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Syrian Airfield Strike: What Is a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile?

The United States fired dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at aircraft and infrastructure targets inside Syria on Thursday, targeting the regime of Bashar Assad over his suspected chemical attack on civilians.

The Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles or TLAMs — shot by the USS Ross and USS Porter, both destroyers, located in the eastern Mediterranean — were focused on a Syrian military airfield that delivered a gas attack, an official told NBC News.

Footage Shows Launch of Tomahawk Missiles Aimed at Syria Airfield 0:33

"A total of 59 TLAMs targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars," Pentagon Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement.

The U.S. government first used cruise missiles during the first Gulf War in 1991 and has continued to use them regularly ever since, according to the United States Navy.

Fired by cruisers, destroyers and submarines, the missile carries a 1,000 pound warhead, is guided by GPS satellites and has the ability to travel as far as 1,500 miles.

A TLAM weighs as much as 3,500 pounds, is more than 20 feet long and travels 550 mph — a subsonic speed. A single missile costs about $1.5 million, according to the Economist.

Trump Speaks on Missile Strike in Syria 2:49

Though it provides the capability of a fairly distant attack, it does not sacrifice accuracy. According to two military experts familiar with the missile, the Tomahawk functions essentially as a giant drone — allowing for steering via GPS. Targets can be changed mid-flight, as the missiles are essentially piloted.

It has the ability to carry two different warheads: a Block III C-class cruise missile moves a single 1,000 pound explosive ordinance, while the Block III D-class carries 166 submunitions — weighing a total of 1,000 pounds — that are dispersed over a football field-sized area.

Image: The USS Ross fires a tomahawk land attack missile
In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, the USS Ross fires a tomahawk land attack missile from the Mediterranean Sea on Friday, April 7, 2017 local time. Robert S. Price / U.S. Navy via AP

The former warhead is used for a single massive explosion that can crack defensive positions, such as the hardened aircraft shelters, and the latter results in a lighter explosion that damages a wide expanse.

The missile is also particularly notable because it travels low to the ground, which avoids air and missile defense systems as well as radar.

Image: Tactical Tomahawk Block IV Cruise Missile Test
A Tactical "Tomahawk" Block IV cruise missile, conducts a controlled flight test over the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) western test range complex in southern California on Nov. 10, 2002. U.S. Navy, file