The Tomahawk cruise missile, already a crucial part of the U.S. arsenal for decades, will remain in service for more than a half century before being replaced by a more advanced model that is still on the drawing table. In the meantime, the missile will receive a series of upgrades, particularly an anti-ship upgrade, to keep it relevant against existing threats.
The Tomahawk cruise missile first entered service in the early 1980s. Bullet-shaped with stubby wings and a Williams turbofan engine, the Tomahawk flies low at subsonic speeds to avoid enemy radar. The missile was one of the first to use to navigate, which scans the ground and compares its flight path to the land below. Although tedious to program, it gave the cruise missile unmatched accuracy. Later versions of the missile incorporated GPS satellite navigation, which made the Tomahawk even more accurate.
The U.S. Navy originally fielded two versions of the Tomahawk, an anti-ship version and a land attack version. The anti-ship variant was retired at the end of the Cold War when the Navy was suddenly left without a major peer competitor at sea. It was never used operationally. The land attack version, on the other hand has been used on Iraq, Serbia and Montenegro, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia.
The rise of China's People's Liberation Army Navy, however, coupled with the Chinese government's newfound aggressiveness has left the Navy scrambling again for anti-ship missiles. The current missile, Harpoon, doesn't fit into the vertical launch missile silos on guided missile cruisers and destroyers, limiting the number each ship can carry to eight.
Unlike Harpoon, Tomahawks can fit inside ship missile silos, making each capable of theoretically capable of carrying a hundred or more—at the expense of other types. According to , the Navy will perform two upgrades on its existing force of Tomahawks, one to increase their service lives another fifteen years and another to give them an anti-ship capability. The latter will be known as Maritime Strike Tomahawk. The Navy will also field the , an anti-ship variant of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile.
Farther down the road, the Navy plans an entirely new missile, the Next Generation Land Attack Weapon (NGLAW). NGLAW will be capable of both land attack and anti-ship missions. Currently under early development, NGLAW should enter service between 2028 and 2030.