Tomahawk missile: the long arm of the war

The terrifying force of this sophisticated weapon is proving a key element in the allied assault on Libyan military targets. A triumph of technology?

At the heart of the coalition’s aim to create a no-fly zone in Libya is a very sophisticated and deadly weapon.

A missile developed in the US in the 1970’s, and sold only to the UK, it started its working life in 1991 in the Gulf war. Most recently, it destroyed part of Colonel Gaddafi’s palace. And it’s called the Tomahawk.

Each costing £790,000, the Tomahawk cruise missiles launched against Libya are unmanned, single-use, programmable jet-engine missiles.

They're about 18 feet long, have a wing span of nine feet, travel at subsonic speeds of 550mph and normally carry a 1,000-pound conventional warhead.

Fired from ships or submerged submarines, they fly close to the ground, steering around natural and man-made obstacles to hit a target that is programmed into them before launch.

Able to travel 1350 nautical miles, they allow the launch craft to stay well clear of the warzone. Regarding the most recent strikes, Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, said the missiles launched at Libya were in flight for about an hour, so they were likely fired several hundred miles from their targets.

And the Tomahawk is what the Americans call ‘a very survivable weapon’. Radar detection is difficult because of the missile's small cross-section and low altitude flight.

Similarly, infrared detection is hard because the turbofan engine emits little heat.

Capable of pinpoint accuracy, the deep strike capability of both the US and British navies largely depends on the Tomahawk missile system. Used previously in Bosnia and Iraq, its the proven weapon of choice for missions such as the one presently being undertaken in Libya.

Yet for US President Obama, their primary purpose is to defend rather than attack. ‘The people of Libya must be protected,’ he said. ‘and in the absence of the immediate end of violence against civilians, our coalition is prepared to act and act with urgency.’

In coalition eyes, this precision tool of death comes only to protect.

The remarkable technology behind the Tomahawk, and missiles like it, means that war becomes an impersonal affair.

In former times, you struggled face-to-face with your opponent, seeing the whites of their eyes. Even with muskets and rifles, war was a close range clash between masses of struggling men.

But now, you can press a button 600 miles away and await the destruction of the enemy you’ve never met, and whose death you'll never see.

You Decide

  1. Modern warfare isolates soldiers from the consequences of their military strikes. Does this matter?
  2. ‘War technology always helps us in the end. Iron-working created the sword but also created the plough. And the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile became the space rocket. War is part of progress.’ Do you agree?


  1. 'Weapons technology is important, useful and good.' Choose a position, for or against, and debate this statement with your class.
  2. Like it or not, weapons do change the world. Research a weapon from the past and produce a report on how it changed history.

Some People Say...

“Warmongers always say they're defending someone.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’ve heard of tomahawks before.
Originally, they were the light axe used by the Native Indians in America as tools, weapons and for hunting. Now they’re just weapons.
And how many have been used in Libya so far?
The latest figure from the US military is that during the first two days of action, 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from American and British ships. The total cost for those missiles alone is £88,480,000.
And what technology do you get for that?
The Tomahawk systems include a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver; an upgrade of the optical Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation (DSMAC) system; Time of Arrival (TOA) control, and improved 402 turbo engines.
And is everyone behind the coalition?
No, Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, compared it to a ‘medieval crusade.’

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