In the early hours of Friday morning, two US Navy guided-missile destroyers in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea launched a barrage of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) toward a Syrian Air Force airstrip at Ash Shayrat, Syria. The launch was President Donald Trump’s response to the sarin gas attack on civilians in Syria earlier this week.
Both ships—the USS Porter and the USS Ross—essentially emptied their vertical launch tubes of TLAMs. The Department of Defense said 59 missiles were launched, which would be about half the total missile capacity of the two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers combined. The Porter and Ross are half of the Navy’s forward-positioned destroyer force based in Rota, Spain, as part of NATO’s European ballistic missile defense, so they were in the best position to undertake the Syrian strike.
USNI News has a full breakdown of how the Syrian strike was planned. Multiple targeting options had been transmitted to the Porter and Ross while the White House deliberated over options for the strike; once the strike was chosen, the ships’ commanders were informed which of the pre-designated strike options had been selected, and the mission was executed. There’s some uncertainty about the timing of warnings to the Russians about the strike, and whether the Syrians were able to scramble assets away from the base before the strike hit.
The full impact of the strike has yet to be fully assessed, and its effect on the continuing Syrian crisis has not yet played out. But the strike’s apparent success will add to the legend of the venerable TLAM. First deployed in 1983 and first fired in anger in 1991, the Tomahawk has become the favored weapon of admirals, generals, and US presidents. In a broadcast shortly after the strike, MSNBC defense analyst and retired General Barry McCaffrey—former commander of the US Southern Command and President Bill Clinton’s Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—said, “We all love the Tomahawk.”
The Tomahawk was first used in combat in 1991 during the opening of the Gulf War against targets in Iraq (a total of 288 were launched by US Navy and British Royal Navy ships and submarines). But the Clinton administration was the first to use the Tomahawk as the weapon of retribution of first resort—and Clinton’s successors have largely followed suit.
The Tomahawk cruise missile is, in some respects, the perfect weapon for express delivery of a military response. With a range of over 1,000 miles, the Tomahawk takes the potential loss of US airmen’s lives out of the equation, and it can be launched with just a modicum of mission planning.
The Tomahawk was originally deployed by the US Navy in 1983 as both a conventional and nuclear weapon—most famously, in armored “shoebox” launchers aboard the recommissioned Iowa-class battleships, where I had my first exposure to the missile. Today’s guided missile destroyers can carry three times or more the number of Tomahawks the battleships were loaded with, and they can do a lot more with them. The latest generation of TLAMs can even be redirected in flight through satellite communications and can loiter around a target until the timing is right. This allows a flight of multiple missiles to have the same “time on top” and strike for maximum impact, for example.
But the Tomahawk is not without drawbacks. These expensive (about $1.59 million per shot), low-flying robotic turbojets are not the most effective weapon against moving targets—though the Navy has been working on a version with “synthetic navigation” that can be steered onto a moving target with data from a surveillance aircraft. They also don’t deliver the same sort of precision punch that weapons released and guided by an aircraft can, and they are not effective against some types of targets (though that is also changing).
But most of all, Tomahawks are only as accurate as the intelligence that is used to target them. And because of the speed with which a TLAM can be launched as part of a response to a crisis, the targeting intelligence has not always been of the highest quality.
There have been 6 variants of the Tomahawk:
- TLAM-A: the original (Block II) conventional version, with terrain-following navigation.
- TLAM-N: The nuclear option, an intermediate range strategic weapon.
- TASM (Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile): designed to seek out and strike ships at long distances.
- TLAM-C: (Block III) A conventional missile with a single large explosive warhead and GPS-assisted navigation.
- TLAM-D: (Block III) Similar to TLAM-C, but carrying 166 “combined-effects” bomblets—clustered submunitions that could be dispersed from the missile as it flew over targets such as aircraft, runways, or radar emplacements.
- TLAM-E (Block IV): The latest version of the Tomahawk with a variety of enhancements, which we’ll get into later.
The nuclear Tomahawk was withdrawn from service in the 1990s but not officially retired until 2013; a ground-launched variant was retired as a result of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the Soviet Union. The TASM was pulled from the fleet in the 1990s as the Navy’s mission (and threat model) changed after the Cold War. But the conventional TLAM is now in its fourth incarnation. And given the Russian deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles, a modern version of the TLAM-N may eventually find its way back into launch tubes (but there are no plans to do so, and we can hope there never are).