Tomahawk Cruise Missiles

I was just reading on about the Tomahawk missiles that US fired into Syria. They mentioned this is the US “go-to” missiles for this type of strike and these were the same type of missiles they used in the 1991 Gulf War.

Given the massive technological changes since 1991, I find it odd that these would be the “exact” same missile type. I assume there have been significant tech upgrades since them.

Question: Are these the exact same technologically as their 1991 version? If not, what have the upgrades been (besides “new firmware update v4.013”:D).

Wikipedia has a fairly long list of upgrades done to the Tomahawk.

They’re not the same. They’ve been continuously upgraded and tweaked. Very different now than 1991. Some versions are almost more like drones than missiles.

Thank you. Never thought to check wiki.
Great info - curiosity satisfied.

A little off topic, but I had to laugh when I read that the Syrians claimed to have intercepted 13 of the missiles. Those things are very hard to shoot down.

Are they? The Tomahawk is a subsonic, non-stealthy missile. They generally fly in at low altitude in order to try to get under enemy radar and give a shorter window of time in which to engage them. But I don’t see any reason why a missile or gun in the right place would have any trouble. I’ve seen past footage of Tomahawks flying into Iraq during broad daylight at altitude so low that an individual with a machine gun might be able to get off a lucky shot.

According to Wikipedia some of the targets were hit with the air-launched AGM-158 which is indeed stealthy.

The fact that they fly low makes it much less likely that a missile or gun will* be* in the right place.

Also, shooting down missiles is simply a very hard thing to do.

Do they transmit their position back to “HQ” while en route? I would assume so, as its important to know whether they reached the intended target.

I started working at Edwards AFB doing data entry and making reports in support of the AGM-109 Tomahawk and AGM-86 ALCM test programs.

I presume that any of the older Tomahawks which are still around are kept for less demanding targets or sent in greater numbers.

In the 70s and 80s, in areas that afford lots of terrain masking opportunities, like Europe, or against an overwhelmed opponent unprepared for them, like Iraq, absolutely.

I understand that the terrain in Syria is usually quite flat. I don’t know what kind of tech the Russians are helping the Syrian government with but if they’re helping with airborne radars with lookdown capability (or even this Beriev A-50 - Wikipedia) and have point-defense systems like this: Pantsir missile system - Wikipedia they might well have shot them down.

Still, they could be lying and even if it’s true, we’d need to know how many cruise missiles hit their targets for those 13 that got intercepted.

Concur. Although the BGM-109 ‘Tomahawk’ missile as received numerous upgrades and capability expansions since its introduction almost forty years ago, it uses essentially the same airframe and engine. Aside from its small size, the primary defense (and innovation) against interception was the use of Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM), allowing it to fly in a nap-of-the-earth (NOE) trajectory, only a few tens of meters above the surface and following convoluted terrain through mountains and valleys. This was a great strategy in Central and Eastern Europe, where it was designed to be used, with its mountainous geography, but not so great in the Middle East, much of which is pretty flat. Syria does have a coastal range and some mountainous highlands near Lebannon, but there are obvious passes and placing anti-aircraft and CIWS-type point defense weapons could potentially intercept the subsonic, not-particularly-stealthy subsonic cruise missile at short range, especially of the Syrian Air Force has aircraft with integrated “Look Down/Shoot Down” capability that can integrate with ground defense forces.

And while I’m not familiar with the current state of the Syrian military, they have traditionally been one of the largest customers of the Soviet Union and Russia for weapons sales, particularly aircraft, radar detection systems, and surface-to-air (SAM) missiles, at one point around the time of the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War deploying the largest interlocking SAM defenses using the SA-2 ‘Guideline’ and SA-6 ‘Gainful’ every deplowed outside the Warsaw Pact nations. It is not implausible that Russia has supplied Syria (with which it has maintained a cozy relationship and backed the Assad regime against near-universal international condemnation) with modern air defense systems capabile to shoot down the Tomahawk cruise missile.


Take it for what it’s worth: "The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights managed to monitor interception by the regime forces to tens of missiles which targeted their positions and military bases in the Syrian territory, where several intersected sources confirmed to the Syrian Observatory, that the number of missiles that were downed, exceeded 65 missiles … "

Although the Syrians also officially said 110 missiles were fired. The Russians say 71 were shot down.

It’s certainly possible for AD systems to shoot down Tomahawks, which rather resemble in size and speed the easier subsonic target drones AD forces tend to exercise against, those that frequently do.*

However the airborne component of that technology is almost surely not relevant in this case. Even if the Syrians have some flyable fighters with look down/shoot down radar/missile combinations it’s not enough to have sufficient (or probably any actually) standing patrols, and very unlikely to be enough warning to scramble in time to shoot down missiles.

For long range SAM systems, the problem is that even in ‘flat’ terrain the earth is round so the range against targets at terrain level is quite limited. A few highly capable long range SAM batteries can’t effectively protect a large area v low altitude attackers.

The by far most plausible claim would be that SAM (or SAM/gun) systems at particular targets downed missiles attacking those particular targets.

