Tactical Land Attack Missiles As An Instrument of State Policy

Author: Captain Sunil E David, VSM, IN

Period: October 2002 - December 2002

Tactical Land Attack Missiles As An Instrument of State Policy

Captain Sunil E David, VSM, IN


On 19 January 1991 a stunned world watched unforgettable television images of Tomahawk missiles searching out and hitting their targets in Baghdad with astonishing accuracy. The customised destruction that these Tactical Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs) inflicted upon command structures, communication facilities and early warning sensors of a hapless Iraq clearly demonstrated their strategic and tactical significance. The fact that F-117 stealth fighters and other aircraft followed in their wake with virtual impunity stands testimony to the effectiveness of the Tomahawks.

Subsequently, there have been other crises in other countries too such as Sudan, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and also in Iraq (1996 and 1998) that have underlined not only the military role of TLAMs but also their political importance. Closer home this has been illustrated by the attack on the hideouts of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998, and then again in the recent US-led attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime. The flexibility in the deployment of TLAMs provides increased options not only to force commanders but also political decisions makers. Therefore, TLAMs are not just another weapon system, but one that can be used as an effective instrument of state policy in what may be defined as the most efficient form of gunboat diplomacy.

The aim of this paper is to discuss the political and strategic implications of having and using TLAMs from the Indian Naval ships and submarines. Ballistic missiles as land attack missiles do not come under the purview of this paper due to the nature of their trajectory they are in a different league.

Relevance of TLAMs

Five decades ago, nations with aspirations to great power status looked towards stockpiling their arsenals with nuclear weapons. These weapons were viewed as talismans of national sovereignty and symbols of national intent and resolve. The doctrine of nuclear deterrence was formulated and came to rest on the paradox that the utility of nuclear weapons lies in their non-use in combat, leading to the inevitable conclusion that a nuclear war was not winnable and must, therefore, never be fought.

While the doctrine of nuclear deterrence may have been successful in averting a large-scale theatre war between the erstwhile Cold War rivals, it was meaningless in so far as smaller wars and skirmishes were concerned. Moreover, with the emergence of asymmetric threats from weaker nations, and also where the adversary may be a non-state organisation or a terrorist group, retaliation by massive force has to be ruled out. In a scenario where the possibility of escalation to beyond the nuclear threshold does not exist, it is meaningless to even suggest such a threat.

It is in this backdrop that the big powers searched for a weapon system that would enable them to project power as required in their out-of-area interests. This led to the development of TLAMs. While nuclear weapons were designed for indiscriminate death, the contemporary requirement from today’s most advanced weapons is just the opposite. This is where the true relevance of TLAMs comes in; they are weapons that can actually be used to demonstrate political and military intent and resolve as against weapons that remain in the basement.

TLAMs give ships and submarines a stand off capability, as well as it gives political decision makers the ability to flex muscles in exercising coercive diplomacy. Their surgical precision and ability to cause minimal collateral damage make them weapons of choice. More importantly, TLAMs provide a long-range, highly survivable, unmanned land attack weapon system. This is especially relevant in scenarios when the Navy may be called upon to defend national interests, and where the loss of pilots and combatants or their being taken prisoner is politically unacceptable.

The Indian Context

As discussed above, TLAMs are useful not only to the military commander but also to the politician. In fact, they serve no purpose unless there is a political will to sanction their use in less than war situations. Therefore, the utility of acquiring TLAMs needs to be viewed in the context of India’s defence and foreign policies.

In recent years, the defence policy spectrum of the nation appears to have widened. This is possibly consequent to India’s perceived regional role, the chain of events post Pokhran II, as also the realisation that military power must seek to defend the nation’s strategic and security interests.

