This Is Not Your Father’s Tomahawk Cruise Missile

·4 min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • The U.S. Navy is set to upgrade its stock of Tomahawk cruise missiles to a new Block V standard.

  • The new missiles can attack enemy ships at sea or land targets with a new multi-effect warhead.

  • The Tomahawk design is nearly half a century old but with the help of rolling upgrades has remained a viable weapon system.

The Tomahawk cruise missile, one of the oldest missiles in U.S. military service, is set to receive a new set of capabilities designed to help keep potential enemies in check.

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The missile’s new Block V configuration will include both new anti-shipping and land attack variants, boosting the capabilities of the U.S. Navy surface warships that carry them.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

The Tomahawk is one of the most effective missiles in the Pentagon’s history. The missile, which General Dynamics first designed in the 1970s, was one of the first truly effective cruise missiles. Unlike traditional missiles that use rocket motors, fly high altitudes, and travel at Mach 2+ speeds, cruise missiles use turbojet engines, fly at low altitudes, and travel at subsonic speeds.

Most missiles are designed to sprint to their targets; Tomahawk is designed to run a marathon. Engineers chose a liquid fuel-sipping turbojet engine because it enabled greater range than a rocket engine of roughly the same size. A slower speed also makes low altitude flight more viable, which in turn makes the missile much more difficult to detect by radar. Today, most advanced countries operate similar low-flying subsonic missiles, including Russia, China, France, and South Korea.

Photo credit: RENSO AMARIZ - Getty Images
Photo credit: RENSO AMARIZ - Getty Images

Despite its age, the Tomahawk has stayed in the game through a series of progressive upgrades. The original Block I version included both nuclear-tipped and anti-ship versions of the missile. Block II introduced land attack capabilities, like those demonstrated during the 1991 Gulf War, with missiles striking Iraqi Air Force airfields and daytime targets across the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Block III added GPS, eliminating a time-consuming programming system that required 80 hours to plot a missile’s course as well as a loitering capability.

Block IV Tomahawks added more features, including the ability to be re-routed to new targets in mid-flight. Block IV missiles also feature a camera and datalink, allowing a missile to send imagery back to friendly forces. If a Tomahawk discovers its target already struck or civilians are crowding the target area, the missile can be re-routed to destroy something else.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mark Wilson - Getty Images

Now, Block V is where it gets really interesting.

The newest variant adds upgraded navigation and communications gear to older Tomahawks, electronics that, according to Defense News, make it easier to work through electronic warfare jamming and more difficult for enemy radars to detect. That’s important, because once detected, subsonic cruise missiles are relatively easy to shoot down. Block V then forks into two missiles, Block Va and Block Vb.

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Block Va essentially turns the cruise missile into an anti-ship missile. Also known as Maritime Strike Tomahawk, Block Va adds a seeker kit, including sensor, giving it the ability to strike moving targets at sea at ranges in excess of 1,000 miles. It’s not clear if Block Va can still strike land targets.

Block Vb is more oriented toward striking land targets with the new Joint Multiple Effects Warhead (MEWS). The weapon is a bit mysterious, but it seems to be a 1,000-pound warhead capable of striking both surface and underground hardened targets, including “integrated air defense systems and weapons of mass destruction”.

The great thing about Block V is that, unlike the Navy’s current anti-ship missile, it doesn’t need separate launchers. Block Vs will fit in any Mk. 41 vertical launch system silo—the same silo that currently carries Standard anti-air missiles, the SM-3 missile interceptor, Evolved Sea Sparrow interceptor missiles, and vertical launch anti-submarine rockets.

Today’s guided missile cruisers carry 122 silos, while destroyers carry between 90 and 96 silos. Theoretically, a cruiser could carry up to 122 Block Va missiles, though a more rounded mix of all of the above is preferred. Block V will also arm U.S. Navy submarines.

Like a lot of weapons in America’s arsenal, the Tomahawk missile is old—at least in concept. What started out as a nuclear-capable missile can now hunt down warships at 1,000 miles and attack hardened underground targets. The missile’s ability to adapt with the times, take on new roles, and reinvent itself means it will be a potent weapon system for easily another decade to come.

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