On the Weapons
Terry H. Schwadron
The U.S. decision to send 50 Tomahawk sea-launched missiles into the Syrian air base used to deliver chemical weapons has set off a bigger discussion about the strategy. Lost a bit is any question about the weapon itself, who makes it, how much they cost and the like.
So, to answer your curiosity, here’s what you want to know but did not ask.
Our military has been depending on Tomahawk cruise missiles for 35 years, though the missile has gone through many iterations to make is “smart” enough to be able to hit precision targets, to avoid much “collateral” damage (usually meaning people), and to hover for hours before striking in needed.
Behind the missile is sophisticated computer programming that allows operators to look at a variety of layered plans and attack options to allow for selection of objectives that are at the right level for the intent.
The Tomahawk is a valuable weapon: Replacement costs have risen over the years from $500,000 each to $1.5 million. Times 59.
Launching 59 at once last week prompted the stock for manufacturer Raytheon to opened 2.5 percent higher this week, adding more than $1 billion to the defense contractor’s market capitalization. Incidentally, shares for competitors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics each rose about 1 percent, even in a falling market. Technology from several defense companies likely factored into the Syrian airstrikes on Syria. Lockheed Martin, for example, makes the Tactical Tomahawk Weapons Control System, a trajectory-planning system needed to launch the missile. General Dynamics also makes technology used to fire Tomahawk missiles.
Raytheon tells us that the Tomahawk can be launched from a ship or submarine and can fly into heavily defended airspace more than 1,000 miles away through all kinds of weather to conduct precise strikes, keeping sailors out of harm’s way. Clearly the trend over decades now is for more warfare to be launched from afar, with deployment of fewer troops on the ground meeting enemy troops. Still, there are limits to what airborne weapons can achieve.
Now after 2000 missions, the current version of the Tomahawk includes a two-way satellite data-link that enables the missile to be retargeted in flight to preprogrammed, alternate targets. Raytheon has to meet Navy standards for communications, warheads, and cost.
One thing that is difficult to learn immediately is whether Tomahawks, for all their complexities, are totally American-built. Raytheon’s materials all highlight preferred supplier lists and global supply routes and about quality control of supplies, but they never really speak directly to whether all the mechanical ingredients for a million-dollar weapon are U.S.-produced.
Certainly, missile assembly — Raytheon makes many kinds of missiles — is done within the United States at several plants across the country, and Raytheon makes much more of the fact that its missiles are sold to other countries. Indeed, more than 70 nations have some form of similar missiles.
But just as your car these days is assembled in the United States, parts may come from elsewhere. Obviously, the missiles work, no one is questioning that, but with all the American First talk, one does wonder whether that applies to cruise missiles.
The missiles are 18–20 feet long, weighs 2,900 pounds, fly at 550 miles per hour for up to 1,500 miles and can carry up to 1,000 pounds of warhead. They fly low to the ground and can take a circuitous route to their destination. Over the years, government planners have ruled out their use for delivery of nuclear weapons.
While we’re at it, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) known as the Mother of All Bombs) was the large-yield conventional bomb used on ISIS caves in Afghanistan this week is made by the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in McAlester, Oklahoma. It was developed in the early 2000s as an airborne weapon meant for protected underground facilities like the caves. It weighs 20,000 pounds, and each costs $16 million. When it was developed, the military said they would not use it in populated areas for fear of civilian losses.
By contrast, what is just ahead are laser weapons, for less than $1 a shot. The U.S. Navy said the Laser Weapon System, or LaWS is now an operational weapons system, cleared to be fired in combat. The laser system is designed to target unmanned aerial vehicles, slow moving helicopters, and fast patrol craft in a fraction of a second. The Navy says that, per the Geneva Convention the laser will not be used to target individual humans, though detonating explosive devices, fuel, or causing catastrophic damage to a vehicle could have lethal consequences for the crew. The system appears to be aimed by a shipboard operator using a modified video game controller.
So, there you have it. We have weapons, from the sea, the air, and a laser. Still, there are rules. You can have big bombs, but not gas. You can carpet bomb, but it’s supposed to be precise enough to know combatants from civilians. You can kill and stand far enough away not to be killed yourself.
Skipped in all this is that you have to know where to aim — or whether you need a weapon at all.