The Tomahawk cruise missile has been an important part of America’s military strategy around the globe since its adoption in the early 1980s.  The Pentagon has now decided to keep the workhorse cruise missile in use until at least 2040, but in order to keep it competitive in the world’s theater, it will require a few upgrades.

Its bullet-shaped design, subsonic speeds to avoid enemy radar, and navigation suite that includes GPS and terrain-matching radar that compares the scenery below it to its intended flight path, all coalesce into an excellent all-purpose weapons platform that can eliminate threats without ever placing an American soldier or sailor in harm’s way.   It has, however, been in service for some time.

Over the last thirty years, the United States has launched over 2,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles at enemy targets, and the U.S. Navy maintains a ready supply of at least 3,500 of the missiles for use in conflicts anywhere around the globe.  Most of the Tomahawks currently deployed with U.S. Naval vessels are fourth generation missiles, meaning the platform has undergone upgrades and improvements three times since the first missiles saw use decades ago.

In order to ensure the Tomahawk remains a reliable method of force projection for the U.S. military amid advances in missile defense systems and strategies employed by potential threats like China and Russia, the storied platform will now undergo a fourth round of improvements.  Chief among these upgrades will be a shift toward anti-ship capabilities.

The Navy originally developed two distinct Tomahawk platforms: an anti-ship version and a land attack version.  The land attack version of the Tomahawk has since become the standard throughout the Navy.  Once the Cold War came to an end, the American Navy had no major competitors in the world’s waterways to be concerned with, leaving the anti-ship Tomahawk platform on the shelf without ever being fired in combat.

However, recent developments in the South China Sea have left the United States Navy concerned about the possibility of seaborne conflict with China’s growing fleet of military vessels.  Russian Naval expansion into the arctic has also increased the likelihood that a major war that could take place in the future would likely play out with a significant amount of Naval combat.  The United States has fallen behind in its ship-strike capabilities without any major foes to worry about in recent years, while other nations have rapidly worked to develop the ability to counter America’s massive Navy.  Even North Korea recently tested its own anti-ship missile believed to be capable of sinking America’s Nimitz and Ford class super carriers with direct strikes.

The Navy’s current anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, doesn’t fit in the vertical launch silos found on guided missile cruisers and destroyers, limiting their carrying capacity to only eight missiles.  By upgrading the Tomahawk to allow for anti-ship operations, it would increase the number of anti-ship missiles a destroyer could carry exponentially simply by reducing its payload of Tomahawk land attack missiles.

The Navy plans to carry out two separate upgrades on their existing stockpile of Tomahawks.  The first is intended to extend the service life of each missile by another 15 years, and the second will change some Tomahawks into “Maritime Strike Tomahawks” intended for use against enemy vessels.

According to a joint statement provided to the House Armed Services Committee by Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, Marine Corps. deputy commandant for Aviation, Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, and Rear Adm. Upper Half Dewolfe Miller, director of the Navy’s Air Warfare Division:

This recertification program will increase missile service-life by an additional 15-years (total of 30-years) and enable the Department to support Tomahawk in our active inventory through the mid-late 2040s. In concert with our recertification program we will integrate modernization and technological upgrades and address existing obsolescence issues. In addition, we are developing a Maritime Strike Tomahawk capability to deliver a long-range anti-surface warfare capability.”

The Navy also intends to deploy the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, an anti-ship variant of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, to help ensure our Navy is prepared for the possibility of ship to ship combat.

A replacement for the Tomahawk, dubbed the Next Generation Land Attack Weapon (NGLAW), is expected to have both land attack and anti-ship capabilities, but won’t see service until sometime between 2028 and 2030.


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