Navy Seeks Next Generation Tomahawk

The Navy is testing several new next-generation cruise missiles as potential replacements for the battle-tested Tomahawk.

The Navy is testing several new next-generation cruise missiles as potential replacements for the battle-tested Tomahawk, service leaders told lawmakers Wednesday.

Although the Navy plans to modernize its arsenal of roughly 4,000 Tomahawk missiles, the service is testing and developing a new weapon called the next-generation land attack weapon, Navy acquisition executive Sean Stackley told members of the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

“The key element of that weapon will be its increased lethality and survivability beyond what the Tomahawk brings today,” Stackley told the subcommittee, speaking of the new cruise missile in development.

Meanwhile, production of the Tomahawk is slated to stop by fiscal year 2016, according to the Navy’s five year budget plan outlined in the 2015 proposal.

“We had been sustaining a 200 Tomahawk per year rate. In 2015 we’ll drop down to 100. In 2016 we will revisit the question of whether the time is right to stop production of Tomahawks,” Stackley added.

Stackley told the subcommittee that the Navy is currently exploring several cruise missile technologies.

“What we have procured to date meets our inventory requirements for Tomahawks. What we have to get to is that next-generation weapon. That next-generation weapon could be an upgraded Tomahawk or could be another weapon,” he said.

The Navy also plans to compete a surface-ship launched variant of its air launched Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM which is now in development, Stackley said.

Service officials said the next LRASM test-firing is slated for early fall of this year. The weapon, which is designed to defeat advanced enemy air-defense systems using sensors and autonomous flight, will be fired from an Air Force B-1 bomber. The Navy also plans to configure its F/A-18 fighter jets to be able to fire the LRASM.

“LRASM is transitioning from the demonstration phase to a development program during fiscal year 2014. Early operation capability is planned for 2018,” a Navy official said.

While potential future LRASM competitions for a surface-launched variant will likely involve more than one vendor, Lockheed Martin has been the principal developer thus far. Lockheed is working closely with the Navy and the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency on LRASM.

At an initial air-launched test flight in August of last year, the LRASM successfully launched from a B-1 bomber and navigated itself to the target, said Frank St. John, vice president of tactical missiles, Lockheed Martin missiles and fire control.

“The weapon autonomously navigated to the target area and used its sensors to decisively engage it,” he added.

St. John said LRASM has an extended range greater than 200 miles.

Lockheed is also investing $30 million in research and development funds to develop and test a LRASM that can fire from a surface-ships vertical launch system, St. John said.

At the same time, Raytheon is currently involved in several Block IV Tomahawk modernization efforts which could impact the calculus of the Navy’s pursuit of next-generation cruise missiles.

For example, Raytheon developers are working on a method of improving communication links involving improved radio throughput for the missile. While the Block IV Tomahawk already has the ability to change course in flight, this technology would increase the speed of communications and improve the ability to both re-route and also hit moving targets, Raytheon officials said.

Tomahawks are expected to have a service life of 30 years.  Since the original initial operating capability of the Block IV weapon was 2004, many of them will be brought back at the 15 year service mark for re-certification during the 2017 to 2020 timeframe. Block IV Tomahawks, which can travel at speeds greater than 500 miles per hour, have a range greater than 900 nautical miles.

The Block IV missiles not only have the ability to re-route while in transit to a target but they can also send back real-time images of strategically vital areas and help conduct battle damage assessment.  The Block IV missile is also able loiter over targets as needed and receive targeting information from a nearby unmanned aircraft system.

In addition to GPS, Tomahawk Block IV missiles also have a camera-based navigational system called digital scene matching and correlation. They have anti-jam GPS receivers and inertial measurement units as well so as to ensure the weapon could function in a GPS-denied environment.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., expressed interest in continued Tomahawk modernization, telling the witnesses at the hearing that she would like to see modernization streamlined or combined with re-certification of the weapons in 2019 and 2020.

“You do have plans for modernization in fiscal year 2020?” she asked.

Stackey and Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy told Noem and the rest of the subcommittee that the Navy plans to both re-certify and modernize its inventory of Tomahawk missiles.

“We are continuing to modernize. There have been four steps the first of which is a brand new radio which allows combatant commanders to re-target.  Tomahawks are amazing things but they were also built when I was a junior officer and we’ve modernized them,” said Mulloy, deputy chief of Naval Operations, Integration of Capabilities and Resources.

Tomahawk missiles are a high-speed, low-altitude weapon designed to evade enemy air defenses – in part by flying lower to the ground and using precision GPS navigation systems. They were originally developed as a Cold War weapon to defeat sophisticated Soviet air defenses by flying close to the terrain. 

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.