TLAMs are of relevance to India when looking at exercising a degree of influence in the immediate neighbourhood, contribution towards regional and international stability, and having an out-of-country contingency capability. A robust foreign policy can be pursued only within the framework of a strong military capability and the willingness to use it. After all, "War is a continuation of political intercourse by other means."1

India must be capable and ready to discharge is responsibilities towards maintaining regional and international security. It is within this context, that the potential for using TLAMs by the Indian Navy needs to be examined.

TLAMs for the Indian Navy

Manufacture of TLAMs is presently limited to the US and Russia, with France reportedly on its way to developing this capability by 20082. Realistically, the best avenue available to the Indian Navy for acquiring a TLAM is to look towards Russia, the traditional supplier of missiles. Due to restrictions laid down by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the range of the TLAM would be limited to 300 kilometres (kms) and the warhead to 500 kilograms (kgs). The limited warhead would hardly be a cause for concern as the Tomahawk carries only a 450 kgs warhead. While the Tomahawk is nuke capable, nuclear warheads have been withdrawn from missiles operationally deployed on ships and submarines. This is to signal across the globe that Tomahawk would be with a conventional warhead and to ensure that a Tomahawk streaking through the air is not mistaken for a nuclear attack, which elicits a proportional response from the intended victim. Perhaps, the Indian Navy would also have to consider such a decision for the same reasons. While so far the US Navy and Royal Navy have fired Tomahawk missiles against a significantly weaker side that was geographically distant from their homelands, use of TLAMs by the Indian Navy is unlikely to fall into the same template. The potential of a mistake in identifying the nature of the weapon in flight leading to crossing of the nuclear rubicon by the targeted party must be minimised to the extent possible. On the other hand if India were to consider TLAMs as part of the nuclear triad, then like other nuclear weapons they would become instruments of deterrence rather than actual use. They would then not be available as leverage for coercive diplomacy.

A range of 300 kms, which an imported TLAM would have due to the MTCR ceiling, would suggest that it would be able to strike targets up to 100 kms inland. This is presuming that the firing unit keeps 200 kms away from the enemy coast.

In such a case, TLAMs would not be able to strike deeper into the enemy hinterland. While these coastal targets may be of naval interest, TLAMs would not be in a position to influence the land battle or, in less than war situations, be able to carry out a surgical strike against targets of interest such as terrorist training camps, hide outs of gangsters wanted in connection with various crimes in India, clandestine chemical and biological weapons infrastructure etc. Looking at TLAMs as instruments of policy, it follows that they should be able to fulfill these roles.

Therefore, a 300 kms TLAM would be of use only against naval targets and little else. However, it should not be too difficult to increase their range to 600 kms or even 1,000 kms once they are acquired. If the Iraqis could enhance the range of the Scuds supplied to them, it would be easier to increase the range of the air breathing TLAM. TLAMs would then be able to contribute to the land battle in limited threatres by suppressing enemy air defences especially if the Indian Air Force (IAF) does not enjoy air superiority, destroying command centres, striking at enemy force and armour concentrations, providing close air support, disrupting rail movement and communication networks, demolishing power grids, razing fuel farms and ammunition depots etc. However, the real impact of TLAMs would come if their range could be enhanced to 1,500 kms. That would bring the entire area of interest to the immediate West of India within striking distance.

Even for a country like China with immense strategic depth, most of the potential targets can be hit with a 1,500 kms TLAM. For smaller littorals it would cover their entire area. As most of the world’s population lives within 100 kms of the sea, even a 
300 kms TLAM would be of relevance in regard to many of the smaller nations. Nonetheless, a 1,500 kms TLAM would still remain the weapon of choice as targets closer to the hinterland can be engaged from longer ranges away from the adversary’s coast thereby ensuring better survivability of the firing platform especially if it is a surface unit. More importantly, a longer range TLAM would ensure that the first round could be fired that much earlier without waiting for the firing unit to close the target. This would be of great relevance in a less than war situation where an early display of intent and resolve may actually precipitate the opposition into backing down. In the case of impending hostilities, units would not only be in a position to carry out a pre-emptive strike earlier but would also ensure their own survivability by keeping outside the range of shore based aircraft.

