By Kris Osborn
Designed to advance the weapon's ability to address fast-emerging near-peer threats and destroy enemy ships moving at sea.
Unlike a typical Tomahawk missile which, over the years, has been used to successfully target and destroy "fixed" targets such as enemy bunkers, static troop locations, command-and-control as well as key infrastructure - the new Maritime Strike Tomahawk is specifically engineered with a next-generation ability to track and destroy moving targets at sea, Navy and Raytheon developers say.
The Maritime Strike Tomahawk hinges on new seeker technology and faster computer processing speeds to engineer several modes wherein the Tomahawk can be re-targeted in flight to destroy moving targets in the event of unforeseen contingencies.
Navy program managers have told Scout Warrior that the weapon incorporates an all-weather seeker, coupled with mid-course in-flight target updates, will provide the missile the ability to strike a moving maritime target.
"Maritime Strike Tomahawk will integrate a multi-mode seeker into Block IV Tomahawk Cruise Missile. The seeker suite will enable MST to engage moving targets," Navy Tomahawk program manager, Capt. Mark Johnson, told Scout Warrior in a written statement.
Johnson added that the program is a new start acquisition effort which plans to field the new Tomahawk by the mid 2020s.
Naval Air Systems Command awarded Raytheon a $120-million deal to develop the weapon as part of a fast-tracked acquisition effort, a Pentagon announcement said.
"The weapon is designed to engage high-value moving targets such as enemy ships. Different countries are releasing more and more capable ships. We want to enable the US Navy to have freedom of the seas and have sea control," Chris Sprinkle, Maritime Strike Tomahawk Manager, Raytheon, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
While weapons developers explain that many of the particular details of the new seeker technology are not available for discussion for security reasons, officials do say it is designed to integrate with and function alongside existing Tomahawk targeting and navigation technologies such as infrared guidance, radio frequency targeting and GPS systems.
"The multi-mode seeker rides on a very capable multi-function processor. When people talk about radar and IR systems put onto a weapon platform, they recognize that the antennas you see on the front end are useless if there is not a capable processor is on the back side," Sprinkle said.
Constructing an "upgradeable" technology such that processing hardware can quickly be integrated with new software as threats emerge is an integral component of the new seeker technology.
"This allows us to operate whatever set of sensors are needed to meet operational requirements. If the threat has evolved, we won't have to bring the missile back and put on a new set of sensors," Sprinkle added.
The idea is to engineer a Tomahawk missile able to engage and destroy fast-moving near-peer rival ships and land targets in a wide variety of anticipated threat environments. For instance, should there be combat engagements with Russia or China, U.S. weapons, missiles and assets will need to operate in more challenged or contested environments – such as a scenario where satellites or GPS communications and navigational systems are compromised or destroyed.
As part of a broad weapons modernization strategy, the Navy is also upgrading its Tactical Tomahawk Weapons Control System to reduce its hardware footprint, streamline weapons functions and integrate new, updated software able to increase cybersecurity through a simplified user interface, service officials said.
Multiple systems can now be accessed from a single workstation and other systems were condensed, freeing up space in control rooms, a Navy statement said.
Tomahawks have been upgraded several times over their years of service. The Block IV Tomahawk, in service since 2004, includes a two-way data link for in-flight retargeting, terrain navigation, digital scene-matching cameras and a high-grade inertial navigation system, Raytheon officials said.
The current Tomahawk is built with a “loiter” ability allowing it to hover near a target until there is an optimal time to strike. As part of this technology, the missile uses a two-way data link and camera to send back images of a target to a command center before it strikes.
The weapon is also capable of performing battle damage assessment missions by relaying images through a data link as well, Raytheon said.
The Navy is currently wrapping up the procurement cycle for the Block IV Tactical Tomahawk missile. In 2019, the service will conduct a recertification and modernization program for the missiles reaching the end of their initial 15-year service period, which will upgrade or replace those internal components required to return them to the fleet for the second 15 years of their 30-year planned service life.
Tomahawk in Combat
The weapons have been used for decades in combat. Roughly 800 tomahawks were fired in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and about 200 were used in Desert Storm, Raytheon officials said.
In addition, more than 200 Tomahawks were fired in NATO action in Libya in 2012Tomahawk missiles weigh 3,500 pounds with a booster and can travel at subsonic speeds up to 550 miles per hour at ranges greater than 900 nautical miles. They are just over 18-feet long and have an 8-foot, 9-inch wingspan.
Tomahawks are the kind of weapon used to destroy enemy air defenses, communications infrastructure and other targets – allowing strike aircraft and various attack assets to go after targets in a much lower-risk environment. The weapon was used in this capacity against targets in Syria and the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve as well.
Alongside Tomahawk modernization, the Navy exploring options for a next-generation land attack weapon. It remains unclear whether they will use next-generation, upgraded Tomahawks to meet this requirement or chose to develop a new system.
“Every time we go against anyone that has a significant threat, the first weapon is always Tomahawk,” Sprinkle said. “ It is designed specifically to beat modern and emerging integrated air defenses.”