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British Missile Test Goes Smashingly

Military: Purchased from U.S., Tomahawk performs splendidly, raising Royal Navy to an elite weapons status.

November 19, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND, Calif. — With a thunderous explosion followed by a ceremonial cutting of cake, the world's most exclusive missile club welcomed its second member Wednesday.

The British submarine Splendid became the first non-U.S. Navy ship to fire a fully armed Tomahawk cruise missile. From a position 500 miles to the west, the test scored a direct hit on a warehouse-sized structure on this barren island off San Diego and missed its predicted impact point by only three inches.

"Good show, very vivid," said Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, First Sea Lord and chief of staff of the Royal Navy, as the Tomahawk smashed into the metal structure, sending a fireball into the air and spreading wreckage over several hundred yards.

"Totally awesome," said Lt. Cmdr. Len Hamilton, cruise missile test director for the U.S. Navy, who joined the British officials on the island 65 miles from shore.

The 1995 purchase by the Royal Navy of 65 Tomahawks for $320 million--the first foreign purchase approved by the U.S. government--is a sign that Britain is prepared to join the United States in using the Tomahawk to fight international terrorism and enforce peace in the Middle East.

"The British government wishes to play a part in global security and peacekeeping," Boyce said. "The Tomahawk is a coercive weapon, a way to coerce people who are thinking of misbehaving into behaving."

The 18-foot-long missile made by Raytheon Corp. in Tucson, Ariz., has become so important in geopolitical calculations that there is even a name for its impact: "Tomahawk diplomacy." More than 100 U.S. ships--submarines and surface ships--are armed with hundreds of Tomahawks, most with 1,000-pound warheads.

Under the sale approved by the Clinton administration, 10 of the Royal Navy's 12 fast-attack nuclear-powered submarines are being retrofitted to allow them to carry and fire the Tomahawks.

Once Wednesday's test is analyzed, the Splendid should be ready by Christmas to fire its new weapons in a real conflict.

The Tomahawk purchase marks a shift in British naval strategy akin to that being made by the U.S. Navy. With the end of the Cold War, U.S. and British submarines no longer anticipate an open-water, hull-to-hull, torpedo-blazing confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Instead, British submarines are being equipped to provide firepower ashore against land-based targets--the kind of situations for which the Tomahawk was designed. The weapon entered the U.S. arsenal in 1986 after a decade of development.

Five U.S. admirals, four British admirals and several dozen lesser officers, defense industry representatives and U.S. and British journalists traveled to this island that serves as a bombardment range for the U.S. Navy and a training ground for Marines and Navy SEALs.

The assemblage watched the hourlong flight of the Tomahawk--as captured by cameras in three chase planes--on closed circuit television at a site about three miles from the target. The picture was so clear that two words stamped on the missile were clearly visible: Royal Navy.

While other armaments may pack a bigger wallop, the Tomahawk has gained a special place in U.S. military planning because of its stealth, speed and precision, and because it can destroy its target without putting American lives at risk.

A submarine or surface ship can fire a Tomahawk from up to 1,000 miles away. Submarines can fire Tomahawks while submerged; the Splendid was just below the surface during Wednesday's test.

The United States used Tomahawks during the Persian Gulf War and the conflict in Bosnia, as well as against Iraq in 1993 and against suspected terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan in September. Military officials have said that last weekend's planned strike on Iraq, which was canceled only minutes before launch, would potentially have involved hundreds of Tomahawks.

"I don't imagine Iran, Iraq and Syria are going to be pleased" that the United States is selling Tomahawks to the British, said Ronald Bee, senior analyst at the UC San Diego-based Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. "But I think it's going to be a good move in terms of providing an increased deterrent in that region."

After the test, Boyce used a ceremonial sword to cut a chocolate cake with white frosting and blue lettering spelling out "Royal Navy Tomahawk."

"One of your American presidents, who also served as secretary of Navy, once said his strategy was to 'Walk softly and carry a big stick,' " Boyce said. "As Royal Navy submariners, we have always walked softly. Now we will also have a very big stick."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Cruise Britannia

A Royal Navy submarine, the H.M.S. Splendid, on Wednesday became the first non-U.S. ship to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile. Fired from 500 miles, the missile hit a target on San Clemente Island.

Tomahawk at a glance

* Length: 18 ft.

* Diameter: 20.4 in.

* Wingspan: 8 ft. 9 in.

* Cruise engine: 606 pounds of thrust, turbofan

* Range: 1,000 miles

* Cruising speed: 550 mph

Guidance system

Warhead

Fuel tank

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