Cruise Missile Technology
The ‘Tin God’ That Failed Against the
Holy Warriors of Afghanistan


Columnist Col (Retd) EAS BOKHARI looks at the US cruise missile attack and studies its impact, tactical and strategic.

There is nothing awfully new about the Land Attack Cruise Missiles especially the Tomahawk (TLAM) which was used quite often and launched from the US Warships and even submarines in 1991 Gulf War. Anyone who cares to look back and picks up material on the Gulf War -1991 should straightaway find the incidences of the use of the Tomahawk and its so-called mythical accuracy.

The proclaimed accuracy - of the General Dynamics produced missile and the euphoria over its 86 per cent hits never stopped Saddam Hussain from his warlike behaviour - nor finished him politically. The military technology - notwithstanding - its being of state-of-the art stuff - it has its limits.

There is a very considerable interest - and even the uninitiated are talking about the TLAMs which were recently and blatantly launched by US naval forces from the Arabian Sea into Afghanistan to destroy the hide-outs and well protected command post and training sites of Asama bin Laden. Some 60 such Tomahawks were hurled by the US ships - and 2 or 3 of these misguided ones strayed into Pakistan creating much political furore.

This short presentation provides a backgrounder to Cruise Missile (CM) technology.

So far very little effort has been made to carry out a post attack/strike analysis - but it appears and it is abundantly clear that the primary purpose of this costly engagement has not been achieved by USA. I should say here at the very outset that military technology has its severe limitations - and Afghanistan is the case in point any way. Yet another similar case was the abortive helicopter assault by a well rehearsed US team launched at Tehran some years back to affect the release of US captives kept there. Here again the technology failed to work - and Man - prevailed over his brainchild.

Cruise missile is yet another type of missile - which is considerably different from the normal ballistic missile - especially in its trajectory, guidance and mode of propulsion as will be clear from the paragraphs which follow. Not only USA, but some other countries also possess these missiles in their arsenals. The Cruise missile is ballistically crude (it looks like an aircraft) and has a large CRH (Circumference Radius Head) - and a pair of stubby wings. Naturally, such a contraption moves slowly and reaches its target in matters of hours and not minutes as is the case of ballistic missiles. Its speed is less than even of a jet aircraft.

The most significant parameter of the CM is its ability to travel say along the sea waves - skimming them - and then if attacking a land target (for which it is essentially provided to the US Navy), get along with the topographical contours. This makes its radar detection almost impossible if not difficult.

The credentials of Tomahawk are as below:

*    Length.                      20 feet 6 inches.
*    Diameter                    1 foot 8.4 inches.
*    Wing Span.                8 feet 9 inches.
*    Range.                       1000 Miles.
*    Cruise Altitude.          50 to 100 feet.
*    Speed.                       381 - 571 Mph
                                       (Miles per hour)
*    Guidance.                   US Satellite based GPS (Global                                           positioning System)
*    Cost Per Copy.          US$ 1.8 Million-approximately.


From its inception and vicissitudes - the Tomahawk has come a long way. This long - range, computer - guided Cruise Missile (CM) - with conventional warhead is presently being very effectively used by the US Navy aboard the battleship USS Wisconsin in the Persian Gulf. Price tag per copy is $1.35 million. For this price it has to be a pin point weapon. As per John H Cushman Jr writing in the International Herald Tribune - London of 19 January 1990. ... Tomahawk sea launched cruise missile, an unmanned weapon that for a decade has promised to alter the course of future conflicts.

This is a fair description of the system and its performance so far has been appreciated by General Colin L. Powell - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has said Im extremely pleased with the affectiveness of the cruise missile.

Perhaps amongst the first shots fired from the Gulf were the Tomahawk which in flicted major damages with no risk to US personnel. This CM has been able to engage - and that with a precision and causing major damage to concrete buildings. This CM apparently had rocked Baghdad. This missile has also been used effectively against Command and Control shelters/HQ and the hostile missile sites. Even the miserly Senator Sam Nunn - the US Chairman of the Armed Services Committee put its performance this wayBut when you look at the precious savings of lives. I think the dollarsare well invested.

The mundaneAnnual Report To The Congress by the Secretary of Defence - Fiscal Year - 1986 describes the Tomahawk programme thus:The Tomahawk cruise missile programme represents a major effort to improve the fire power of our naval units and to distribute offensive striking power among a large number of ships. This highly capable and versatile weapon can be launched from a variety of surface ships and submarines, and it has the range to reach enemy surface ships and shore targets beyond the horizon ... As is often the case with new weapon programmes, the Tomahawk encountered various problems during initial tests. These are now being corrected allowing us to move to higher production rates... The anti - ship and nuclear land - attack versions of Tomahawk have already entered the fleet, and the conventionally armed land - attack version is undergoing extensive testing prior to its general introduction. ...

