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Why is the Tomahawk Missile so powerful? Here is our explainer on the subject: The Tomahawk precision-guided cruise missile is one of the ultimate tools of American hard power. In service with the US Military since 1983, these subsonic, low-flying missiles are renowned for their ability to fly low, fly straight, fly long and deliver their payloads with extreme accuracy. Indeed, the most common description of the Tomahawk is that “it can fly 1,000 miles and hit a target the size of a single-car garage.”

Tomahawk Missile, The History and the Blocks

First used in combat in Operation Desert Storm, the Tomahawk was key to the US military’s “shock and awe” campaign prior to the ground invasion, wiping out tons of military infrastructure ahead of time. Since then, the United States has sold the Tomahawk to Britain and notably employed the missile in 2017, when the US fired 59 against Shayrat Air Base in Syria following one of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks against his own citizens.

Development of the Tomahawk has come in five “blocks” or progressive stages. Block I versions consisted of various anti-ship, land attack, and ground-launched subvariants. Most (though not all) had a range of 2,500 kilometers, with many capable of carrying a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead or a conventional payload. Many of this generation have since been decommissioned or destroyed, however, such as the BGM-109G Gryphon, whose system was complete destroyed following the signing and ratification of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Others, such as the TASM (Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile) were removed from all warships in 1994 and later converted to Block IV version of the Tomahawk.

Block II and III editions and their subvariants were improved to target either “hardened” (military infrastructure) or “soft” targets (troops), gain greater precision, and to include electronic and logistical upgrades such as GPS navigation and the ability to loiter while awaiting additional assets. A new turbofan engine on the Block III variant gave the missile 20% more thrust while using 3% less fuel.

The Block IV variant is the most modern version currently in service, capable of loitering in flight for hours and possessing a two-way datalink for receiving and sending updated information. The TLAM-E subvariant can be rerouted in flight to new targets, carries a 1,000-pound unitary warhead and possesses a range of 1,600 kilometers. The Block IV variant is the only variant of the previous four still manufactured, with all older editions being upgraded to Block IV.

The Block V variant, though not yet in service, will include significant navigation and communications upgrades, extended range, and the ability to track and destroy moving enemy ships. Alongside the Tomahawk’s ability to elude radar defenses by flying low, these new Tomahawks will provide the Navy with an important and potentially unparalleled capability to launch massive strike from disaggregated formations—a meaningful capability in increasingly contested areas in the Indo-Pacific. Block V finished testing at the end of 2020 with many recently ordered expected to enter service by 2025. The British Royal Navy will also be upgrading all of its Tomahawks to Block V soon.

Why the Tomahawk Missile Won’t Go Away

The reasoning behind the Tomahawk’s continued popularity after all these years is relatively straightforward: the missile can deliver a large payload with extreme accuracy while flying sufficiently low to avoid air defense detection. Those simple facts, alongside its many upgrades, make this one of the most indispensable elements of American power. Any many nations around the world, even to this day, fear this missile like no other, and have clearly tried to emulate it.

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review