WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy test-fired its new Block V Tomahawk from the destroyer Chafee in December, introducing the newest generation of the venerable Tomahawk cruise missile to its arsenal.
The modifications are designed to bring the sub-sonic cruise missile into the era of great power competition. Why is this Tomahawk different from all other Tomahawks, and can this old Cold Warrior keep up in the era of hypersonic missiles?
Here’s five things to know about the Block V:
1. Increased capabilities. Raytheon’s Tomahawk Block V, when fully realized in its Block Va and Block Vb varieties, will be expected to hit surface ships at Tomahawk ranges – in excess of 1,000 miles – with the integration of a new seeker. It also will integrate a new warhead that will have a broader range of capabilities, including greater penetrating power.
Tomahawk’s range is especially important in the Asia-Pacific, where China’s rocket force has extraordinary reach with its DF-26 and DF-21 missiles, with ranges of 2,490 and 1,335 miles respectively, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The missiles are destined not just for the VLS launchers of surface ships but also on attack submarines. Read more here:
2. More survivable. The first iteration of the Block V upgrades the missile’s communication and navigation systems. This is about making it tougher to counter and detect electronically, said Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and senior fellow at The Hudson Institute.
“It has greater electronic hardening to be able to work through jamming more effectively,” Clark said. “The hardening and the electronic countermeasures they’ve put into it make it harder to find and target with radar, and that improves its survivability.
“They’ve incorporated a lot of survivability into Tomahawk over the years, this takes it a step further to make it less susceptible to jamming of its seeker or its communications. But it could, perhaps, also counter enemy radar that might be used to target it and shoot it down.”
In 2017, Raytheon’s Tomahawk program manager told reporters at an event at the missile plant in Tucson, Ariz., that the navigation system upgrades will ensure the missile can strike targets even if GPS is taken down.
3. Subsonic is a feature, not a bug. With all the emphasis on supersonic and hypersonic missiles and with the improvements in air defenses, that might make Tomahawk seem like a fuddy-duddy by comparison.
But there are good reasons to keep producing the Tomahawk, even with its slower speeds.
“The benefit of the sub-sonic missile is range,” Clark said. “Being sub-sonic means its also able to travel at a more fuel-efficient speed. So, the fact that the Tomahawk can travel more than 1,000 miles is a function of the sub-sonic speed. To get that kind of range out of a super-sonic missile you’d need something much larger.”
4. It’s cheap. Well, relatively so. The missile has been able to stay at the $1 million price range, which is on the low end for missiles. Raytheon’s supersonic SM-6 can reach speeds of Mach 3.5 – with future iterations believed to be capable of reaching hypersonic speeds – but cost more than four times as much per shot and have less range. That’s the Tomahawk’s key differentiator, said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with Telemus Group.
“The key capability of Tomahawk is the cost.” Hendrix said. “It can be purchased in larger quantities and you can afford to lose some to defensive capabilities even as you penetrate. That’s one of the reasons why Tomahawk is going to be in the inventory for a while to come, even as it brings back that longer-range anti-ship capability that we’ve been missing for some time.”
Tom Karako, an expert in missile technology with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that cost is a big advantage of Tomahawk, especially for low-end missions.
“As long as they can keep them to about a million dollars per shot, the Navy is going to want those all day long,” Karako said. “The next time the President says to the Navy, ‘Hey, go schwack this terrorist training camp,’ they’re going to want Tomahawks.”
5. It’s all in the mix. The key to thinking about a sub-sonic cruise missile is understanding how it fits into a mix of weapons, Karako said. Not everything is going to be hypersonic or even supersonic, nor does it have to be, he argued, but the cost per salvo make it attractive as part of a varied and complex threat to present an adversary.
“The question is, ‘What’s the going to be the mix between hypersonic things and things that are supersonic and subsonic?’,” he said. “That, I think, is the right question. As long as you have standoff, subsonic and supersonic are going to be part of the equation.”
“Even for the high-end fight, I don’t think the hypersonic stuff will fully replace sub-sonic stuff. It might just mean you shoot your sub-sonic stuff earlier, let them fly for a while and everything arrives at the same time as part of how you structure an attack.”
Clark, the Hudson analyst, agreed that the mix was important, saying that even with the arrival of faster missiles, the Tomahawk has a place.
The combination of the SM-6, which has a surface strike mode, the new 100-plus-mile ranged anti-ship Naval Strike Missile bound for the littoral combat ships and next-generation frigate, and the Block V upgrades on Tomahawk, will give the Navy’s venerable birds a place in the service’s vertical launch system cells for some time to come, Clark said.
“Between Tomahawk Block V, the SM-6 and the NSM, the Navy has a collection of attack weapons that they are happy with,” he said, adding that a long-running effort to develop a next-generation land-attack weapon has lost some of its urgency.
The development of hypersonic missiles could, however, push out the Tomahawk down the road as the technology gets more advanced and of a size compatible with the Navy’s ubiquitous Mark 41 VLS launcher.
“What’s happening in parallel is in the development of hypersonic missile that are a smaller form factor than the boost-glide weapons that are coming to maturity now,” Clark said. “And if they can get it down to being able to fit in [the Mark 41], then that could provide the Navy a next-generation capability that is more survivable and has a shorter time of flight.
“So I think this combination of missiles the Navy has now, combined with the fact that the hypersonic weapons are coming along a little further out, means the Navy is going to stick with what it has potentially even longer than it had originally anticipated.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.