8 Upgrades to the Modern U.S. Tomahawk Missile

This is not the same missile used in the Gulf War.

Getty Images / U.S. Navy

The Tomahawk cruise missile is one of the U.S. military’s favorite tools in extending its destructive power across the globe. It was used extensively in both Iraq wars, and late Thursday night, the U.S. Navy used it to strike a Syrian airfield controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in response to a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government that killed more than 80 civilians earlier this week.

At around 9 p.m. Eastern time, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from two Navy destroyers toward a military airbase in Syria. Thus far, there is no consistent casualty data from the strike, which was authorized by President Donald Trump from his Mar-a-Lago hotel and resort in South Florida late Thursday night. But for many Americans, the missile used was also a mystery — so here’s a breakdown of the equipment used in President Trump’s largest military action thus far.

Introduced by McDonnell Douglas in the 1970s, the Tomahawk missile was first used in operations by the U.S. military in 1991, during Operation Desert Storm. Since then, it’s been used in multiple other conflicts, employed in combat over 2,000 times since its introduction.

A common weapon in the first Gulf War, it’s an all-weather, long-range missile used against land targets with high value or heavy defenses. It’s launched from both surface ships and submarines. The conventional land attack variant carries a 1,000-pound-class warhead, and the whole missile weighs a staggering 2,900 pounds. It has a length of 18 feet three inches, a diameter of 20.4 inches and a wingspan of eight feet nine inches.

The official Navy line is that the Tomahawk costs around $569,000 in dollars from the year 1999 — in today’s money, that equates to around $834,000. But a 2014 Defense Department budget request places the number slightly higher, at $1.59 million for a more recent Block IV variant. A sale of 65 Block IV missiles to the United Kingdom in 2014 placed the cost at around $2 million per missile.

Based on the 2014 DoD numbers, Trump’s strike on the Al Shayrat airfield cost $93.81 million.

A Tomahawk cruise missile taking off in an undated photo from the U.S. Navy's files.

Getty Images / Getty Images

The 59 missiles fired on Friday are not the same missiles as the ones introduced back in the 1970s. Here are eight upgrades that have been introduced over the years:

  • Block III, deployed in 1994, introduced engine improvements, an extended range warhead and navigation capabilities that used the global positioning system to find its way. Most people will know the system as GPS. The new missile was a tradeoff, though: where its predecessor, the Block II, had a range of 1,350 nautical miles, the Block III and its successors have a range of around 900 nautical miles.
  • The Advanced Tomahawk Weapons Control System, introduced in 1998, stripped out the seventies-era command technology and replaced it with a modern foundation better suited to supporting future upgrades. This improves strike effectiveness and reduces overall reaction time.
  • The Tactical Tomahawk Weapons Control System (TTWCS), introduced in 2004, gave the military the ability to reprogram GPS coordinates in-flight.
  • Block IV, introduced in 2004, brought cost savings and improved capabilities. A two-way satellite linkup relayed vital information like the missile’s health, while a new loitering capability meant a missile could wait for a target to emerge.
  • Upgrades to the TTWCS introduced in 2012 brought in new computer processors, reducing the amount of time some applications took to run from a matter of minutes into seconds.
  • The Joint Multiple Effects Warhead System, tested in February 2014, introduced better bunker-busting abilities to the Block IV. That means it can penetrate concrete much better than its predecessors.
  • A 2015 upgrade demonstrated the Tomahawk can take a reconnaissance photo, transmit it back to base, enter a loitering pattern, and follow orders to retarget mid-flight.
  • A further upgrade explored in 2016 would increase the Tomahawk’s power by using its fuel to increase the size of the explosion upon impact. A fully-fueled missile that only flew to half its range could use the remaining fuel as extra firepower.