A British Tornado fighter plane carrying four
Storm Shadow Cruise Missiles
Cruise missiles are actually a pilotless jet plane that flies to its target and explodes instead of landing. Cruise missiles, like the Tomahawk and Storm Shadow missiles the U.S., U.K. and France fired at Syria recently, have jet engines and are in powered flight from launch to target.
Most modern missiles are rocket powered. They launch, burn their solid or liquid fuel in the first few seconds or minutes of the flight, and then follow a ballistic path to target—they fly where gravity and air resistance says metal darts coasting at thousands of miles per hour through air will go. They are thrust to a speed of one thousand to several thousand miles per hour then coast to their target using a guidance that steers the missile while it coasts through the air at very high speed.
A Cruise missile doesn’t coast through the air, it flies. Really it is a jet plane with a warhead as its only passenger. So instead of blasting to thousands of miles an hour then coasting to target with little nudges of guidance, the Cruise missile flies. Because it flies, it can travel hundreds of miles a hundred feet or less above the ground over varied terrain. If the enemy tries to intercept a cruise missile, it can evade. The best fighter planes can only turn, dive or climb within the limits of the pilot’s brain and body. Somewhere above 5gs, even the most fit pilot will black out. The only limit on evasion by a Cruise missile is physics.
The Storm Shadow and Tomahawk cruise missiles recently fired at Syria are subsonic, traveling 500 mph, or about the same speed as a commercial airliner. But a cruise missile is much harder to hit. Flying close to the ground, following the terrain, makes it a tough target to hit. Most radar systems don't work that close to the ground.
A Tomahawk Cruise Missile fired from a U.S. Navy Destroyer
Cruise missiles are so accurate they can hit a garage door after a 500-mile flight. The latest upgrades to the navigation systems make the targeting so good the 3,500-pound, 20-foot-long missile could probably hit the handle on a garage door.
The Attack on Syria
In the most recent raid, all of the 103 missiles flew to target. The Syrians claimed to have shot down 71 of the missiles. NATO said Syria fired 40 missiles to no effect. The Syrian claim is quite amazing, shooting down 71 missiles with only 40 interceptor missiles. The firing of the missiles was a demonstration of how adaptable these missiles are to different launch sites. The Storm Shadow missiles were fired from French and British fighter planes. The U.S. Navy launched 57 Tomahawk cruise missiles from destroyers, cruisers and a submarine. The Air Force launched another 19 Tomahawks from B1-B Lancer bombers.
Plans are underway for a rocket-assist package for the Tomahawk that would increase its speed to Mach 3, more than 2000 mph. Another innovation would be to use unburnt jet fuel as an explosive on impact. Both innovations would make an already effective weapon even more deadly.