It might seem remarkable that the US Navy can strike multiple corners of a remote Syrian airfield with only one or two days’ notice. But this is old technology that actually underplays the Pentagon’s most advanced capabilities.
The Navy fired 59 Tomahawk missiles on April 6 at Syria’s Al Shayrat airfield, about 70 miles northeast of Damascus, in retaliation for chemical weapons attacks a few days earlier that reportedly originated at the base. It’s not yet clear how much damage the US strikes inflicted, although Syrian officials claimed at least 9 people died. Key foreign leaders and senior Democrats on Capitol Hill have generally backed President Trump, who ordered the strikes. The missiles came from two destroyers, the USS Ross and the USS Porter, steaming in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, off Syria’s coast.
The Tomahawk missile is an appealing weapon for such a mission: it requires no pilot flying in harm’s way and can be launched from a safe distance of up to 1,500 miles away. “This is an old missile, in one sense,” says Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But in another sense, it’s being continually modernized. It’s frequently the thing for which we reach first in these kinds of engagements.”
The Tomahawk, built by Raytheon (RTN) at a cost of about $1.4 million apiece, is 20 feet long at launch, and weighs as much as a Mini Cooper. Its 1,000-pound warhead can pulverize a small building and leave a 20-foot crater in the ground. It can be fired from submarines as well as surface ships, making it hard to detect where it’s coming from. A booster powers the missile into flight, while a turbofan engine powers it to the target once the booster is discarded. The Tomahawk, doesn’t have a radar-defeating stealth design, like the B-2 bomber. Yet by flying 100 feet or so above the earth’s surface, it often avoids radar detection. It can also zig and zag on its way to the target, so its flight path is unpredictable.
The Navy first fielded the Tomahawks in the 1980s, and the missile’s first use came in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the United States used nearly 300 of them to degrade Iraq’s air-defense system and other key defense nodes. A few Tomahawks were shot down, and others malfunctioned, but the Tomahawk—like similar missiles fielded by the Air Force—was generally praised as a wonder weapon heralding a new era of less-bloody standoff warfare. (That may be true for combat pilots, but grueling ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have since proven that bloodless warfare remains a long way off.)
Sophisticated militaries such as those of Russia and China have the capability, on paper, to shoot down or otherwise defeat subsonic cruise missiles like the Tomahawk. But most other nations don’t, which is why five dozen of them were able to fly through Syria’s airspace unmolested and strike a target roughly 60 miles inland. If the United States were at war, as Syria is, such a missile fired from the sea would trigger alarms well before it made land.
Tomahawks were fired into Iraq several times after 1991, to punish Saddam Hussein for various violations of United Nations sanctions. They were the weapon of choice in 1998 when the Pentagon tried, with limited success, to destroy al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan and Yemen. Other Tomahawk strikes have occurred in Bosnia (1995), Serbia and Montenegro (1999), Afghanistan again (2001), Iraq again (2003), Somalia (2008), Yemen again (2009), Libya (2011), Syria (ISIS targets, in 2014), and Yemen again (2016).
The Navy has substantially upgraded the Tomahawk since its wartime debut in 1991. Early versions could be programmed to fly on their own to a target, but that was about it. Newer versions can be reprogrammed in flight, if a more important target pops up. Newer Tomahawks can loiter and shoot footage of prior strikes, to help war planners assess damage and the need for follow-on strikes. The upgraded versions also launch more quickly than prior models. And the contractor Raytheon is working on processors and other “active-seeker” technology that would enable the missile to hunt moving targets, a missing capability that essentially limits the Tomahawk’s use, for now, to fixed targets such as buildings.
The Navy has about 4,000 Tomahawks in inventory, but plans to eventually replace the aging design with newer—and perhaps stealthier—technology. The Tomahawk is nowhere near the fastest cruise missile in the world, for one thing. That distinction probably belongs to the joint Russian-Indian Brahmos missile, which can travel more than 2,000 miles per hour, or roughly four times as fast as a Tomahawk. That makes it far harder to shoot down. And while the Tomahawk is useful against fixed targets, the Navy increasingly needs weapons able to strike fast-moving ships and other mobile targets. For now, however, the Tomahawk remains a stalwart friend of war planners and presidents.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman