The Tomahawk cruise missile is an unmanned aircraft that goes on a one-way trip.

A Raytheon-built Tomahawk Block IV is launched from the U.S.S. Stethem (DDG-63).

Tomahawks can fly into heavily defended airspace and precisely strike high-value targets with minimal collateral damage.

Today’s Tomahawk Block IV can circle for hours, shift course instantly on command, and beam a picture of its target to controllers halfway around the world.

The 3,000th Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile was delivered to the U.S. Navy in October, 2013.

Raytheon's Gamble On Self-Guiding Missiles

Defense giant Raytheon, facing reduced Pentagon orders, is betting self-guided Tomahawk missiles will change the Navy's mind.

For defense contractor Raytheon, this summer’s hectic news cycle coincided with an important time for their well-known Tomahawk missiles. The rise of ISIS’s improvised state in Iraq, the fighting in Israel and Gaza, and the downing of Flight MH17 over the eastern Ukraine coincided with the end of the fiscal year and massive, $1 trillion+ cuts in defense spending. Part of this is expected to include the Navy eventually curtailing Tomahawk use in favor of a new, to-be-designed missile.

But in the meantime, the Tomahawks are selling. Congress has doubled their Tomahawk purchases for the 2015 fiscal year. Earlier this year, the Navy proposed that Tomahawk missile production end in 2017--the request for 196 new missiles in 2015 was a boon for Raytheon and defense industry lobbyists. Then in 2019, much of America's Tomahawk arsenal will be retrofitted with technology that allows them to, among other things, change their course in mid-flight to hit moving targets.

At a captive test flight in April, Raytheon engineers successfully flew a Tomahawk nosecone on a test aircraft with a multi-function processor from the missile that uses radio frequencies to home in on moving land and sea targets. Roy Donelson, the director of Raytheon’s Tomahawk program, told Fast Company that the new iterations of the missiles are integrated with data streams from troops on the ground, manned aircraft, UAVs, and ships, contain an array of sensors and cameras, and are usable at a range of up to 1,000 nautical miles.

Raytheon’s mission now is convincing Congress that the Navy’s proposal to cease Tomahawk purchasing is misguided--and that America’s current stockpile of 3,000 Tactical Tomahawks with a 30-year life-span are insufficient. The retrofitting will be “an overhaul/maintenance checkup,” Donelson added, “but in that period of 2018 to 2019 what's exciting to us is that we'll look at upgrade packages for that system. What the Navy gets is a new missile when it comes out of Raytheon’s door,” with capabilities that include hitting moving targets, guidance for “impenetrable areas,” and a communications and navigation system that can be used in areas without good GPS capabilities.

The Navy is arguing that thanks to the Tomahawk purchases they will make in 2015, they will have enough missiles for any need the United States may have. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Doug Cameron, America’s military fires around 100 missiles a year for both testing and combat combined, and more are used during armed conflicts. During the military intervention to oust Gaddafi in Libya, for instance, over 150 were fired. Raytheon is hoping that the Navy will continue to buy Tomahawks.

Offering whiz-bang capabilities such as hitting moving targets and integration with data streams from other devices, it’s hoped, will lead to the Navy buying more missiles. There are also missiles from other contractors, such as Lockheed Martin’s JASSM-ER which could be used post-2017 as well. But in the meantime, a lot of money is going into making sure that Tomahawks can change course in mid-air and play well with UAVs.

[Photos courtesy of Raytheon]