With speculation that Western forces are to launch a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria, let’s take a look at the missiles the United Kingdom would be most likely to use.
The Tomahawk missile, also known as TLAM, allows Royal Navy submarines of the Astute and Trafalgar class to strike at targets on land accurately at a range of around 1,000 miles.
The missile is a highly accurate, GPS-enabled weapon that the US and allied militaries have used more than 2,000 times in combat, and flight-tested 500 times say the manufacturer. In April 2017, US Navy destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets on a Syrian air base. In 2014, a US Navy destroyer and a guided missile cruiser launched 47 Tomahawk missiles in a strike on the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria.
It’s important to remember that Tomahawk is a cruise missile, so rather than taking on a ballistic trajectory, it stays close to the ground, steering around terrain features, using a jet engine instead of a rocket engine to fly. It is hoped that by the missile keeping low—because of its small radar signature—the Tomahawk avoids radar-guided defences that can threaten manned aircraft.
The missile has been in use with the Royal Navy since the late 1990s and has been used in the Kosovo conflict and in the campaigns against the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi.
The missile fired from a boat’s torpedo tubes. Once it reaches the surface, a booster rocket ignites to propel the missile skywards. Tomahawk then heads for its target at 550 mph, delivering a 1,000 lb explosive warhead.
The Tomahawk IV is the latest version of the missile operated by the British submarine fleet. It has a longer range than its predecessors and can be directed at a new target in-flight, and can also beam back images of the battlefield.
It is currently planned to be phased out of service in the American Navy with no more weapons to be produced after 2015 meaning that it may no longer be an option for the Royal Navy from around the end of the decade.
The UK last bought 65 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles in July 2014.