. On January 17, the USS Paul F. Foster launched the first Tomahawk missile, and nearly 300 additional missiles were launched from U.S. Navy ships and submarines in subsequent days of the conflict. The new weapon proved instrumental in bringing a swift end to the war.

Production of the missile ramped up after that, and hundreds of Tomahawks were used throughout the 1990s. On December 16, 1998, 415 missiles were fired at Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Fox, after Saddam Hussein refused to abide by United Nations-mandated inspections. They were also used by NATO forces in early 1999, during Operation Allied Force operations against targets in Serbia and Montenegro. More than 800 Tomahawks were launched during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and other successful deployments include Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya.

Use of the missile has not been without controversy. On December 17, 2009, 41 civilians–mostly women and children–were killed by missiles targeting an alleged Al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen. Although U.S. and Yemeni government officials initially denied responsibility, an investigation by Amnesty International—and revelations by WikiLeaks—eventually concluded that the missiles had been American Tomahawks launched from a naval vessel.

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