This run down of missiles and targets gives no less than 76 missiles (53 Tomahawk and 19 stealthy JASSM’s from B-1’s) against the principal target complex. That makes it plausible AD assets could be concentrated there (the Syrians must have also viewed as it important, presumably) and shot down missiles, but if the timing programs of the missiles work and they all arrive around the same time it’s very hard in practice to react fast enough to shoot down many let alone most or all of them. Again even in ‘flat terrain’ besides and even the horizon limitation there will be some clutter near the ground, they won’t be detected that far away, even the Tomahawks let alone the JASSM’s.

The rest of the strikes per that site and similar less detailing info by CNN is 22 missiles v another single target, out of a total of 66 Tomahawk, 19 JASSM (from B-1’s), 8 Storm Shadow (RAF Tornado’s) and 12 SCALP (French ship and a/c) launched.

The US DoD says all missiles landed before any of the 40 SAM’s launched by the Syrians were fired. I find this credible, as separate from the possibility of downing some Tomahawks or even the other stealthier missiles used, which certainly exists in general.

*although the drones sometimes use signature enhancers to look bigger radar and/or IR wise. Anyway a real issue is the tendency to exercise against non-stealthy subsonic targets because it’s easier and cheaper, though the threat can include supersonic (for example Russian/Chinese antiship) missiles or stealthy subsonic cruise missiles. US/Western AD systems are tested against supersonic targets, but it’s less common for rank and file AD forces to exercise frequently against the more difficult targets they might face, whether speed or signature.

For me, what’s interesting is that post Cold War I, the Russians seem to have concentrated their efforts in greater part on defensive strategies while the US has gone for mostly offensive strategies. YMMV. In other news President Trump reportedly received a letter at the White House yesterday:

Dearest Donald,
Attacking Russia may not be the smartest thing to do,
signed, Adolf and Monsieur Bonaparte

The Militaries, undoubtedly for political as well as tech/logistic reasons used a package of Tomahawks and SCALP/Storm Shadows.

  1. Any idea on other missiles or armaments (not electronic support/suppression platforms, etc–things that go boom)?

  2. The overall commanders–“US-led?”–how near-real-time was the missile data made available to them? Ie, how incompatible are they?

  3. Despite my own first sentence here, don’t the Brits and French have Tomahawks as well?

For air defense missile systems is likely in a pretty horrible state. Israel hasn’t been kind to them. Mostly that’s in order to focus on Hezbollah and IRGC supporting Syria but that means dealing with the air defense forces that provide their protection. The Israeli air force has conducted “thousands of missions” (cite) over Syria in 2017 alone and more than 100 strikes during the civil war. (cite)

The response to the IDF F-16 that was shot down in February was pretty big, too. From that first cite:

Even if you throw in a hefty dose of skepticism about both Israeli motivation to be accurate and BDA accuracy, it’s significant. That air defense network has been regularly dealing with Israeli missions. The pace of IAF operations has been ramping up lately. That’s a good hint that the remaining capacity is severely degraded. Six years of the IAF suppressing an air defense network is “gonna leave a mark.”


I cant say for certain if the package exists, but there is a possibility that some of them had anti-radiation homing seekers. Marine Corp Prowlers were in the strike for jamming and wild weasel duties, some of those missiles would have been decoys and pen aids. So I can’t discount that some were shot down, and some may have been intentionally sacrificed taking out targets of opportunity. The Russians were supposed to have an Awac’s in the are to complement the 400’s, either the T-hawks are that much better or the Russians withheld info from the syrians.

The problem with fighting Russia seems to be invading deep into their own soil. Get them to invade something else is where all their problems lie. Reading articles about Russian military performance in the Ukraine and Syria makes it seem like they lack the logistics required for serious long-term operations.

  1. None mentioned that I saw on sites of any reliability besides Tomahawk, JASSM, Storm Shadow/SCALP.
  2. I’m not sure how this could be quantified with open source info but in general there are NATO standard systems and protocols for just this purpose. It’s
    not the situation that would be faced by forces suddenly on the same side in an operation, say if the US and Russia found themselves in that situation.
  3. The British do, submarine launched version which has been used in action in past coalition strikes. The French don’t, the Missile de Croisière Naval version of SCALP is their equivalent.

On questions about US/coalition ECM (or cyber, used by the Israeli’s against the Syrian AD network apparently in past operations) support who knows and we wouldn’t necessarily expect to find out. But again given likely real Syrian stand alone capabilities, not the theoretical performance of advanced Russian AD systems they have received, or even the real performance of Russian AD units, IMO it seems entirely plausible you could simply launch 105 missiles suddenly (in a tactical sense, even if everyone knew the strike was coming eventually) in a ‘time on target’ way so they all arrive almost simultaneously against the real Syrian AD network and none of them be intercepted, even non-stealthy ones. Also if you look at a terrain map it’s not particularly flat around the biggest target, it’s hilly. It’s altogether plausible IMO none were shot down, nor do I see a reason to positively claim all the Syrian SAM’s were launched after the cruise missiles hit if a few were or might have been shot down, and it’s not very plausible 71 were shot down.

Whether there was anything really at these sites besides empty buildings, that kind of question is always there in these strikes.