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The Tomahawk is an intermediate-range, subsonic cruise missile that is launched from U.S. Navy ships and submarines. It provides a long-range, deep strike capability. The Tomahawk can carry either conventional or nuclear payloads, though policy decisions have phased out their nuclear role.1

Tomahawk at a Glance

Originated From
United States
Possessed By
United States, United Kingdom
Alternate Names
TLAM-N, TLAM-A, RGM/UGM-109A, RGM/UGM-109B, RGM/UGM-109C, RGM/UGM-109D, RGM/UGM-109E, TASM, TLAM-C, TLAM-D, TLAM-E, TLAM/C, TLAM/D, Tactical Tomahawk, BGM-109G Gryphon, Griffin
Subsonic, Intermediate Range Cruise Missile
5.55 m without booster; 6.25 m with booster
0.52 m
Launch Weight
1,315 kg (without booster)
454 kg
HE/fragmentation unitary, various submunitions
1,250–2,500 km
In Service

Tomahawk Development

The U.S. Navy began its development of sea-launched cruise missiles in 1972.2 The Tomahawk was designed to fly at subsonic speed while maintaining a low altitude, making it difficult to detect on radar. It uses tailored guidance systems to maneuver while at such low elevations.

In 2016, the Navy requested $434 million to start modifying 245 TLAMS for anti-ship missions, making them capable of hitting enemy ships up to 1,000 nautical miles away within the next decade. This plan would call for modifications to missiles currently on Ticonderoga guided missile cruisers, Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, the Navy’s attack submarine fleet (SSNs), and the four Ohio-class guided nuclear missile submarines (SSGNs). This program, if funded, will continue the Navy’s life extension program for Tomahawk missiles.3

Tomahawks can be launched from over 140 U.S. Navy ships and submarines, including four converted Ohio-class submarines, as well Astute, Swiftsure, and Trafalgar-class submarines of the Royal Navy.4


Since its creation, numerous variants of the Tomahawk have been produced. The Block I versions included the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear (TLAM-N, TLAM-A, RGM/UGM-109A) and the Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM, RGM/UGM-109B). Block II variants include the TLAM-C (RGM/UGM-109C), designed to attack hardened targets, and the TLAM-D (RGM/UGM-109D) designed to attack ‘soft’ targets such as aircraft and troop concentrations. Block III updates included new electronics allowing for coordinated attacks. Block IV missiles, the most modern version, are capable of loitering in flight for hours and possess a two-way datalink designed for receiving updated mission information of course corrections.5

Block I

There were three original Tomahawk designs, the nuclear-tipped TLAM-N, the ground-launched Gryphon, and the conventional TASM.

Above: Mark 41 Vertical Launching System


The TLAM-N missile is capable of carrying a W80 200 kT nuclear warhead 2,500 km. The missile is guided by a combination of inertial navigation and TERCOM. The TLAM-N is estimated to have an accuracy of 80 m CEP. The U.S. Navy originally planned to buy 758 TLAM-N missiles, but only 367 were produced. By 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced that TLAM-N missiles would be placed in storage. Almost twenty years later, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review moved to eliminate the TLAM-N.6

BGM-109G Gryphon

The BMG-109 Gryphon or Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) was a road-mobile, ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk that carried a nuclear payload. Development began in the early 1970s and it became operational in 1984.7

The GLCM had a range of 2,500 km and could reach speeds of approximately 800 kph. The missile was 6.4 m in length, 0.52 m in body diameter, and 1,470 kg in launch weight. The Gryphon carried a single W-84 10 to 50 kT nuclear warhead. The missile utilized inertial navigation and TERCOM. The United States deployed 322 missiles aboard 95 TEL vehicles. However, after the INF Treaty was signed and ratified, the system was completely destroyed by 1991 in accordance with the treaty provisions.8


The TASM was the first version of the anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk, equipped with an active radar seeker, rather than TERCOM. TASM, along with other Tomahawk conventional variants, carried a 454 kg conventional warhead. Its range was shorter than other variants at 460 km.9The TASM was known for its agility, capable of various flight patterns. It could fly to a high altitude, up to 450 m, or low altitude trajectories, including a ‘sea-skimming’ route or a pop-up high-angle dive in the terminal phase. In 1994, all TASM missiles were removed from warships and later converted to Block IV versions.10

Block II

In late 1970s, the U.S. Navy sought a precision land attack cruise missile capable of a much smaller CEP. Two Block II versions were produced; the TLAM-C and the TLAM-D.


