Marines Set To Be The First To Bring Back Land-Based Tomahawk Missiles Post-INF Treaty

The U.S. Marine Corps is on track to be the first branch of the U.S. military to re-introduce a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk cruise missile following the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, with Russia last year. Though this weapon is most often associated with strikes against targets on land, the Marines plan to primarily employ them as land-based anti-ship weapons.

U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General David Berger offered details on his service’s anti-ship missile plans while testifying before Congress on Mar. 5, 2020. The Pentagon’s budget proposal for the upcoming 2021 Fiscal Year revealed that the service had requested $125 million to purchase 48 Tomahawks, but details about the exact purpose of the acquisition were kept classified initially, according to official budget documents and a report from Task and Purpose.

“Part of the homework that the Navy and Marine Corps done over the past six months is how we think we are going to need to operate in the future as an integrated naval force and that means the Marine Corps assumes a role that we have not had in the past 20 years which is how do we contribute to sea control and sea denial,” Berger told lawmakers. “The Tomahawk missile is one of the tools that is going to allow us to do that.”

“It could be the answer, it could be the first step towards a longer-term answer five, six, seven years from now, but what we need is long-range precision fires for a small unit, a series of units that can from ship or from shore hold adversaries’ naval force at risk,” he added. In recent years, there has been a significant revival of interest within the Marine Corps, as well as the U.S. Army, in ground-based anti-ship capabilities, especially for use in a distributed warfare environment, such as a major conflict across the wide expanses of the Pacific region. 

A basic breakdown of Navy and Marine Corps Tomahawk acquisition plans from the 2021 Fiscal Year budget proposal compared to the previous two fiscal cycles., DOD
A portion of the Navy’s 2021 Fiscal Year budget proposal covering Marine Corps “artillery weapon system” procurement, which notes “Missile procurement details are held at higher classification.”, US Navy

There are still no details on the exact variant of the Tomahawk that the Marine Corps is looking to buy or what kind of launcher they’re expecting to use to fire it. Commandant Berger’s statement that the specific goal of acquiring the missiles is to be able to “hold adversaries’ naval force at risk” strongly points to the weapons being the Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST). 

This is a subvariant of the new Block V Tactical Tomahawk, or TACTOM, also known as the Block Va. In addition to the general performance and capability improvements found on the Block V missiles, the MST has a new multi-mode targeting system, which includes an imaging infrared sensor, radiofrequency homing, and GPS-assisted guidance, allowing it to navigate to a target area hundreds of miles away and hit moving maritime targets. The missile will also have a two-way data link allowing for course correction and other targeting updates during flight. 

General Dynamics first developed surface ship and submarine-launched anti-ship Tomahawks variants, known as the RGM-109B and UGM-109B, respectively, which used active radar homing seekers, in the 1980s. The U.S. Navy withdrew these missiles from service in 1994 and eventually converted them into Block IV Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) variants. 

Years later, Raytheon, which is the present manufacturer of the Tomahawk series, under contract to the Navy, revived the concept of a Tomahawk that could hit moving targets at sea, which subsequently led to the MST program. “Now, this is potentially game-changing capability for not a lot of cost. It’s a 1,000-mile anti-ship cruise missile. It can be used from practically our entire surface and submarine fleet,” then-Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work had said of the concept in 2015.

In January, Shephard reported that the Navy’s plans to reach initial operational capability with these missiles on its ships this year had been delayed. It’s not clear if that could impact the Marine Corps timeline for fielding its land-based systems in any way.

The Marines will also have to develop a ground-based launcher to employ the missiles. In August 2019, the Pentagon did demonstrate a ground-launched Tomahawk using a launch cell from a Mk 41 Vertical Launch System mounted on a trailer. However, this was clearly a very experimental system for research and development purposes rather than an operational weapon system.

That test occurred very soon after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, came to an end. The INF had prohibited the United States and Russia from developing ground-based cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,420 miles. Before that treaty, which the U.S. government originally signed with the Soviet Union, came into force in 1988, the U.S. Air Force had operated a ground-launched nuclear-tipped land attack version of the Tomahawk known as the BGM-109G Gryphon, which had its own four-round tractor-trailer-mounted launcher. 

One possibility for the Marines could be adapting its M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers in some way to fire MST missiles. However, the two weapons that HIMARS is presently capable of firing, 227mm artillery rockets and Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) quasi-ballistic missiles, are both substantially shorter than Tomahawk.

Separately in his testimony before Congress, Commandant Berger said that the Marines planned to integrate a ground-launched version of the smaller, shorter-range Naval Strike Missile (NSM) anti-ship cruise missile onto a derivative of HIMARS called the Remotely Operated Ground Unit Expeditionary-Fires (ROGUE-F). The present concept for ROGUE-F consists of a HIMARS launcher mounted on an unmanned chassis derived from the 4×4 Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) tactical truck.

The U.S. Navy adopted the NSM in 2018 for its Littoral Combat Ships and also plans to integrate it into a future class of guided-missile frigates, known presently as FFG(X)

Berger’s comments about Marines being able to employ anti-ship Tomahawks “from ship or from shore” does imply that whatever launcher the service might pick, it would want one that it could lash the deck of various classes of amphibious warfare ships or other vessels and then employ from that position. The Marine Corps has already demonstrated its ability to use HIMARS in this fashion.

“A ground-based anti-ship missile capability will provide anti-ship fires from land as part of an integrated naval anti-surface warfare campaign,” Commandant Berger also said in this testimony. “This forward-deployed and survivable capability will enhance the lethality of our naval forces and will help to deny our adversaries the use of key maritime terrain.”

It’s also worth noting that while the MST variant of the Tomahawk is primarily intended for the anti-ship role, the Navy has already said that it will have a secondary land-attack capability. NSM has also demonstrated its ability to strike land targets, in addition to ships.

A briefing slide showing existing and planned future US Navy missiles. Both the Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST)/Tomahawk Block Va and Naval Strike Missile (NSM) are noted as spanning the land attack and anti-surface warfare (ASuW) roles, the latter of which refers to engaging hostile ships., USN

While the Marines may be first to field a ground-launched anti-ship Tomahawk, they may not be the only service to acquire them, either. The U.S. Army is also increasingly interested in land-based anti-ship capabilities and has already expressed an interest in acquiring its own ground-launched NSMs.

No matter what, the return of the ground-launched Tomahawk in the U.S. military, at least in the anti-ship role, is very much on the horizon now.

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