Great power navies have today shifted their prime focus from ‘controlling the seas’ and ‘fighting great battles’ to dominating the littoral. Using sea power to destroy the enemy’s war waging potential on land was always the theme of Soviet Union’s Admiral Gorshkov. Three decades later, this is the focus of American sea power. With longer range missiles available, the ability to go beyond the hinterland and strike deep into the enemy’s heartland has become more relevant. The days of dominating and controlling the littoral are now upon us. TLAMs would then play a major role as the primary strike weapon especially in areas outside the range of shore-based aircraft.

TLAMs, however, are not an end in themselves, but just another rung in the ladder of graduated escalation. The nation must have the will and capability to transit through if TLAMs are to be used as an instrument of state policy. The phase before firing TLAMs is showing naval presence as a sign of intent, an action that in itself may cause the other party to back down from its adversarial stance. After firing of TLAMs the nation must be politically and military prepared to send in special forces and ground forces should the situation so arise. It is only with the backing threat of intervention forces that the damage caused by TLAMs can have any real meaning in getting the adversary to capitulate.

Cost-to-Capability Analysis of TLAMs

Every naval planner would like to have the latest electronic wizardry and hi-tech weaponry in his repertoire. But the man in the treasury is quick to transport every dreamer with such hopes back to the stark reality of the budget. The debate of converting ploughshares into swords or vice versa is centuries old, and one that perhaps would go on forever. A rather down-to-earth view on this was expressed by former US Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney: ".. In the real world, budget drives strategy, strategy does not drive budget"3. Whatever capability one may crave for has to be within the confines of the available buck. Investing in a big way in TLAMs is bound to pinch elsewhere. Before discussing the cost aspects it needs to be analysed as to how effective has the Tomahawk really been, as also to estimate the number of TLAMs that the Indian Navy would need.

During the Gulf War and thereafter, cameras titling towards a dramatic flare showed Tomahawk missiles singling out their targets and attacking them with utmost precision. What the cameras did not show were the missiles that missed their targets and landed harmlessly elsewhere. The cameras were also conveniently not available when the missiles failed to lift off or ditched soon after firing. Dramatic footage of Tomahawks taking out a target suited the manufacturers, who like others around the world routinely overstate the capability of their products. Also it suited the governments and troops of the allies taking on Saddam Hussein. Therefore, no one was going to give the lie to CNN’s spectacular coverage.

The truth, as it slowly emerged afterwards, is that the Tomahawk was less than perfect during the Gulf War and later in the 1993 air strike launched by President Clinton against Iraqi intelligence headquarters. Of the 307 Tomahawk launches attempted, only 288 missiles actually took off. Of these, six suffered boost failures and did not transition to cruise. Finally, only 242 hit the target4. Therefore, only about 80 per cent of the intended 307 Tomahawks found their mark. Even the veracity of this claim needs to be viewed judiciously as these are the figures reported to the US Congress by the Department of Defence. It is likely that inbuilt into these figures is a look-good-feel-good factor, which is the case in most weapon firings where the claims greatly exaggerate the actual damage done. After all, Saddam Hussein is still alive. In Bosnia, 256 armoured vehicles were counted as moving after two weeks of surgical strikes by the US using a vast array of weapons including TLAMs, laser guided bombs and precision guided ammunition. Also an accurate and realistic assessment of the collateral damage caused by TLAMs is not openly available, and for obvious reasons.

When a TLAM hits the target, it has the destructive power of a 1,000 pounds (Ibs) bomb. While a 1,000 Ibs warhead crashing into a ship can have devastating results, the effect of the same being delivered ashore is usually not as dramatic. Due to the large number of targets ashore and their greater resilience to ordnance, it is not possible to estimate the number of TLAMs that would be required in war. A 1,500 kms missile could take on all targets that would otherwise have been allotted to the IAF. Therefore, theoretically the Indian Navy would need as many TLAMs as the IAF has bombs. Of course available funds would not allow such a number. Therefore, the number of TLAMs to be acquired has to be based on a different paradigm.

