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The US will likely strike Syria with Tomahawk missiles. Here's what you need to know about the weapon 'presidents reach for first in a crisis'

  • There is one missile in the U.S. arsenal that is expected to rain on Syrian targets in response to a suspected chemical attack.
  • Tomahawk cruise missiles are considered tried-and-true and have bolstered the U.S. Navy for nearly four decades.
  • The missiles can be launched from a ship or submarine, carry a 1,000-pound conventional warhead, and can be reprogrammed mid-flight.
A U.S. ship launches a Tomahawk cruise missile in this undated file photo.
U.S. Navy | Getty Images
A U.S. ship launches a Tomahawk cruise missile in this undated file photo.

There is one missile in the U.S. arsenal that is expected to rain on Syrian targets this week in response to a suspected chemical attack carried out by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

The Tomahawk cruise missile is half the length of a standard telephone pole, travels at the cruising speed of a commercial airliner, and can carry a 1,000-pound warhead the distance from New York City to Kansas City.

Tomahawks have been in the U.S. Navy's arsenal since the 1980s, but were first used in combat in 1991 during the Gulf War. Overall, the weapons have been deployed more than 2,300 times.

"Year in and year out, administration in and administration out, it's the long-range land attack cruise missile that presidents reach for first in a crisis," Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNBC.

"What distinguishes the Tomahawk from some other weapons is that it is sea-launched and has a significantly longer range," Karako said.

With an estimated cost of $1.4 million each, Raytheon's Tomahawk missile has an intermediate range of 800 to 1,553 miles and can be deployed from more than 140 U.S. Navy ships and submarines. In 1995, the United Kingdom became the second military to add the Tomahawk to its arsenal.

What makes the Tomahawk exceptionally lethal is its capability to carry a 1,000-pound conventional warhead and be reprogrammed midflight.

Trump threatens strikes

Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Preble conduct an operational tomahawk missile launch while underway in a training area off the coast of California.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Woody Paschall
Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Preble conduct an operational tomahawk missile launch while underway in a training area off the coast of California.

For the last five days, President Donald Trump has sharpened his rhetoric against Syria and its most powerful ally Russia and issued a threat via Twitter of a potential U.S. strike againstthe war-torn country.

"Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and "smart! You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it," Trump said.

The tweet came on the heels of an alleged chemical weapons attack believed to be carried out by forces aligned with the Assad regime in Douma, a town that was held by Syrian rebels.

Trump told reporters Thursday that a decision on whether the U.S. military will respond to the alleged chemical attack will be made "fairly soon."

The World Health Organization said Wednesday that approximately 500 people in Douma were treated for "signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals."

Last year, the Trump administration lobbed a total of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Navy destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross in the eastern Mediterranean.

The missiles hit aircraft hangars, ammunition bunkers, air defense systems and radar. Additionally, the Pentagon said Russian forces in Syria were formally notified before the strike, but Moscow was not involved in the military operation.

"The single best and most consequential kinetic action that the Trump administration has taken was the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria," Karako said.

"It showed a willingness to use kinetic force, it showed the administration was going to back up what it said with action, and that has an audience that goes beyond Syria. It goes to North Korea and the government officials of all our allies and other potential adversaries."