What's a Tomahawk missile?
March 19th, 2011
07:38 PM ET

What's a Tomahawk missile?

The Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched Saturday against Libya are unmanned, single-use, programmable jet-engine missiles used only by the U.S. and British navies.

They fly very close to the ground, steering around natural and man-made obstacles to hit a target that is programmed into them before launch. Newer versions can be reprogrammed in flight but in this case that was not done, at least not yet.

They are different from other unmanned aerial vehicles in that they can only be used once - they are fired, they fly to the target and blow up. End of missile. A Predator and some other unmanned aerial vehicles can carry missiles, hit a target, then continue flying.

Tomahawk missiles normally carry a 1,000-pound conventional warhead. They can also carry 166 combined-effects bomblets, or mini bombs that spread out over a larger area. They can also carry nuclear warheads.

Tomahawks, developed in the 1970s, were first launched operationally by the United States during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. They are about 18 feet long with a wing span of nearly 9 feet, and they can fly at about 550 mph. Regarding Saturday's strikes against Libya, Vice Adm. William E. Gortney, director of the Joint Staff, said the missiles were in flight for about an hour, so they were likely fired several hundred miles from their targets.

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Filed under: Libya • Military • U.S. Navy • United Kingdom
soundoff (439 Responses)
  1. Liberty Queen

    While I am not happy about the expense on U.S. taxpayers in our participation with our allies in enforcing the No-Fly zone, it's either this of a complete genocide of the Libyan people will occur. In Azawiya alone there has been a massacre of thousands of civilians while the U.N. dithered for four weeks. Think about it, if we were the people fighting for our freedom on the ground with nothing but small arms and the occasional mortar weapon and tank captured in the fight for our lives, we would want help in the same manner. If this military action gets rid of Ghadaffi and his fascist regime, then I am all for it. And after that, the U.N. needs pass firm resolutions and take military action, if necessary, regarding the dictators and hangers-on fascists who are slaughtering citizens in Bahrain, Yemen, Ivory Coast and so on. It is time stand behind citizens everywhere who want Democracy and Freedom.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Me

    I hope they hit his tent again. To bad Regan missed him the first time.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Yeah, and too bad Reagan hit them for what the Syrians did.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  3. t10jumper

    HOPE THAT IS MY SHARE OF TAXES FLYING DOWN RANGE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    March 19, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Maari

    So... are we in war again? Bush era all over again? Didn't we vote for a change?

    March 19, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phil, Ohio

      Wolf Blitzer said it last night "Obama's War".
      I said it and e-mailed it Friday, March 11th (9 days ago).

      March 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • heydummies

      oh for god's sake. Its a UN operation and was requested by the Arab League. I don't even particularly support Obama, but quit trying to deflect the atrocities of the bush admin to him. This is a far cry from Iraq.

      March 19, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • MC

      Ummm... bush invaded iraq (cost of trillion + and thousands of dead US kids) for phony "WMD"s. (And when the french called BS we invented "freedom fries" – because we're idiots). Obama hooked up with a real international coalition that seems more interested in stopping the slaughter of some brave civilians than some trumped up bunch of lies designed to "install democracy in the mideast". Libyans have risen up BY THEIR OWN ACCORD with no international support. I think Obama and the UN are showing some b*lls by backing them. Bush was all talk when it came to democracy abroad – that's why we exported "democracy... with bonus torture features!" to Iraq.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doug

      The big difference: With Cheney/Bush, the entering argument was that we would invade Iraq. The administration then ran things and cherry-picked the intelligence so that it would happen.

      With Libya, we tried every angle, every element of soft power, worked at the UN, used threats and fighting words, and when these had obviously failed, the President gave the go-ahead for select options the the Pentagon/allies had drawn up. This president goes to war when it's necessary but won't waste a trillion dollars or thousands of lives if it's not.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Amen to MC.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dr. Lecter

      There is a clear difference- Obama attacked a North African nation, not a Southwest Asian nation.
      There were also 23 countries in the coalition against Iraq, only 5 against Libya. Oh, yeah, and the Arab League that also wanted the US to attack Iran...

      March 20, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Dr. Lecter

      I forgot- another difference is that it was three years before the US invaded Iraq. Obama hit Libya after one week- that is seven days.

      March 20, 2011 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  5. Miguel Centeno

    Whenever anyone rules by violent means, it must be accepted that it lacks peoples' consent. Therefore, Gahdafi must go to allow a government by the people for the people bla bla bla .

    March 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mack

    The Navy has a large stockpile of these things. People complain when they are just sitting on ships and submarines just rotting away because we bought thousands and thousands of them and they are not being used and when they get used, people still complain.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. OH NO!!!

    What happens if one falls to the ground before reaching target? Say, a malfunction?

    March 19, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Der

      Then it'll stop flying and hit the ground?

      March 19, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      I really don't know what you're asking for here...

      March 19, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seidan

      First off, they don't just "fall out of the sky". If you're asking if they would blow up on impact if that happened the answer is no.

