The Complex

Does My Face Look Funny? Aging Tomahawk Missile Getting a Nose Job

The U.S. Navy’s iconic Tomahawk cruise missile has been launched many hundreds of times since the Gulf War in 1991, but, like a star in show business, the weapon is starting to show its age. It’s only fitting then that the main defense contractor behind the missile is taking a page from the Hollywood playbook ...

U.S. Navy photo
U.S. Navy photo

The U.S. Navy’s iconic Tomahawk cruise missile has been launched many hundreds of times since the Gulf War in 1991, but, like a star in show business, the weapon is starting to show its age. It’s only fitting then that the main defense contractor behind the missile is taking a page from the Hollywood playbook and giving it a nose job.

Raytheon Missile Systems, of Tucson, Ariz., is experimenting with a variety of new high-tech sensors that could go on the nose cone of the missile. The Tomahawk was first fielded by the Pentagon in the 1970s and has since been used in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and a variety of other countries where the U.S. military wanted to strike targets at long ranges. The missile typically has a 1,000-mile range and carries a 1,000-pound warhead, and can be launched from a variety of ships and submarines. It’s also frequently among the first shots the United States fires in a conflict. In 2011, for example, the U.S. and British militaries launched more than 160 Tomahawks into Libya in one 12-hour period to take out anti-aircraft weapons and command centers before Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi could use his military against his own civilians.

The 18-foot long Tomahawk faces an uncertain future, however. The Pentagon called for the end of its production after this year in its proposed 2015 budget, even though a potential replacement is years away. The move has raised serious concerns for some Capitol Hill lawmakers, who question whether halting production is a wise way to save money as military budgets shrink after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The proposal is still alive, though, leaving Raytheon to plan for future upgrades to the existing arsenal of Tomahawks without knowing whether or not more will be built. Each missile costs more than $1 million, the Navy told the Center for Public Integrity in 2011.

Despite the Navy’s planned end of production on the Tomahawk, there is still more than $140 million in improvements to the existing arsenal planned in coming years, said Chris Sprinkle, who also work on upgrades planned to the missile for Raytheon. In February, U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, expressed interest in a new, bunker-busting warhead for the missile known as the Joint Multiple Effects Warhead System. It is not yet clear whether the Pentagon will buy it.

Other upgrades are set to go in place soon. The most recent version of the Tomahawk, the Block IV, includes an on-board camera and the ability to change speeds to loiter over a potential target longer. Like earlier versions of the Tomahawk, however, the decade-old system is ill-suited to strike moving targets. Raytheon’s now trying to change that. On April 14, it took a modified Tomahawk missile nose cone fitted with new sensors, attached it to a T-39 jet, and tested to see whether it could track moving targets by the electronic signals they emit — a so-called "passive seeker" test. The plane simulated the flight path of a Tomahawk in an effort to make it realistic.

"Right now the Tomahawk hits stationary targets on land," said Roy Donelson, Raytheon’s Tomahawk program director. "What this is designed to do is clear the way for us to improve the missile and modernize it so it can hit moving targets on land or on sea. This is a major step in the direction of getting the Tomahawk more capability."

Raytheon also is planning an "active seeker" test early next year. Like the test conducted in April, it would fit new equipment to a Tomahawk nose cone attached to a test plane. The next case will show whether or not the new computer processors on board can not only find moving targets, but transmit that radar data to the U.S. troops – a key step to hitting the right moving targets on land or at sea.

Other missile upgrades are underway, too. On Feb. 19, for example, Raytheon and the U.S. Navy teamed to launch a test missile from the USS Sterett, a guided missile destroyer, that had new communications equipment on board capable of receiving updates from a simulated operations center at sea. Throughout the test flight, the missile received updates on its target, demonstrating that it could loiter overhead and be redirected to a new target, Raytheon officials said.

The ongoing upgrades to the remaining Tomahawk arsenal could be sped up to account for the Navy halting production of the existing missile line, Navy officials said. Unless that happens, the changes Raytheon is working on now likely won’t reach operational missiles until 2019.

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