The Tomahawk missile, explained: Everything you need to know about Trump's weapon in Syria


On Thursday, the United States launched a military strike at a Syrian government airbase in response to the government of President Bashar Assad allegedly launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 70 civilians. 

The military strike, which marks the first direct U.S. military action on Assad's regime during Syria's six-year civil war, consisted of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the USS Ross and the USS Porter. 

The Tomahawk was a strategic choice. It is known for its precision and does not require putting American lives on the line. Here's everything we know about it.

1. How big is a Tomahawk cruise missile?

The Tomahawk is a 3,500-pound missile powered by a jet engine that is launched from a ship or submarine. It stands 18 to 20 feet tall — depending on whether it has a booster — and is described as "long and lean."

2. How fast can a Tomahawk fly?

It travels at 550 miles per hour. The missile flies at low levels; CNN reported the Tomahawk flies close to the ground to avoid radar. According to the U.S. Navy, the missile's path is "an evasive route," which means it does not fly in a straight line.

"What's important about the Tomahawks is that they just don't necessarily go from point A to point B in a straight line," retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James "Spider" Marks told CNN. "They will take kind of a circumnavigation route so they can't be shot down."

The U.S. may have been looking to prevent intervention, as the Russian military was reportedly informed of the strike before it took place. 

3. How does the Tomahawk work? 

The missile, which has explosives strapped on, is put in a launch tube and is shot to its target via a built-in rocket engine. Once in the air, the missile opens up its wings that expand to 3.5 feet in length and travels low to the ground. The missile has the capacity to wait around until more orders are given on where to strike.

4. What is the Tomahawk's range?

The Tomahawk can travel anywhere from 800 to 1,500 miles and be launched up to 1,000 miles away. Its impact varies based on how much warhead it is equipped with. The missile can hold up to 1,000 pounds of conventional warhead.

5. What was the damage in Syria?

As for damage in Syria, according to the BBC, the al-Shayrat airbase was "out of service" after the attack and "all jets seem[ed] to be destroyed." Reports from Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airfield was "almost completely destroyed," as over a dozen hangars, a fuel depot and an air defense base were damaged.

6. Does the Tomahawk missile require a pilot?

This missile does not require the use of a pilot — it uses GPS coordinates to find its target. In Thursday's attack, U.S. officials say 58 of 59 Tomahawks, which are known for their precision, were successful, though Russian officials claim 36 missed their targets. According to U.S. defense officials, the one missile suffered GPS failure

7. How much does the Tomahawk cost?

Each Tomahawk missile reportedly costs between $1 million to $1.4 million. Made by Raytheon Co., MarketWatch estimates it will cost at least $70 million — taking into account that the most up-to-date version will be more expensive — to replace the 59 missiles launched from the USS Ross and the USS Porter in the Mediterranean Sea.

Robert S. Price/AP

8. When did the U.S. first use the Tomahawk?

Developed in the late 1970s, the United States first used a Tomahawk in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm during the Persian Gulf War in Iraq. To date, this is the third largest number of Tomahawks used with 288 missiles fired.

9. How often does the U.S. use the missile?

In the 1990s, the U.S. used the missile in Iraq and Bosnia. The Tomahawk was used to strike against Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 after the al-Qaida bombing of the U.S. embassy, during 1998's Operation Desert Fox in Iraq, and in the Iraq invasion in 2003.

In September 2014, the United States fired 47 Tomahawks from the USS Philippine Sea and the USS Arleigh Burke to attack an Islamic group linked to al-Qaida. In October, the United States launched Tomahawk missiles from the Red Sea at three coastal radar sites Yemen in response to missiles fired at the USS Mason by Houthi rebels.

10. How many countries has the U.S. used the Tomahawk on?

The list of nations since 1991, reports Forbes, includes Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Serbia, Montenegro, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria.

11. Which attacks involved the highest number of Tomahawks fired?

The top three attacks, in terms of number of missiles used, have all taken place in Iraq. According to the Independent, the U.S. launched 802 Tomahawks during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The second-highest number was Operation Desert Fox (415 missiles) and the third is the Gulf War (288 missiles). After that is 1999's Operation Allied Force, which used 218 Tomahawks on Serbia and Montenegro.

12. How many Tomahawks does the U.S. government have?

The government has more than 3,500 around the world ready to go, according to the Independent.

As for what's next, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday night that the strike has not "changed our policy or posture on Syria in any way." An undisclosed U.S. defense official echoed similar sentiments to Reuters, saying the military assaults in the Homs province was "one-off" and there are no plans for more strikes.