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BGM-109 Tomahawk

Naval cruise missile


The BGM-109 Tomahawk is the most famous and combat-tested cruise missile of the Western Block

Country of origin United States
Entered service 1983
Missile length (with booster) 6.25 m
Missile length (without booster) 5.56 m
Missile diameter 0.52 m
Wing span 2.67 m
Missile weight (with booster) 1 600 kg
Missile weight (without booster) 1 300 kg
Warhead weight 130 - 750 kg
Warhead type Many including conventional and nuclear (see below)
Guidance system (land attack) GPS, inertial navigation system, terrain-following radar
Guidance system (anti-ship) active radar homing
Range of fire up to 2 500 km
CEP (BGM-109A) 80 m
CEP (other models) 10 m


   The Raytheon (originally General Dynamics) BGM-109 Tomahawk is without a doubt the best-known and most combat-tested cruise missile in the West. It carries a heavy payload over a very long distance, and can be launched from a multitude of different platforms.

   The earliest origins of the Tomahawk date back to 1971, when the US Navy took an interest in submarine-launched cruise missiles for the first time since the ill-fated Regulus of the 1950s. Two possible approaches were studied; a large missile, similar in size to an Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) (like the cruise missiles commonly used in Soviet submarines at the time), or a much smaller missile that could potentially be launched from a torpedo tube. In June of 1972, the Navy opted for only acquiring the smaller of the two missiles, and in the following November an request for proposals was for this new weapon was issued to the defense industry. The program was soon after designated Submarine Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM).

   SLCM proposals were delivered over the next two years, and in January of 1974, the Navy decided on a fly-off between prototypes of the two most promising designs; the General Dynamics proposal, and the LTV proposal, which were designated ZBGM-109 and ZBGM-110, respectively. The fly-off took between the ZBGM-109 and ZBGM-110 took place in February of 1976, after which the ZBGM-109 was declared the winner of the SLCM competition. The Navy also decided that the new missile should be launched from surface ships as well; because of this decision, SLCM was retroactively re-designated to be an acronym for "Sea-Launched Cruise Missile". Now re-designated the YBGM-109A, further development, testing, and refinement continued into the early 1980s.

   The plans for the YBGM-109A changed considerably in January of 1977, when President Jimmy Carter directed that the US Navy and US Air Force (USAF) develop their parallel cruise missile programs using common technology. The resulting Joint Cruise Missile Project (JCMP ) initiative saw the General Dynamics YBGM-109A and Boeing AGM-86 ALCM both fitted with several major common systems, including the Williams F107 turbofan engine, and the Douglas AN/DPW-23 TERCOM guidance system.

   Carter ordered the USAF and US Navy to evaluate an air-launched version of the YBGM-109A as a possible alternative for the AGM-86 in the air-launched role. However, this caused the YBGM-109 series to rapidly lose commonality with both the YBGM-109A and the AGM-86. Notably, the USAF models were re-engined with the Teledyne CAE J402-CA-401 turbojet, while the Navy's air-launched versions were drastically reduced in size and weight, fitted with shorter noses, and given a sweep in the wings. None of the air-launched models were favored by any of the services, out of concern that the program was quickly becoming too complex and expensive. Work on these sub-variants stopped in 1980, with the USAF's selection of the AGM-86B, and the Navy's cancellation of their own air-launched models. For all intents and purposes, the Tomahawk was once again a purely naval cruise missile.

   The Tomahawk's development was not without its controversies. The program's many delays, cost overruns, testing failures, and scope creep earned it much criticism in both the press and in Congress. However, others were more concerned with operational issues surrounding the missile. It was noted in particular by critics that the Tomahawk's TERCOM guidance had a tendency to send the missile off course over "blank" areas on the pre-programmed map, as it relied on a steady supply of distinctive terrain geometry and landmarks across the entire route to find the target area. The program office for the Tomahawk claimed they had addressed this problem, but the missile's combat results in later years suggest otherwise (see below). There were a number of false starts as well; notably a 1978 demonstration made for Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, in which the first missile's jet engine failed to start, causing it to fall into the sea after flying less than a mile.

