Worries about the Tomahawk and Harpoon cruise missile obsolescence appear to have been slightly premature.
A test on January 27 saw a Tomahawk fired from the USS Kidd (DDG-100) receive mid-course guidance from an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and strike a moving target off of the California coast. The current range for the Block IV missiles is over 1,000 nautical miles (1,150 miles) and would give the Navy a ship killing missile with a range advantage over every other ASM (anti-ship missile) currently in existence.
For comparison, the Harpoon missile – for years the Navy’s standard anti-ship missile – has a range of approximately 80 miles. The Tomahawk also carries a warhead twice the size of the Harpoon and fits in standard VLS (vertical launch system) cells. It is carried on surface ships, submarines and aircraft.
“This is a significant accomplishment,” said Capt. Joe Mauser, Tomahawk Weapons System (PMA-280) program manager, in an interview. “It demonstrates the viability of long-range communications for position updates of moving targets. This success further demonstrates the existing capability of Tomahawk as a netted weapon, and in doing so, extends its reach beyond fixed and re-locatable points to moving targets.”
By creating a guidance system that can be attached to the Tomahawk missile that allows course changes and external guidance, the worries about the situation around the target changing during the flight time of the missile have been mitigated. Targeting information can be updated during the flight, and a “local” observer can ensure that the missile retains its target no matter how the situation changes.
During the late-80s the Navy experimented with using the Tomahawk in an anti-ship role with the Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM), but the slow speed of the subsonic cruise missile meant that the target information could have changed dramatically during the flight.
“[TASM] 200-nautical-mile-plus range was so long that the navy of those days lacked sufficient surveillance assets to guide the TASM to its target,” wrote James Holmes for The Diplomat. “Since the bird was subsonic, furthermore, its flight time was so long that the target might move out of the way, foiling the engagement attempt. The navy leadership eventually deemed the danger of hitting friendly or neutral vessels unacceptable.”
With those problems solved, the Navy has a replacement for its aging Harpoon missile, which hasn’t even been deployed on newer destroyers and it actually gives the upgraded LCS a potential over-the-horizon anti-ship weapon which would improve that ship’s survivability.
Without having to redesign the launchers and guidance systems on the ships, planes and submarines that Tomahawk is currently deployed on, the Block IV upgrade will, once testing is complete, make our platforms much deadlier without a lengthy and costly overhaul period.
A win-win for the Navy currently running into budget shortfalls and technology problems with ships, subs and aircraft.
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