The venerable Tomahawk cruise missile, used in conflicts big and small since 1991, took center stage once again in an April 7 strike that rained some five dozen of the weapons upon a Syrian airfield believed to have launched a chemical attack. But its end is in sight, if not exactly imminent.
The U.S. Navy, which currently has some 4,000 Tomahawks, plans to stop buying the venerable weapon in the next few years. Service leaders haven’t fully articulated their plans to replace it, but they have started talking about the need for a “Next Generation Land Attack Weapon” slated to enter service more than a decade hence.
In 2014, then-Navy acquisition chief Sean Stackley (now the Navy’s acting secretary) told the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee that the next-generation weapon could be an upgraded Tomahawk or a different weapon.
“[W]e are moving forward with development of what has been referred to as next-generation land-attack weapon,” Stackley said. “And the key elements of that weapon will be its increased lethality, survivability beyond what Tomahawk brings today.”
More recently, in October, the Navy asked defense firms to provide information about technologies they are working on that could be used in these future weapons.
The Navy said it would use the information “to analyze individual and combinations (Family of Systems (FOS)) of existing weapons, modifications to existing weapons, ongoing demonstration efforts, new weapon designs, and enabling capabilities to determine the most cost effective manner in which to achieve an optimal level of operational capability with an acceptable level of operational risk.”
In the meantime, the Navy plans to upgrade much of its existing stockpile, enabling it, for example, to sink ships. That kind of capability expansion in line with an overall Pentagon drive to make existing weapons more flexible. Last year, Navy officials announced they had quietly modified the SM-6, an interceptor built to shoot down aircraft and missiles, to sink ships.
Both the Tomahawk and SM-6 are built by Massachusetts-based Raytheon, whose shares rose in trading on Friday.
Last year, the Navy asked Congress for $187 million to buy 100 new Tomahawks. Last month, the Trump administration asked lawmakers for $85 million to buy an additional 96 missiles. Budget documents show the Navy has purchased more than 8,000 Tomahawks overall.
Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it would cost the Pentagon about $89 million to replace the 59 Tomahawks that stuck Syria early Friday morning local time.