   The first surface ship launch of a Tomahawk occurred in March of 1980, from the destroyer DD-976 Merrill. The first submarine launch was made in the following June, from the SSN-665 Guitarro. Production had already been underway for some time, and developmental testing was finally concluded in early 1983; in March of that year, the US Navy formally declared the BGM-109 Tomahawk operational.

   The Tomahawk is designed to be launched from ships and ground-based launchers (BGM designation), submarines (UGM designation), and aircraft (AGM designation). For the sake of simplicity, these Tomahawk variants will all be described as "BGM-109s" in this article. Also note that the submarine and surface ship launched versions are all basically the same, while the BGM-109G differs only in having a different nuclear warhead from the BGM-109A. The AGM-109 series did not enter service, the USAF opting instead for the AGM-86 ALCM.

  The form of the BGM-109 Tomahawk is very simple, with a long, tubular fuselage, dome-like nose, small, crucifix-shaped stabilizer fins on the tail, and two small (almost fin-like) wings in the mid-section. A small protruding airscoop on the aft underside provides an air feed for the engine. Late-model Tomahawks no longer have a protruding airscoop, and have three small rhombus-shaped fins in a triangular pattern instead of the crucifix on earlier models. Prior to launch, the wings are recessed inside the fuselage, and the stabilizers fins (which are wrapped around the fuselage prior to launch) spring straight. A small, cylindrical rocket booster module on the tail of the missile lifts it into the air and propels it to flight speed, whereupon it is jettisoned as the engine starts. The submarine-launched models are also wrapped in a torpedo-like casing with a rocket booster on the aft end, which are jettisoned as the missiles ascends from the water.

   All operational Tomahawk variants are launched using an Atlantic Research MK 106 solid-propellant rocket booster, which produces 26.7kN (6 000 lbs) of thrust for 12 seconds. When the booster runs out of fuel, the Tomahawk is propelled though the rest of its flight by a Williams F107 turbofan engine. Designed expressly for powering cruise missiles, the F107 is also propelled by a special, high-density aviation turbine fuel that withstands harsh weather, rough handling, and long-term storage better than more conventional jet fuels. Most Tomahawks are powered by the F107-WR-400 engine with 2.7kN (600 lbs) of thrust, while later models are powered by the improved F107-WR-402 with 3.1kN (700 lbs) of thrust. These are both relatively reliable engines, as demonstrate by the fact that during Operation Desert Storm, only 19 of approximately 300 attempted launches ended in failure.

   While a wide array of details regarding the Tomahawk's many guidance features have been described, it in fact uses only two methods of guidance; either terrain-following radar, or active radar homing.

   The land attack models use terrain-following radar, along with two additional functions which at the time of the missile's debut were quite novel. The first of these is TERrain COntour Matching (TERCOM), which uses three-dimensional imagery to form a clearer picture of the terrain the missile is meant to follow (thus greatly reducing the chances of the missile going off-course), and also to allow it to weave its way through vertical terrain (e.g., between the peaks of a mountain range) if necessary. The second of these features is Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation (DSMAC), which compares pre-programmed digital radar images of the flight path and/or target location to the images gathered from what the high-resolution terrain-following radar can "see".

   The land attack Tomahawks also employ Inertial Navigation System (INS) to assist in their guidance, and models introduced  since the mid-1990s also include GPS. These have improved the missile's handling and accuracy, although it still demonstrates some tendency to veer off-course under some conditions.

   The anti-ship model, the BGM-109B, is the only variant of the Tomahawk that uses active radar homing guidance. This guidance method requires no pre-programming prior to launch (the terrain-following models need to be preprogrammed to fly on a fixed course, along with data on all the terrain below it), as it is "fire and forget"; meaning the launch platform points the BGM-109B in the direction of the target, launches it, and the missile is autonomous throughout the rest of its flight.

   The warheads used in the Tomahawk are even more diverse. The original BMG-109A and the BGM-109G were armed with nuclear warheads, but these are no longer in service. The W80 warhead used in the BGM-109A weighs 130 kg, and has a variable yield of between 5 kT and 150 kT. The W84 warhead used in the BGM-109G was broadly similar, but was heavier at 176 kg, and had a variable yield of 0.2 kT to 150 kT.

