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Tomahawak Cruise Missile Gives Navy New Striking Power

September 20, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The United States is slowly deploying a weapon that offers capabilities so striking - conventional and nuclear - that even the Navy hasn’t quite figured out the ramifications for its war-fighting doctrine.

The weapon is the Tomahawk cruise missile - a small, unmanned missile-jet with short, stubby wings and tail that flies below supersonic speeds. The anti-ship version of the Tomahawk has a range of roughly 250 miles and some of the land-attack versions can fly up to 1,500 miles, making the range of even the giant 16-inch guns on the Navy’s battleships look puny.

Nuclear-capable Tomahawks have been with the fleet, particuarly submarines, since 1984. Deployment of the first conventionally armed land-attack model began in the spring.

Cruise missiles were developed in the late 1970s. Most recently, the weapon attracted public attention with President Reagan’s announcement that the Air Force would continue arming B-52 bombers with cruise missiles and thus exceed the limits of the SALT II arms accord.

As important as that program is to the Air Force - giving new offensive punch to 30-year-old bombers - the Navy’s use of the cruise missile is in many respects more revolutionary.

For the first time, Navy battleships, cruisers and destroyers are joining aircraft carriers and submarines in gaining the ability to strike at targets hundreds of miles away.

With cruise missiles, enemy ships can be engaged ″over the horizon,″ dramatically expanding the capability of U.S. surface ships to protect themselves, convoys and carriers.

More significantly, targets on land ranging from bunkers to missile batteries to parked aircraft can be attacked without jeopardizing the lives of pilots. And nuclear warheads can be sent flying against targets inside the Soviet Union by small surface ships well out to sea.

The Navy calls this ″distributed offense.″ The proliferation of offensive punch to surface ships ″complicates Soviet planning by requiring them to consider every battle group ship a potential threat,″ Rear Adm. Stephen Hostettler, director of the joint cruise missile program, told a Senate panel this spring.

According to Vice Adm. Joseph Metcalf, the deputy chief of naval operations for surface warfare, the implications for American strategy - both in the strategic nuclear sense as well as the conventional, war-fighting sense - are sweeping.

″It’s a revolutionary weapon,″ Metcalf said during a recent interview in his Pentagon office.

″Navies exist for deterrence. And by having Tomahawks spread out through the force ... that becomes an enormous deterrent in the equation.″

The Soviets, he continued, can never know whether the Tomahawk on a particular ship carries a nuclear warhead.

″And that’s what deterrence is all about. War is uncertainty. And the more fog you can put into the uncertainty equation, the better off you are; the more deterrent value you have.″

As for conventional war-fighting tactics: ″In modern warfare, the name of the game is ordnance on target. And that is the essential impact that it’s going to have on the surface Navy; instead of being a Navy with its horizons out to the limits of its guns or surface-to-air missiles, it now becomes an offensive force.″

The problem facing the Navy now, Metcalf acknowledged, is to integrate tactics and capability.

A Tomahawk with a 1,000-pound warhead will not replace the striking power of jets on an aircraft carrier, he explained. But used in conjuction with attack aircraft, they could save lives by destroying defenses and clearing the way for aerial assaults.

″We’re just in the infancy of that kind of tactical thought, of how do you employ it?″ Metcalf said. ″How do you time it relative to the use of strike weapons? What ranges do you use it at? What is the positioning of the Tomahawk launchers relative to the target and relative to the aircraft carrier which is bringing in the main part of the punch?

″Even today, we don’t have a full appreciation for what Tomahawk’s going to do.″

That lack of appreciation is further complicated by arms control proposals. The Soviet Union, at various times, has argued that all sea-launched cruise missiles should be banned or at least kept off surface ships.

The Reagan administration has so far rejected such proposals, citing the difficulty of verifying any such ban. The administration also announced last March the Soviets would soon start deploying the SS-NX-21, their own sea- launched cruise missile, on submarines.

″I would gauge (the Soviet program) as very dangerous and very effective,″ says Metcalf. ″The only thing you can prudently do is assume that their missile systems are pretty good.″

The Soviets, however, do not possess large aircraft carriers with which to augment cruise missiles nor have they shown much flexibility in devising naval tactics, Metcalf concludes.

″We’ve got many more options than the commander of a Soviet task group has. It is a synergism of these weapon systems to get a mission done. It’s a revolution at sea.″