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.