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Swim, Rocket, Fly and Hunt: Navy's Morphing Missile Gets New Abilities

Raytheon is revolutionizing cruise missile guidance technology

It can swim, turn into a rocket and then into a jet. It can loiter overhead for hours or streak across terrain at more than 550 mph.

The Tomahawk cruise missile is the Transformer of modern weapons, and recent advances are giving it even more amazing features, including the ability to find its own targets with a seeker and a new, multi-mission warhead.

“This is not the Tomahawk of the past,” said Roy Donelson, Raytheon Tomahawk program director. “Today’s Tomahawk Block IV is a mature, highly advanced, intelligent weapon we are modernizing. Tomahawk helps to preserve freedom around the globe and continues to be the nation’s weapon of choice.”

The Tomahawk is a true flying fish. Submarines can fire it from under water. Then a rocket fires, propelling the missile high into the air. Wings pop out and a jet engine takes over, powering the Tomahawk on missions of more than 1,000 miles.

On Feb. 20, Raytheon and the U.S. Navy successfully tested new communications advancements to take on moving targets with a Tomahawk Block IV fired from the USS Sterett guided missile destroyer. The mission included a sea-skim mode: low-altitude flight over water at high subsonic speeds. This was the 70th successful flight test in about seven years.

Other improvements are also under way, including a new, multi-effects warhead. The company is using its own funds to develop a new seeker for the missile. More Tomahawk flight tests are planned for this year.

“The tests are designed to prove Tomahawk can hit a moving target and targets at sea, and that the missile isn’t affected by smoke or other obscurants such as bad weather,” said Jeff Meyer, a Tomahawk business development manager. “We are modernizing Tomahawk to stay ahead of the threat.”

A Tomahawk Block IV arrives at a target carrying a 1,000-pound warhead.

Today’s Tomahawk is network-enabled, allowing controllers anywhere in the world to use almost any sensor to guide it to the target. Equipped with a jam-resistant GPS receiver, a Tomahawk can change targets on the fly and operate in the harshest environments.

“It’s a very flexible weapon. You can launch it and either take out pre-planned targets or you can take out targets of opportunity,” said Chris Sprinkle, a Tomahawk senior program manager.

Tomahawk can also multi-task, sending back pictures and doing reconnaissance—all while carrying a 1,000-pound warhead.

Most of the United States’ major warships carry Tomahawks; they are also aboard the Trafalgar and Astute class of U.K. Royal Navy submarines. Commanders have used it in more than 2,000 combat missions and in almost every campaign the United States has been involved in during the last 20 years.

In 2011, Tomahawk missiles played an instrumental role in Operation Odyssey Dawn, the NATO-led effort against the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. U.S. and British ships fired more than 200 Tomahawks to take out Libyan air defense forces.

Raytheon has delivered more than 3,000 of the latest Tomahawk variant, the Block IV, since its introduction in 2004.

"When the nation needs to make a first strike or go in and cripple the enemy, what do they use time and time again? They use Tomahawk,” Donelson said.

Last Updated: 10/01/2014

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