TUCSON, Ariz. – Raytheon and the U.S. Navy marked the 4,000 delivery of Tomahawk Block IV in a ceremony Tuesday, all amid a push to modernize the Navy’s venerable long-range strike missile for service into the 2050s.

The Navy is getting ready to send its original Block IVs from the early 2000s back to Raytheon in 2019 for upgrades to the navigation and communications systems, as well as the warhead. Raytheon is also planning to integrate a seeker into a maritime version that can function as a long-range anti-ship missile, something the surface fleet has been spoiling for as it looks to add more offensive capabilities to its surface combatants.

“When a country sees a cruiser or destroyer sitting off its coast, one of the primary reasons they are concerned because they know about the capabilities the Tomahawk brings,” said Capt. Mark Johnson, who heads the Tomahawk office for the Navy.

The tomahawk missile, which debuted in Operation Desert Storm, has been fired more than 2,300 times in anger since. But as China and Russia invest in high-end air defense systems, the sub-sonic missile has been under pressure from stealthy competitors such as Lockheed Martin’s Long-range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM.

In a 2014 study for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, analyst Bryan Clark argued that the Navy should explore adding range to Lockheed Martin’s stealthy long-range anti-ship missile and using it for land-attack missions as a means of making the most of each ship’s vertical-launch cells.

The study highlighted a creeping issue with the Navy in a world where adversaries such as Iran, Russia and China are investing in anti-ship missiles that can be launched in sufficient numbers to overwhelm the Aegis combat system and force the ships the expend all its anti-air missiles to shoot them down, leaving it vulnerable.

Clark argued that investing in missiles that take up a VLS cell but do more than one missile leaves more space in the launchers for more capabilities.

Clark, in an Aug. 15 phone call, said the Tomahawk still has some key advantages in keeping its edge over up-and-comers, most notably because its already integrated on a wide array of platforms and is common throughout the fleet. The missile could be configured to carry different payloads, anything from a high-powered microwave to an electronic warfare weapon, he said.

“The missile has advanced to the point now that it can really function as a long-range UAV,” Clark said.

The downside, however, is that Tomahawk is less survivable against a high-end adversary than an LRASM, Clark said. 

Raytheon has increased the stealthy features of the missile but those details are classified, Clark said. Raytheon officials likewise declined to comment on upgrades to the Tomahawk’s counter-detection features.

Some in the surface community have suggested that firing both an LRASM and a Tomahawk against an adversary could present an insurmountable and deadly problem to even the most sophisticated adversary.

Missile upgrades

Raytheon is aiming to make sure its tried-and-true missile is the mainstay of the Navy’s strike mission.

Johnson, the program manager, told reporters at the event that the navigation system upgrades will ensure the missile can strike targets even if GPS is taken down.

The Navy is getting ready to sign a contract for the ship-killer version of the Tomahawk, Johnson said, but there will still be some development needed for the actual sensors.

“There will be a couple-year development effort to determine the configuration of the seeker to go into the missile,” Johnson said. “Then a couple of years to fully vet it out and make sure we accurately know what the system performance is.”

The missile should be ready for fleet use in the 2022 timeframe, he said.

Raytheon is also looking at future mission sets for the Tomahawk, according to the program’s top executive Dave Adams. Though he would not go into detail about the kinds of missions he’s looking at – such as the uses Clark discussed – the missile is capable of supporting other kinds of missions given its onboard power generation and ability to hang around over an area before being directed to a target.

“Clearly tomahawk has very good communications capabilities and those are going to be upgraded,” Adams said. “It can loiter, its got tremendous range.”

“There is a unique thing about Tomahawk, Adams continued. “Every other weapon is limited by power and energy because they are usually battery operated. Tomahawk has its own power generation so in terms of doing things that require additional power, we have the capability of doing that because it generates its own power. It gives us options.”

As for the LRASM, analysts say in the short term choosing it over the Tomahawk for strike and anti-surface missions might be a mistake, especially given that Lockheed’s missile is significantly more expensive.

“It’s not an either-or situation,” said Eric Wertheim, a naval analyst and author and editor of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Guide to Combat Fleets of the World. “You’ve got one that’s tested and tried and another that isn’t tested anywhere near the way that Tomahawk has been. I’d say at the very least Tomahawk offers a stop-gap capability until the new system is fully vetted.”

The Tomahawk can also serve as part of a high-low mix, Wertheim said, with Raytheon’s missile being available for missions that might not need to full capability of Lockheed’s missile. LRASM is currently being built for use on the F/A-18 Super Hornets and Air Force B-1B bombers.