Essentially CMs are winged weapons of aircraft-like configuration - and are under development with the super-powers since 1950s. But the current development may be traced to the 1970s - when there was a quantum jump in the development of micro-miniturised electronics and small turbo-fan engines which enabled the technicians to fabricate much smaller missiles.

Some of the subsonic CMs may have flight times of several hours - and when flying to strategic missions - their inertial guidance could multiply the flight error considerably (with elapse of time). This has now been corrected with what they call the Tercom i.e. Terrain Contour Matching - which in fact is a supplementary guidance system which updates the alignment and corrects the inertial system at regular intervals so that no error creeps in the missile flight in any way. The system uses a radar altimetre within the missile to sense the profile of small pre-mapped patches of terrain which lie along its flight path. And then by comparing with geographic data held in its electronic memory - Tercom can deduce the missiles current position.

Again like an aircraft - the CMs while en route to the target can take advantage of the local terrain contours to screen themselves from hostile radars. So a CM is a fairly elusive target for the SAM (Surface to Air Missile). The Allies had some problems about the contour/map cover of Iraq - but then they managed to get it as without that the Tomahawk could not have been launched effectively.

The BGM - 109 Tomahawk Sea Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM) has a number of variants - both nuclear and conventional types. The simplest installation is the armoured box launchers planned for most ships - but Destroyers and missile cruisers are fitted with multipurpose vertical launchers - (with possibly 12 vertical - launch tubes).

The other variant of the missile is the Nuclear Strike Version, BGM - 109A Tactical Land Attack Missile - Nuclear (TLAMN) which carries a W-80 200 KT nuclear warhead.

The CMs which have been used against Iraq - and have virtually smashed the Iraqi air defence system are real state of the art equipment. These CMs are packed with sophisticated electronics and have several different - guidance systems (to obviate failure) and areessentially flying computers capable of sailing through the goalpost on a football field from a range of several hundred kilometres.... They can also perform dizzying acrobatics, as witnessed by US reporters who, before they were ousted from Iraq watched with amazement as a Tomahawk streaked below their hotel windows and made a pair of swooping 90 degrees turns to avoid the Al-Rashid in Downtown Baghdad.

The real secret of precision flying is the two step - guidance system i.e. the radar altimetre (as mentioned before) - and a small digital camera - acting as an electronic eye as the CM approaches the target.

The Tomahawk does not possess much of a ballistic shape - and looks like a rather stubby winged rocket/aircraft perhaps. It is usually launched vertically - but after its initial acceleration - a small - turbo-fan engine (which operates like an airplane) takes over the flight. The versions used against Iraq could go on for some 800 miles or 1,300 kilometres.

The missiles fly relatively high for most of their routes - but then dive close to earth at their fag end. As indicated above they can take indirect and circuitous routes to avoid being shot down. They fly slower at 550 miles an hour which is considerably slower than any jet fighter plane.

Presently several countries have CMs ranging from highly complex ones to relatively rudimentary, like the ones held by China. The Soviets have a rather long-range Cruise Missile arsenal. According to Soviet Military Power - 1990 - the Soviet Union has two nuclear capable long-range cruise missile systems i.e. - the AS-15/Kent ALCM and the SS-N-21/Sampson sea launched cruise missile system (SLCM). The Soviets deploy the AS-15 on their Bear H and Blackjack intercontinental bombers. The 3000 Kilometre stand-off range of the AS-15 ALCM allows their launch outside US or Canadian airspace.

Two new land attack long-range cruise missiles - the AS-X-19 and SS-NX-24 are under development and the first one may reach initial operational capability in the early 1990s. As part of their ongoing development programmes - the Soviets are likely to integrate technologies like enhanced ranges, lower radar cross sections - and conventional munitions into their new cruise missiles.


Further Reading

1. Ballistic Missile Proliferation -

The Politics & Technics - Aaron

Karp - Sipri - Oxford - 1996.

2. The Nation - Lahore of 16 Feb 1991.

3. Gulf War - PMA Kakul Publication

18 Jan 1992.

4. US - Military Posture - Fy 1997,

The Organisation of the Joint Chiefs

of Staff USA.

5. Annual Report to the Congress

February 4, 1985 Fiscal Year 1986

by Casper W Weinberger - Secretary

of Defence.

6. Advanced Technology - Warfare.

7. Daily Jang - Lahore -

Tomahawk Cruise Missile -

EAS Bokhari 30 Aug 98 and 27 Aug 98. (Editorial Page.) l