US Navy to deploy Tomahawk anti-ship missile on Los Angeles- and Virginia-class submarines in 2024

US Navy to deploy Tomahawk anti-ship missile on Los Angeles- and Virginia-class submarines in 2024

By Dario Leone
Dec 7 2023
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Tomahawk anti-ship missile

The US Navy is gearing up to enhance its submarine capabilities with ship-targeting versions of the highly versatile Tomahawk missile, marking a strategic move to bolster military strength in the face of growing challenges from Chinese maritime forces, especially in the vicinity of Taiwan, Alert 5 reports.

According to The Strait Times, as programme manager Captain Jon Hersey said in a statement, the Maritime Strike version of the Tomahawk, the missile traditionally used as a ground-attack weapon, will be fielded after Oct. 1, 2024.

He also pointed out that the latest models will be modified with a new guidance system enabling them to “engage a mobile target at sea.” Hersey added that the US Navy took delivery of the initial version in 2022 for tests before declaring it combat ready.

By means of the revamped Tomahawk version the US aims to fortify its arsenal of ship-attack missiles. These additions are intended to complement submarine-launched torpedoes and act as a countermeasure against China’s numerically superior naval fleet.

In addition to submarines, the US Navy plans to integrate these missiles into its surface vessels. However, the latter faces heightened vulnerability to China’s anti-ship capabilities, both on land and at sea.

A range of up to 1,600 km

The missiles will be deployed on Los Angeles– and Virginia-class submarines, which can carry as many as 12 land-attack Tomahawks, although some modified versions of the Virginia-class will be able to carry as many as 40. With a range of up to 1,600 km, these missiles provide a significant strategic advantage by offering greater standoff distances from Chinese anti-access and area-denial missile systems.

“The long range provides greater stand-off from Chinese anti-access and area-denial missile forces, and this would complicate Chinese planning for a blockade/invasion of Taiwan,” Mr Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow in naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation, as well as a former submariner and head of the navy’s Asia-Pacific advisory group, explained.

More work is needed

Nevertheless, experts pointed out that to refine strategies on how these missiles will be employed to overwhelm Chinese forces effectively more work is needed. The US Navy’s Submarine Forces Commander, Vice-Admiral William Houston, expressed commitment to deploying the Maritime Strike Tomahawk as swiftly as possible. He highlighted that the dynamic nature of procurement, modernization, and fielding schedules involves various factors, including industrial base capacity and shipyard capabilities.

The arming of US submarines with these advanced ship-targeting Tomahawk missiles marks a pivotal development in naval warfare capabilities, shaping the strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific region as geopolitical tensions continue to unfold.

The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile

The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) is a long-range cruise missile used for deep land attack warfare, launched from US Navy surface ships and US Navy and United Kingdom Royal Navy submarines.

The Block III Conventional variant (TLAM-C) contains a 1,000-lb class blast/fragmentary unitary warhead while the Submunition variant (TLAM-D) includes a submunitions dispenser with combined effect bomblets. The Tomahawk Block IV (Tactical Tomahawk, TLAM-E), conventional variant, which entered the Fleet in 2004, adds the capability to reprogram the missile while in-flight via two-way satellite communications to strike any of 15 pre-programmed alternate targets or redirect the missile to any Global Positioning System (GPS) target coordinates.

Loitering over a target area

The Block IV missile is capable of loitering over a target area in order to respond to emerging targets or, with its on-board camera, provide battle damage information to warfighting commanders. Tomahawk Block IV is currently in Full Rate Production (FRP). Block IV’s will require mid-life recertification beginning in FY19, increasing the capabilities and extending service life. During recertification, upgrades to navigation and communication systems will be completed. Plans for a maritime strike capability are in development, this enhancement would be executed concurrently with recertification.

Tomahawk provides on-scene commander with the flexibility to attack long-range fixed targets or support Special Operations Forces with a lethal, responsive, precision weapon system and as such has become the weapon of choice for the U.S. Department of Defense.

More than 2,000 Tomahawks fired in combat operations

Tomahawk cruise missiles are designed to fly at extremely low altitudes at high subsonic speeds, and are piloted over an evasive route by several mission tailored guidance systems. The first operational use was in Operation Desert Storm, 1991, with immense success. Since January 1991, more than 2,000 Tomahawks have been fired in combat operations, including in 2011 during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya and in 2014 during Operation Inherent Resolve in Syria.

US Navy to deploy Tomahawk anti-ship missile on Los Angeles- and Virginia-class submarines in 2024
USS Florida launches a Tomahawk cruise missile

Photo credit: General Dynamics Electric Boat Image and US Navy

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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