Named after the one-handed axe used by Native Americans, the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile is an all-weather, long-range subsonic cruise missile used for deep land attack warfare, primarily by the naval forces of the United States and the United Kingdom. Originally produced by General Dynamics, the missile has been a part of the American arsenal since 1983. The U.S. Navy refers to it as “the weapon of choice for the U.S. Department of Defense.” It is now manufactured by Raytheon.

A Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile is launched from the USS Stethem (DDG-63). (Courtesy Raytheon)A Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile is launched from the USS Stethem (DDG-63). (Courtesy Raytheon)The latest variant, Tomahawk Block IV (TLAM-E), introduced in 2004, can employ an on-board camera to transmit battle damage information or target photos prior to striking. It has the ability to “loiter over” a target area in order to respond to emerging targets; a two-way satellite data-link enables real-time, in-flight retargeting to any of 15 preprogrammed alternate targets, or any GPS target coordinates. Equipped with a 1,000-pound conventional warhead, it has the longest range of any similar weapon that can be carried on a ship (over 1,000 miles) and can be deployed from ships or submarines – which means that it can cover 90 percent of the world.

Cruise missiles are defined as unmanned, jet-propelled aircraft that use guidance systems to seek and destroy targets. While traditional “saturation bombing” was a powerful way to destroy a city, it risked the lives of pilot and crew and lacked accuracy. The Tomahawk’s pinpoint accuracy minimizes risk to both personnel and civilians when attacking military targets in urban areas. By contrast to ballistic missiles like the Scud, the Tomahawk requires much less fuel and can be launched from a much smaller launch pad, which allows it to be used more covertly. Its low altitude (100-300 feet above land) also makes it harder to detect and intercept.

A cruise missile includes a solid rocket booster, which makes up approximately 15 percent of its weight at launch. After burning its fuel, the booster falls away and the missile’s wings, tail fins and air inlet unfold. Until it reaches its target, it is powered by a turbofan engine that achieves subsonic speeds of approximately 550 miles per hour. In addition to GPS military satellites and on-board GPS receiver, it is guided by three different systems: first, the inertial guidance system (IGS) uses sensors and gyroscopes to measure acceleration and directional changes as the missile flies over water. Once it crosses the shoreline, terrain contour matching (TERCOM) scans the landscape at set checkpoints, taking altitude readings and comparing them to three-dimensional map data stored in its memory. Digital scene matching area correlation (DSMAC) switches on once the missile nears its target, using an image correlator and camera to locate it.

The first operational use of the Tomahawk happened during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when early 300 missiles launched from U.S. Navy ships were used to bring a swift end to the conflict. Also in 1991, nuclear-warhead variants were withdrawn from service and placed into storage. In 1995, the governments of the U.S. and the U.K. signed an agreement for the acquisition of 65 missiles – the first sale of Tomahawk to a foreign country. According to Raytheon, the U.S. and allied militaries have used Tomahawks more than 2,000 times in combat.

British newspaper The Sun reported in April 2017 that each Tomahawk missile costs about $800,000. Current-affairs magazine The Diplomat reported in March 2015 that the U.S. Navy has a stockpile of around 3,500 Tomahawk cruise missiles of all variants, with a combined cost of approximately US $2.6 billion.

In late 2016, the online news service Inside Defense reported that the U.S. Navy had begun surveying industry for a possible Tomahawk missile replacement – setting the years 2028-30 as a target for field trials.

The Tomahawk is integrated on all major U.S. combatant ships and submarines, and on all U.K. Royal Navy subs. (Courtesy Raytheon)The Tomahawk is integrated on all major U.S. combatant ships and submarines, and on all U.K. Royal Navy subs. (Courtesy Raytheon)


Tomahawk Block IV TLAM-E
Primary Function: Long-range subsonic cruise missile for striking high value or heavily defended land targets
Contractor: Raytheon Missile Systems Company, Tucson, Arizona
Length: 20.3 feet; with booster: 20 feet 6 inches (6.25 meters)
Diameter: 21 inches
Wingspan: 8 feet 9 inches (2.67 meters)
Weight: 3,330 pounds with rocket motor
Speed: Subsonic - about 550 mph (880 km/h)
Range: 900 nautical miles (1000 statute miles, 1600 km)
Guidance System: INS, TERCOM, DSMAC, and GPS
Warhead: 1,000 pound class unitary warhead

(Source: U.S. Navy, April 2017)