   The BGM-109B is armed with a 750 kg WDU-36/B unitary warhead, which is also used in current models of the BGM-109C. In current models, this is a generic HE-FRAG warhead, but the early models of the BGM-109C were armed with what is known as a "Bullpup" warhead. The 450 kg WDU-25/B "Bullpup B" is similar to an HE-FRAG warhead in principle, but relies much more heavily in a downward-direct directed fan of pre-formed shrapnel to destroy its target, making it a sort of a "flying claymore mine". The WDU-36/B is designed to be used against ships and hard targets on land (such as bunkers and hardened aircraft shelters), though its fragmentation effect also makes it effective against soft targets. The WDU-25/B "Bullpup B" is tailored to destroy soft targets, like wooden structures and parked aircraft; it is not effective against most hard targets.

   The subsequent BGM-109D was re-armed with a new warhead, containing 166 BLU-97/B Combined Effects Bomblet (CEB) submunitions, which can be scattered across a wide area to destroy numerous soft targets. These grenade-like 1.54 kg munitions contain 287 g of explosive filler (it was originally Cyclotol, but was replaced by PBXN-107 in later examples, due to its improved power and insensitivity). It is also worth noting that the BLU-97/B submunitions are the same ordnance delivered by the CBU-87 Combined Effects Munition (CEM) cluster bomb, as well as the AGM-154A Joint Standoff Weapon and AGM-137 TSSAM air-launched missiles; giving the BGM-109D a common munition no doubt reduced the cost, complexity, and duration of its development.

   The combat debut of the Tomahawk was during Operation Desert Storm, in which 290 missiles were successfully launched in 307 attempts. Numerous high value point and area targets were destroyed by these missiles, including command centers, radar stations, runways, aircraft shelters, supply dumps, and power stations. However, while the Tomahawk earned great fame in the media for these results, further inquiries into the missile's performance during the war yielded more sobering findings. The relatively flat and featureless terrain typical of the Arabian Desert had apparently proven the critics' predictions accurate; the GAO had found in "Operation Desert Storm: An Analysis of the Air Campaign" (GAO/NSAID-97-134) that nearly half of all Tomahawks went off-course and landed well outside their target areas. Iraqi officials had also noted to the press that while some cruise missiles had struck pinpoint targets of high value, others had landed in swimming pools, vacant lots, and other areas devoid of targets.

   The next employment of the Tomahawk in combat was during Operation Deliberate Force in 1995, although only 13 missiles were used in this conflict against a single communications center.

   Some 75 Tomahawks were launched into Afghanistan and Sudan in August of 1998 in retaliation for attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The targets were destroyed, though the attacks were not successful; the intelligence reports that the factory in Sudan was producing chemical weapons turned out to be false, while the timing of the attacks on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan was off, allowing key targets (including the infamous Osama bin Laden) to slip away. Moreover, several missiles once again went off-course, landing in locations outside the target areas, and several ended up being captured intact.

   During Operation Desert Fox in December of 1998, 330 Tomahawks were launched into Iraq over a four-day period --- more missiles than were launched during Operation Desert Storm, over a substantially shorter duration. Once again, the Tomahawk's results were mixed; most landed on-target, but many others had once again gone off-course. Notably, one errant Tomahawk landed in a neighborhood in the Al-Kadhimiah of Baghdad, killing 27 civilians and wounding 37 more.

   The Tomahawk was also employed in numerous other combat operations in Iraq throughout the 1990s as well, notably in an attack on Iraqi southern air defenses on September 3rd 1996.

   At least 218 Tomahawks were launched in support of Operation Allied Force in 1999, where they were directed against strategic targets inside Kosovo. Though most of the missiles destroyed their targets, a few missiles still went off-course, or failed to explode. In by far the most infamous mishap, three Tomahawks accidentally hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (though in this case, it wasn't a guidance issue, but rather because the US Navy had misjudged the height and location of the embassy building). The attacks were also noted to have completely expended the entire US Tomahawk inventory for the European theater.

