Submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missile.
Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense
Tomahawk cruise missiles frequently appear in the news because they are the U.S. weapon of choice for a variety of quick-strike operations. With all of the missiles in the U.S. arsenal, have you ever wondered why cruise missiles seem to come up so often?
In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will look at cruise missiles so that you can understand what they are, how they operate and why they are ideal for certain scenarios.

The Basics

A cruise missile is basically a small, pilotless airplane. Cruise missiles have an 8.5-foot (2.61-meter) wingspan, are powered by turbofan engines and can fly 500 to 1,000 miles (805 to 1,610 km) depending on the configuration.
A cruise missile's job in life is to deliver a 1,000-pound (450-kg) high-explosive bomb to a precise location -- the target. The missile is destroyed when the bomb explodes. Since cruise missiles cost between $500,000 and $1,000,000 each, it's a fairly expensive way to deliver a 1,000-pound package.

Cruise missiles come in a number of variations (see the links at the end of the article for more information) and can be launched from submarines, destroyers or aircraft.

Left: AGM Tomahawk air-launched cruise-missile loaded on a B-52 Stratofortress Right: Ground Launch Cruise Missile (GLCM) launcher
Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Left: Tomahawk cruise missile launched from the USS Merrill Right: Tomahawk cruise missile launched from nuclear submarine USS La Jolla
Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Defense