Technological Risk

The Case of the Tomahawk Cruise Missile

by Eric V. Larson


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This paper examines the Tomahawk cruise missile program to evaluate the proposition that successful management of the research, development, and acquisition of a major weapon system depends partly on using evolutionary rather than revolutionary breakthroughs and on incremental rather than dramatic performance improvements of an existing technology base. The author reviews the technological risks associated with the major subsystems of the Tomahawk and their integration; examines the program's record for evidence of technological risk as manifested in cost growth, schedule slippage, and performance shortfalls; and develops a model for assessing quantitatively the level of technological risk in the Tomahawk program. The analysis suggests that a low to moderate — and therefore manageable — level of technological risk characterized the program and that the absence of substantial technological risk contributed to its overall success.

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