A Tomahawk fired from a California island. Photo: USNI News

The US Marine Corps is moving closer to acquiring land-based Tomahawk missiles for use as a powerful anti-ship missile against large surface combatants.

Last month, the US Navy awarded a $217 million contract to Raytheon Missiles and Defense for 154 Tomahawk Block V cruise missiles, with 70 missiles allotted to the navy, 54 to the marines and 30 to the US Army.

The acquisition of land-based TLAM missiles is part of the USMC’s Long-Range Fires program, which aims to provide and sustain fully integrated ground-based long-range anti-ship and land-attack weapon systems to increase the lethality of the force.

Other components of the program include the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher system (MLRS) and fire direction & naval fires command and control. Also, as the TLAM is based on a common system used by the US Army and US Navy, this simplifies integration and logistics.

This capability reflects the USMC’s dispersed operations doctrine, which employs small, dispersed land and sea detachments to threaten the ability of adversary forces to concentrate from within their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) umbrella. Expeditionary bases may be used to position USMC TLAM batteries, which would then be integrated with USN surface combatant sensors and weapons systems.

Land-based launchers provide better, more hardened assets than ship-based systems, increased effectiveness through greater available firepower and less cost as a deployed When fielded in a sovereign country’s territory they make a pre-emptive strike against them a significant escalation. They could also complement naval and air power by providing a near-constant presence in contested areas and providing operational and tactical cover for freedom of maneuver.

In addition, their survivability can be increased by disaggregating the sensor from the shooter. Drones, aircraft, and even special forces teams stationed on remote islands and features can designate targets for dispersed land-based launchers.

In the South China Sea, US land-based TLAM launchers can provide a counter to China’s A2/AD capabilities by outranging the latter’s land-based anti-ship missile launchers. China has deployed its YJ-62 subsonic anti-ship missile on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. This missile can hit any naval vessel out to 400 kilometers, giving China a potent power projection capability in the area without having to use its navy.

Another such system that China has deployed in the South China Sea is the YJ-12B supersonic anti-ship missile, which is reportedly based on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Like the YJ-62, it has a 400-kilometer range, which outclasses the 124-kilometer range of the US Harpoon missile, a long-serving workhorse weapon of US warships that also comes in land-based variants.

These new Chinese missiles mark a significant upgrade in anti-ship missile and A2/AD capabilities, as they are a significant step up from Cold War weapons limited to ranges of 100 kilometers or less.

They also outrange the engagement ranges of the US ship-mounted Aegis system and the SM-2 missiles protecting US carrier battlegroups, making it imperative for the US to develop and deploy capabilities that can nullify China’s advantage in shore-based anti-ship missiles.

However, US allies in the Pacific may be reluctant to provoke China by offering the US permanent bases for its land-based TLAM batteries, due to their efforts to establish closer ties with China, as well as their fear of becoming targets themselves.

Arguably, finding an ally willing to host US land-based missiles is a bigger challenge than finding allies willing to host other types of presence, such as air and naval bases. Reasons:

  • Allies such as Thailand and the Philippines are reluctant because their political elites are trying to establish stronger political and economic relations with China.
  • South Korea is relatively vulnerable to pressure from China, as it needs the latter’s influence at the negotiating table with North Korea.
  • Australia’s distance from the South China Sea and reluctance to host foreign bases make it an unlikely location for US land-based TLAM batteries.
  • While seen as the most viable partner for such a purpose, Japan is hesitant to host a larger US presence and is reluctant to deploy weapons that are offensive in nature.

Hence, a US strategy that relies on the permanent basing of land-based TLAM batteries in its allied territory may fail due to a lack of a willing partner.

However, the US may opt to consider other options to deploy long-range land-based cruise missiles in the Pacific. These options include co-development or sales of such systems to its allies, rapid deployment of these systems during crisis situations, peacetime rotational deployment – and permanent basing on Guam.

The marines and army will be firing their missiles from land-based trailers, while the navy will be firing from Mark 41 vertical launch system (VLS) cells. Deliveries are expected to be completed by 2025.

The tactical-land attack missile (TLAM) Tomahawk Block V is a precision weapon that can hit targets more than 1,600 kilometers away. It is armed with a half-ton multi-effects high-explosive warhead that is effective against land targets, ships, and underground structures.

The missile features a two-way satellite data link that allows it to switch targets in flight, loiter for hours and change course instantly on command. It is equipped with a multi-mode seeker to strike moving targets at sea.

The USMC is also developing and testing a land-based launcher for its future land-based tactical land-attack missiles. While the service has not released any photos of their trailer launcher, the US Department of Defense has released a photo of a possible MK 31 VLS trailer prototype.

From the photo, it can be deduced that each TLAM trailer will carry four missiles. Also, the USMC will most likely deploy the logistics vehicle system replacement (LVSR) tractor as the prime mover for its TLAM missiles.