   Another 50 Tomahawks were launched in October of 2001, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Once again, Tomahawk attacks proved controversial, as numerous civilians were killed and injured in the crossfire, in some cases by missiles that went off-course. In a few cases, missiles were directed at such targets as the UN de-mining headquarters, the only operational civilian radio station in the country, and even a shortwave radio tower that had been abandoned for a decade (though attacks these were most likely the result of intelligence errors).

   The most extensive use of Tomahawks in a single war to date came in 2003, during the Invasion of Iraq, in which 802 Tomahawks were launched into that country. Despite the additional guidance technology that the Tomahawk fleet had been updated with, the results were no better than during Desert Storm, as a large percentage of the missiles again landed in the wrong areas --- some even fell in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

   More recently, a number of Tomahawks were launched into Libya in 2011, and into Syria in 2014. It was noted by a retired US Navy Admiral in a television interview that the Tomahawk was not only accurate enough to destroy a specific building in Damascus if required, but also that the Navy could even choose which window for it to enter the building through; though while the Tomahawk has indeed proven itself to be that accurate time and again, its ability to *locate* its target still leaves something to be desired.

   The only current operators of the Tomahawk are the United Kingdom and the United States. Several foreign militaries (primarily NATO countries) have outfitted their submarines to be able to launch the UGM-109 series Tomahawks, and some have even launched them with US assistance and supervision in exercises, but to date none have been supplied to other nations beyond this capacity. Poland has also recently expressed interest in the Tomahawk.

   The future of the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile is shrouded in uncertainty. Half of the production total have already been expended in combat and training, and in 2014 it was decided to gradually end its production starting in 2016. It is very unlikely that the Tomahawk will proliferate to any other nations, given the age of the system, a wide range of new competing cruise missiles on the market, and the political red tape that would be involved in further foreign sales. As of 2015, approximately 4 000 operational Tomahawks remain, with 3 500 in the US inventory, and the rest belonging to the Royal Navy.

   The US Navy expects a replacement for the Tomahawk to enter service in the mid-2020s, but as of 2015, this new missile hasn't even been designed. The Tomahawks themselves will likely remain in service into the 2030s, barring unforeseen events.




   ZBGM-109A: Technology demonstration missiles for the SLCM. The definitive examples were functional weapons.

   YBGM-109A: Prototypes of the SLCM, and by extension the Tomahawk.

   BGM-109A TLAM-A: Original land attack model, armed with a W80 nuclear warhead. No longer in service.

   BGM-109B TASM: Anti-ship version armed with a WDU-25/B HE-FRAG warhead.

   BGM-109C TLAM-C: Land attack version armed with a unitary warhead. Early models had Bullpup warheads.

   BGM-109D TLAM-D: Land attack version armed with a submunition warhead.

   BGM-109E TLAM Block IV: Improved BGM-109C. Dispenses 166 BLU-97/B CEB (Combined Effects Bomblet) submunitions.

   BGM-109F: Submunition-dispensing model for attacking airfields. Did not enter service.

   BGM-109G Gryphon: Ground-launched model for the US Army, with a W84 nuclear warhead. Also known as the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM). No longer in service.

   AGM-109C: Air-launched version armed with a WDU-25/B HE-FRAG warhead, for the USAF. Did not enter service.

   AGM-109I: Air-launched dual-purpose (land attack and anti-ship) variant armed with a WDU-25/B HE-FRAG warhead, for use on US Navy carrier-based aircraft. Did not enter service.

   AGM-109J: Air-launched AGM-109C for use on US Navy carrier-based aircraft. Did not enter service.

   AGM-109K: Air-launched infrared guided land attack version for the USAF, armed with a WDU-25/B HE-FRAG warhead. Did not enter service.

   AGM-109L: Navalised AGM-109K for use on US Navy carrier-based aircraft. Did not enter service.

   RGM-109. Designation for ship-launched versions of the Tomahawk.

   UGM-109. Designation for submarine-launched versions of the Tomahawk.



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