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The Tomahawk and U.S. Cruise Missile Technology

Posted on Fri, August 4 2017
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On the evening of July 6, 2017, staff from the Museum removed the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile from display in our Space Race gallery. The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) will borrow the missile on a 10-year loan for a new gallery that is scheduled to open there later this year.

For the past 30 years, the Tomahawk hung from the ceiling just a few dozen feet from the German V-1 flying bomb, or “buzz bomb,” that saw action in Europe during World War II. The V-1 and the Tomahawk, variants of which are still in service in the Navy, frame an important episode in the history of missile development in the United States. The recent deinstallation of the Tomahawk provides an opportunity to recount some of the highlights of this fascinating story of technological evolution.

Staff on a lift work to lower a missile attached to the ceiling.

Museum staff lower the Tomahawk cruise missile. The V-1 is visible in the background. Image: Mark Avino, Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Staff encircle the missile as it's lowered to the ground.

Staff lower the Tomahawk cruise missile. Image: Mark Avino, Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Our Tomahawk is a prototype vehicle that the Convair Division of the General Dynamics Corporation built and tested on four occasions from 1976 to 1978. Launched from surface ships and submarines, operational missiles flew at 885 kilometers per hour (550 miles per hour) and used sophisticated terrain-hugging radar to cover a range of about 2,414 kilometers (1,500 miles). Capable of carrying conventional explosives or a nuclear warhead, the Tomahawk represented the state-of-the art in pilotless aircraft technology after it entered service in the 1980s.

It had not started out that way when the U.S Army Air Forces brought back downed V-1s from Europe and re-engineered them for use in combat late in World War II. The Army abandoned these plans in favor of using limited resources for other conventional weapons deemed more urgent for the war effort. The Navy, however, studied the V-1 and built a duplicate version called the JB-2 Loon for testing on submarines. From 1945 to 1950, Loon cruise missiles flew off the decks of submarines, but their poor accuracy and unreliability prevented their entrance into the active inventory. The Navy canceled the program and moved on to the more sophisticated Regulus I cruise missile. The first operational nuclear-armed missile capable of being launched from a submarine, the Regulus I entered service in 1954 and remained on alert until replaced by the solid-fuel Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile in the early 1960s. 

Grainy, black and white photo of a missile taking off a submarine.

The U.S. Navy Gato-class submarine USS Tunny (SSG-282) launching a SSM-N-8 Regulus I missile in 1958. Image: U.S. Navy Naval Aviation News, September 1958

Top of a submarine pokes up from the water.

USS George Washington (SSBN-598) made history when it successfully launched two Polaris A1 missiles off Cape Canaveral, Florida. Image: U.S. Navy

With the introduction of the Polaris, cruise missiles disappeared from the Navy in favor of long-range ballistic missiles, only to return in the 1970s with the Tomahawk. Unlike the Loon and the Regulus, which were cumbersome and slow to launch, the advanced radar and turbofan engine technology available in the 1970s made the Tomahawk an especially versatile and effective weapon system. President Ronald Reagan thought so, and he re-activated four World War II-era Iowa-class battleships (the Missouri, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Iowa), and the Navy fitted their already formidable weapons arrays with Tomahawk missile batteries. 

Battleship with guns firing on each side.

USS New Jersey (BB-62) firing its nine caliber guns simultaneously. Image: U.S. Navy

The Air Force followed the same strategy as the Navy in the 1950s, developing cruise missile technology until a series of technological breakthroughs in rocket propulsion and warhead design prompted an abrupt switch to long-range ballistic missiles, such as the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman. Unlike the Navy, however, the Air Force kept a hand in cruise missile technology. Early systems, such as the Matador, Snark, and the ambitious Navaho, lived on in newer operational versions like the Hound Dog, which flew aboard B-52 long-range strategic bombersThen, in the 1970s, the Air Force debuted the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) that bore a close resemblance in performance and capabilities to the Tomahawk. Like the Tomahawk, the ALCM is still in the Air Force inventory today.

While the Tomahawk is on loan to the National Museum of the American Indian, visitors to the National Air and Space Museum can view our rich collection of cruise missiles on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Visitors can see the JB-2 Loon, the Regulus 1, the Matador, and the test and operational versions of the Air Force’s Air Launched Cruise Missile. And do not forget to visit the National Museum of the American Indian to see the Tomahawk when it goes on display.