The Complex

Cruise Missiles: Everyone's Building Them

It's bad enough that the United States is losing its monopoly on drones, stealth technology, and advanced electronic warfare gear. But what makes matters worse is that America is also beginning to losing its edge on a particularly deadly and effective weapon, according to a new U.S. Air Force report: long-range "land attack" cruise missiles.

Modern cruise missiles are basically jet-powered drones capable of hiding from enemy radar by flying along the nap of the Earth or even taking circuitous routes to evade enemy air defenses before exploding when they reach their targets.

The Tomahawk is America's land-attack cruise missile, or LACM. For the last 30 years, it has been one of the U.S. military's most effective weapons in kicking down the air defenses of its enemies. The latest version of the Tomahawk uses GPS, video cameras, and satellite communications -- allowing commanders to reroute the missile in flight. This lets the Tomahawk hunt down a target whose exact location isn't known when the missile is launched. The U.S. Navy is even working on fielding small drones than can work with Tomahawks in hunter-killer teams.

However, the success of the Tomahawk -- thousands of which have been launched in anger -- at taking out targets has made the world jealous.

"The success of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles has heightened interest in cruise missile acquisition in many countries," states the document. "At least nine foreign countries will be involved in LACM production over the next decade, and several LACM producers will make their missiles available for export."

Until the last 15 years or so, only the United States, Russia, Britain, and a handful of others possessed such weapons. Now, a host of nations around the globe -- including France, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Sweden, Spain, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan, and Iran -- are developing a new generation of stealth cruise missiles. If they work as planned, they'll be able to penetrate the latest air defenses -- defenses that can stop a Tomahawk. And that means trouble for the United States, the Air Force warns.

"U.S. defense systems could be severely stressed by low-flying stealthy cruise missiles that can simultaneously attack a target from several directions," reads the document.

"Newer missiles are incorporating stealth features to make them even less visible to radars and infrared detectors. Modern cruise missiles can also be programmed to approach and attack a target in the most efficient manner. For example, multiple missiles can attack a target simultaneously from different directions, overwhelming air defenses at their weakest points," the report adds. "Some developmental systems may incorporate chaff or decoys as an added layer of protection."

As that last sentence points out, modern cruise missiles really are suicide drones, equipped with most of the features we see in modern combat aircraft: jet engines, stealth technology, radar, satellite communications, video sensors, and countermeasures. For decades, the United States was miles ahead in each of those areas. Now, the lead is shrinking.

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