The primary role of the TLAM-C was to destroy or inhibit large hardened targets. The TLAM-C carried a 454 kg conventional warhead capable of targeting naval bases and airfields. The TLAM-C was used extensively in Operation Desert Storm. Official numbers indicate that over 300 Block II variants were fired, including 27 TLAM-D missiles during Gulf War. These missiles achieved an 85 percent success rate.11

The Block 2 version of this missile has a range of 1,300 km when ship-launched and 925 km when submarine-launched. Its accuracy was dramatically improved to less than 10 m CEP.12


The TLAM-D has the same guidance and accuracy as the TLAM-C, but it is designed to strike softer targets such as aircraft and air defenses. The TLAM-D was originally equipped with a Combined Effects Bomblets (CEB) submunitions warhead that consisted of 166 small armor piercing, fragmentation, and incendiary devices. The payload could be released against three targets in succession. However, the CEB warhead is no longer used and has been replaced with a fragmentation unitary warhead. The TLAM-D has three terminal flight trajectories. It can fly vertically or horizontally into a target or it can detonate directly over a target.13

Block III

Block III upgrades included a combination of mechanical and technological improvements. These included adding a GPS navigation system, which reduced the time required for mission planning from 80 hours to one hour. The Block III TLAM-C and D were the first to incorporate a GPS unit.14 It also added the ability of a missile to loiter over a target while waiting for other assets to arrive. The installation of a new turbofan also uses three percent less fuel while producing 20% more thrust.15

Block IV

The Block IV TLAM-E is the newest upgrade to the Tomahawk series. The missile can be rerouted in-flight to either preplanned or new targets. Furthermore, the missile has a faster launch timeline and a loiter capability that, along with its electro-optic sensor, allows it to provide real-time damage assessment of previous strikes. The Block IV TLAM-E has a range of 900 nautical miles or 1,600 km. it carries a 1,000 lb. unitary warhead.16 The Block IV is the only Tomahawk variant that is still manufactured. Remaining Tomahawk missiles of other variations will be converted to the Block IV capability.17

Service History

The Tomahawk was first deployed in combat in the 1991 Gulf War in Operation Desert Storm, with the first salvo launched from the USS Paul F. Foster (DD 964) at Iraqi targets.18 Overall, the mission achieved initial success.

However, before GPS guidance was implemented, the Tomahawk faced serious navigation issues in 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. Due to the indistinct desert terrain in region, the missile’s TERCOM system was not adequate to guide the missile to its targets in Iraq.19 Approximately ten Tomahawks drifted off course and crashed (”clobbered”) into the ground in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran in the initial phase of Iraqi Freedom.20

Despite these initial shortcomings, later variants of the missile would incorporate TERCOM, GPS, and DMAC, working in concert to improve the missile’s accuracy and mitigate the risk of clobbering. The Tomahawk was the first small, low-flying cruise missile to achieve this precision targeting while remaining undetected by enemy radar, and it proved an instrumental part of U.S. success in Iraq.21 The missile was subsequently and widely used in numerous conflicts. For example, over 800 Tomahawks were launched in the 2003 Iraq invasion, and it also achieved combat success in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria.22 On April 6, 2018, the United States fired dozens of Tomahawk missiles in response to a Syrian military chemical attack on the rebel-held city of Khan Sheikhoun. The navy destroyers USS Porter (DDG-78) and USS Ross (DDG-71) launched a total of 59 Tomahawks against Shayrat Air Base to destroy the Syrian forces that allegedly carried out the attack.23


    1. “Tomahawk Cruise Missile,” United States Navy Fact File, August 14, 2014,
    2. “Tomahawk Cruise Missile,” United States Navy Fact File, August 14, 2014,
    3. Sam LaGrone, “West: U.S. Navy Anti-Ship Tomahawk Set for Surface Ships, Subs Starting in 2021,” USNI News, February 18, 2016,
    4. “Tomahawk Long-Range Cruise Missile,” Naval Technology,
    5. “RGM/UGM-109 Tomahawk,” in IHS Jane’s Weapons: Strategic 2015-2016, ed. James C. O’Halloran (United Kingdom: IHS, 2015), 219-223.
    6. Ibid.
    7. Ibid.
    8. “General Dynamics/McDonnell Douglas BGM-109G Gryphon” National Museum of the Air Force, April 26, 2011.
    9. “RGM/UGM-109 Tomahawk,” in IHS Jane’s Weapons: Strategic 2015-2016, ed. James C. O’Halloran (United Kingdom: IHS, 2015), 219-223.
    10. Ibid.
    11. Ibid.
    12. Ibid.
    13. Ibid.
    14. Missile Defense Project, “Tomahawk,” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 19, 2016, last modified June 15, 2018,
    15. Ibid.
    16. “Tomahawk Cruise Missile,” United States Navy Fact File, August 14, 2014,
    17. Fuller, Malcolm. “Tomahawk/RGM/UGM-109B/C/D/E” Jane’s Weapons: Naval. December 17, 2012.
    18. Department of the Navy, Naval Vessel Historical Evaluation – Paul F. Foster Final Determination (Washington, DC: 2013),
    19. “The Tomahawk Missile’s First Mission Was Over…Iran?,” War on the Rocks, April 6, 2015,
    20. Jeffrey Lewis, ”Why the Navy Should Retire TLAM-N,” Arms Control Wonk (blog), December 13, 2009,
    21. “What is a Tomahawk Missile?”, April 7, 2017,
    22. “What is a Tomahawk Missile?”, April 7, 2017,
    23. NBC News, “U.S. Launches Missiles at Syrian Base Over Chemical Weapons Attack,” NBC News, April 7, 2017,
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Missile Defense Project, "Tomahawk," Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 19, 2016, last modified April 23, 2024,