WASHINGTON -- The allied onslaught against Iraq included the first use in combat of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, an unmanned weapon that for a decade has promised to alter the course of future conflicts.
Among the very first shots fired were Tomahawks fired from Navy ships, more than 100 of these long-range guided missiles by yesterday morning.
The missiles inflicted major damage at little or no risk to U.S. personnel.
The missiles cruise under computer control to targets hundreds of miles away, delivering with great accuracy a warhead powerful enough to demolish a concrete building.
Cruise missiles in more primitive form have been around for decades, ever since the German V-1 buzz bombs rained down on London. But never before have they had the reach and accuracy of the Tomahawk, and the development of even more potent versions is under way.
Ground-launched cruise missiles were scrapped under the 1988 medium-range missile-control treaty with the Soviet Union, but those carried at sea were not affected.
The missiles that struck Iraq were guided in three ways.
* Gyroscopes inside the missile sensed its speed and direction, giving computer instructions to steer the missile on a programmed path from the location of its launcher to its target.
* A radar altimeter scanned the terrain below, comparing hills and valleys to the features on a carefully prepared computer map much as a human navigator would fly through a mountain pass.
* At the end of the flight, optical sensors scanned the target area and compared the scene with a computerized map of the target, fine-tuning the attack.
The missiles fly relatively high for most of the route, diving close to the ground at the end. They can take circuitous routes to avoid being shot down. They fly about 550 miles an hour.
If the results of the first use of the weapon prove acceptable, this week's events will change past assumptions of risk involved in attacking distant targets, altering long-term thinking about major battles.
Several nations possess cruise missiles, ranging from the relatively complex U.S. and Soviet models to the relatively crude Chinese ones.
The Navy has purchased more than 3,000 cruise missiles from its manufacturers, General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas. They cost about $1 million each.
"It costs a lot of money," said Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "But when you look at the precious savings of lives, I think the dollars are well invested."