Tomahawk, despite inaccuracy, seen as valuable Sea-launched missile keeps pilots out of harm's way

January 18, 1993|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- The sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, touted by the Navy as a nearly flawless high-tech marvel, may have lost some of its luster last year when defense analysts concluded that only half the 288 missiles launched during the Persian Gulf War hit their intended targets.

Nevertheless, because it keeps pilots out of harm's way, it remains an enormously valuable weapon for some critical missions, such as yesterday's attack on the nuclear-production plant in the suburbs of Baghdad, experts say.

And avoiding the loss of pilots was the primary stated reason for launching the more than 40 Tomahawks at several buildings at the plant. "The main reason is that we wanted to use the missiles because it did not put U.S. personnel in jeopardy," said White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater after the attack.

Navy consultant Norman Polmar said Pentagon officials told him before the launch that President Bush ordered the Tomahawk attack because he "didn't want to present Mr. Clinton with a pile of POWs on his first day in."

A related reason for limiting the attack to Tomahawks was that Mr. Bush, seeking to send a message to the Iraqi population, selected a target near Baghdad, which is much more heavily defended than the no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel that was struck by allied bombers Wednesday.

Hitting heavily defended high-value military targets is the Tomahawk's primary role. Of the 288 missiles fired during Operation Desert Storm, 116 were launched during the first 24 hours, slamming into critical air-defense radar and command and control centers and helping to "blind" Iraqi air defenses for the bombing sorties that followed, said Mr. Polmar.

The Navy has claimed that 85 percent of the missiles were "successful" during the Persian Gulf War. But classified defense analysis leaked last year concluded that they hit their intended target only slightly more than half the time.

The Tomahawk is a 20-foot-long jet-powered drone with a range of up to 1,000 miles and a warhead of just under 1,000 pounds. On its way to its programmed target it hugs the contour of the terrain to make it difficult for radar to detect.

It has a radar altimeter that compares its position with digital map data in its computer and makes altitude corrections at preselected points of its flight path. Also at preselected points its optical system checks the terrain against images of those points in the computer and adjusts accordingly.

But it is by no means foolproof. "It essentially flies around like a pilot reading a map," said a congressional defense staff aide who did not want to be further identified. "It works as long as something strange doesn't happen, like the ground disappears under a cloud. If that happens at a point where you need to make a correction and it doesn't make the correction, it can go off in a totally different direction, like a hundred miles off."

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