On one end of the spectrum the US Navy is looking at building up an inventory of 3,440 Tomahawks by 2006 with a total of 6,266 launchers on 72 SSNs (696 launchers) and 70 surface ships (5,570 launchers)5. Such a large arsenal would be justifiable for the US Navy, especially if Pax Americana is to be maintained. The requirements of other nations would be far more modest. The UK is seeking to maintain an inventory of only 65 Tomahawks6. Such a number does not suggest they having a significant military impact in times of war. After all it is only about 20 per cent of the missiles fired during Desert Storm. Therefore, these missiles are almost certainly meant to be instruments of state policy in less than war situations, as was demonstrated by Royal Navy SSNs firing Tomahawks in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The number of TLAMs in the Russian arsenal is not known, but considering their present political and economic situation it is unlikely to be an impressive number.

Finally, it is the cost that will dictate the number of TLAMs that the Indian Navy would hold in stock. In April 1999, UK negotiated with the US for 30 conventionally armed Tomahawk Block IIIC missiles along with containers, engineering technical assistance, spare and repair parts, and other related elements of logistics support. These were to be replacement of those fired by them earlier, and the estimated cost of the package was $100 million7, which works out to be Rs 480 crores or roughly Rs 16 crores per missile. It must be kept in mind that while armament supplies from the former Soviet Union were relatively cheaper, the same is no longer assured as the Russians are increasingly looking at the bottom line. ‘Friendship prices’ are a thing of the past.

Assuming Rs 16 crore as unit cost, 100 TLAMs along with associated infrastructure would cost Rs 1,600 crores. If spread over a period of eight years, it would amount to an annual expenditure of Rs 200 crores. It is unlikely that the Indian Navy would be in a position to set aside greater funds, as there are other demands on the Revenue Budget. There would also be the added cost of fire control systems and pre-launch check equipment on board ships and submarines. Additional expenditure would accrue on account of getting high quality digital maps of our areas of interest for downloading into a TLAM mission when required. These will have to be imported till such time as we can get high-resolution data from our own satellites. While Global Positioning System (GPS) may appear a cheap option for guiding TLAMs to their targets, Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM)/Digital Scene-Matching Area Correlation (DSMAC) cannot be dispensed with as they allow the missile ingress routes keeping clear of obstructions in the vicinity of the target as well as precision in terminal manoeuvres.


TLAMs are powerful instruments of state policy, of immense utility to both the military planner as well as the political decision maker. Acquiring TLAMs by the Indian Navy has become almost inescapable if the nation is to exercise greater influence in the Indian Ocean Region.

While TLAMs have come to epitomise the 21st Century’s gunboat diplomacy, their cost effectiveness as weapons in a conflict involving nations with reasonably comparable military capability is, at best, questionable. Only the US with their large arsenal of Tomahawks could possibly use them to secure significant military gains. For nations with more modest stocks of up to, say a 100 TLAMs, the military advantage would not be commensurate with the costs of having and deploying these weapons. However, this does not detract from their effectiveness in being wielded as instruments of state policy in less than war situations, which for now seems have become the rule; full fledged wars are becoming the exception for the moment.



1. Peter Paret and Michael Howard, Edited and Translated, Carl Von Clausewitz, (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 87.


Richard Scott, ‘French Navy Outlines Equipment Priority’, Navy International, July/August 2001, p. 4.


Alvin & Heidi Toffler, War and Anti War : Survival at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century, (Boston : Little Brown and Company 1996), p. 182.











Shri Nishchal Nath Pandey is Deputy Executive Director of Kathmandu based Institute of Foreign Affairs and a well known Nepali writer on security and international affairs.


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