More Tomahawks May Fly



The continued problems being encountered in flight tests of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) could lead to resurrection of the air-launched Tomahawk missile. The JASSM -- designated AGM-158 -- was initiated in 1995 following cancellation of the Tri-Service Standoff Attack Missile (TSSAM) because of massive cost increases.

The Lockheed Martin AGM-158 had won out in competition with the McDonnell Douglas AGM-159 design. Procurement of the Lockheed Martin JASSM began in December 2001 with the missile intended for use on the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18 Hornet, and F-35 Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter) as well as on the B-1B, B-2A, and B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers.

Some 600 JASSMs have been produced, but testing continues to indicate poor reliability. During tests launches from December 2006 to April 2007, the Air Force reported a system reliability of only 58 percent. Coupled with increased costs, this reliability factor has led Department of Defense officials to question the efficacy of the program, even at this late date.

The TSSAM cancellation -- and other never-completed air-launched programs, including the Medium-Range Air-to-Surface Missile (MRASM), which was based on the Tomahawk missile -- has led some weapon experts to believe that initiation of a new air-launched attack weapon of this type is beyond the near-term capabilities of the U.S. defense industry.

In this environment, the Air Force and Navy may be required to take another look at the Tomahawk cruise missile as a successor to the JASSM. The Tomahawk has been operational in U.S. surface ships since 1982 and submarines since 1983. Beginning with the Gulf War of 1991, the Tomahawk has a demonstrated a high effectiveness. During the 1991 conflict U.S. submarines launched 12 land-attack variants and U.S. surface ships launched 276. They had a launch success rate with transition to cruise flight of 98 percent, with a higher-than-predicted accuracy.

The General Dynamics Tomahawk was originally developed as a nuclear strike weapon, but all missiles carrying the W80 nuclear warhead have now been retired, as have the anti-ship missiles with conventional 1,000-pound warheads. The submarine-launched (UGM-109) and ship-launched (BGM-109) weapons in the fleet today are Tomahawk Land-Attack Missiles (TLAM). They carry several warheads and have undergone continued updates of engines and guidance. The large number of missiles being procured, which are also used by Britain and will be bought by Spain, have led to additional production by Raytheon and McDonnell Douglas.

Two proposed Tomahawk variants were not deployed, the Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) --named Gryphon -- which was cancelled because of the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, and the AGM-109 air-launched Tomahawk. The latter weapon was flight tested from A-6 Intruder aircraft.

Should the JASSM effort be terminated, a prime candidate for the long-range, air-to-ground missile role will thus be a modification of the latest Tomahawk variants.

-- Norman Polmar

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