      March 20, 2011 at 4:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. sporadotimes

    He is ready to act after country was already subjected to civil war and burned to the ground...after he implemented via United Nations prohibition of air space usage allowing use exclusively to Gaddafi's air attacks and destruction of rebel army while at the same time prohibiting assistance from already liberated neighboring countries..and why !? Because rebel army didn't tolerate Jewmerican corruption and therefore rebels needed to be destroyed to extend when those will seat at negotiation table with Jewmerica. LIBERATORS WILL ENSLAVE REBELS BY PUSHING FORWARD GREAT ISRAEL'S AGENDA AND OWN OIL $$



    March 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  9. EC

    A UAV and a missile are two different things...surely the author of this article should know that. The only thing that these have in common is that they "fly through the air"... come on...someone needs to do better research. You would compare one cruise missile to another, and maybe one UAV to another...not a UAV against a missile in the context of the above article. The last time I checked missles are not reusable?? Newsflash...airplanes (which UAV are) can carry bombs, missiles, guns, etc...and they can fire those weapons and return to a given location.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Raven

    However you look at it, this military action has already cost much more than the cruise missiles that Qaddafi is eating for breakfast. There had to be weeks of preparation that went alongside UN deliberations for NATO to select targets. Satellites cost big money, as does repositioning ships for this choreographed event. And yes, these TLAMs might be past their shelf-life, but they were originally designed as a stand-off weapon in a REAL war, against a real adversary, not some clown. As such, It seems to me that these battles to "soften" up the targets never last only a few days as so much effort goes into them once they've reached this point. But what do I know, I'm just paying for them.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • heydummies

      so we should just send planes in willy nilly with their air defenses up? I'm not sure I understand your point??

      March 19, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Yeah, I'm with Heydummies. The ships, diplomats, satellites, airplanes, etc. are already there and paid for. Money is only wasted when costs exceed normal. That would be missiles expended or aircraft and personnel destroyed. So far it's a bargain and the goal is admirable.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seidan

      Actually the ships firing the missiles are probably saving money by using less fuel while they are shooting, you see they don't do a lot of maneuvering while they are shooting or expecting to shoot.

      March 20, 2011 at 4:32 am | Report abuse |
  11. Archie

    Since tactics does not seem to be a focus of most of the statements on here a little lesson of the 112 only a portion usually the number of set. Vehicles plus force cal. Of 2-3 would be dedicated to each site. Also an air defense site is usually several vehicles separated by distance sometimes connected by fiber or wired comms. Usually link to a contol center which coordinates fire control. Extra missiles will be dedicated to area denial (bmblets). So say a site is 4-5 vehicles plus area denial that is a strike content of nearly 98 percent give or take of the 112 fired. Given those numbers it's a pretty surgical and efficient joint attack.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Fantasywriter

    It doesn't matter what the cost of one Tomahawk missile was fifteen years ago, what is the replacement cost today. Additionally, what are we getting for our money? Yes, he is a brutal dictator but what will replace him? Do we have any idea if the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran has any involvement here? My guess is that we do know and the western world is trying to score some early points. Do you really think the western world really cares about potential genicide in Libya. Did the UN and France care about the slaughter in Rawanda when they did nothing about the slaughter there. France gets a good deal of their crude from Libya as does much of Europe. This was no humanitarian effort.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • john

      I do.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Yes, I think we know, and yes, I think we care. The difference here is that we can do something. Often, there is little we can do without large investment.

      March 19, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seidan

      The cost to replace them is no different than if we don't use them and then end up dismantling and replacing them because they are to old to use.

      March 20, 2011 at 4:35 am | Report abuse |
    • CrewJobs

      When you and people who think like you agree to work for the same salary you made 15 years ago then maybe we can ask the Raytheon engineers to take a pay cut too and manufacture new Tomahawks at 1996 prices.

      March 26, 2011 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
  13. G.P. Burdell

    Please tell me you aren't as demented and stupid as your post makes you sound. If so, I hope the missile malfunctions and lands on YOUR house. That would at least clean up the gene pool that went so obviously wrong with your family. You should be ashamed for wishing harm upon American soldiers.

    March 19, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Wildcats Baby

    My father is one of only a few directors of the entire Tomahawk missile program here in Tucson. Its appalling to see how many people claim to know what they are talking about. I'll outline a few points:

    1] Raytheon is responsible for the Tomahawks NOT McDonell Douglas, they havne't produced Tomahawks for nearly 20 years and any Tomahawks that Raytheon (General Dynamics/Hughes) would have acquired from them had to be completely retrofitted and recertified to use GPS (The old McDonnell Tomahawks used DSMAC)

    2]You will NOT find a Tomahawk for under $700,000 and those are only for the new block 4 Tomahawks that are relatively brand new/redesigned with data links, gps and use about half as many parts as block 3 tomahawks, which have a cost at just over a million dollars, due to more parts, retrofitting for gps, etc. and with such a large stockpile the newers one likely had not been used at all, and if they had it with literally be only a few for testing/performance purposes


    March 19, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • s

      Where is 3) ?

      March 20, 2011 at 1:33 am | Report abuse |
    • Wildcats Baby

      confidential haha

      March 20, 2011 at 3:21 am | Report abuse |
  15. stew

    fckin great! let the libs have a civil war. the us needs to mind its own buisiness.

    March 19, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Do you mind your own business, Stew?

      March 19, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seidan

      Mind our own business huh? Like in Iraq and Afghanistan? Seriously, idiots like you give conservatives a bad name!

      March 20, 2011 at 4:38 am | Report abuse |
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