Ballistic missile

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Minuteman-III MIRV launch sequence :
1. The missile launches out of its silo by firing its 1st-stage boost motor (A).
2. The missile shroud (E) is ejected.
3. About 120 seconds after launch, the 3rd-stage motor (C) ignites and separates from the 2nd stage.
4. About 180 seconds after launch, 3rd-stage thrust terminates and the Post-Boost Vehicle (D) separates from the rocket.
5. The Post-Boost Vehicle maneuvers itself and prepares for re-entry vehicle (RV) deployment.
6. The RVs, as well as decoys and chaff, are deployed.
7. The RVs (now armed) and chaff re-enter the atmosphere at high speeds.
8. The nuclear warheads detonate. Minuteman III MIRV path.svg
Minuteman-III MIRV launch sequence :
1. The missile launches out of its silo by firing its 1st-stage boost motor (A).
2. The missile shroud (E) is ejected.
3. About 120 seconds after launch, the 3rd-stage motor (C) ignites and separates from the 2nd stage.
4. About 180 seconds after launch, 3rd-stage thrust terminates and the Post-Boost Vehicle (D) separates from the rocket.
5. The Post-Boost Vehicle maneuvers itself and prepares for re-entry vehicle (RV) deployment.
6. The RVs, as well as decoys and chaff, are deployed.
7. The RVs (now armed) and chaff re-enter the atmosphere at high speeds.
8. The nuclear warheads detonate.

A ballistic missile follows a ballistic trajectory to deliver one or more warheads on a predetermined target. These weapons are only guided during relatively brief periods of flight—most of their trajectory is unpowered, being governed by gravity and air resistance if in the atmosphere. Shorter range ballistic missiles stay within the Earth's atmosphere, while longer-ranged intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), are launched on a sub-orbital flight trajectory and spend most of their flight out of the atmosphere.

Warhead damage-creating payload delivered by a rocket, missile, or torpedo

A warhead is the explosive or toxic material that is delivered by a missile, rocket, or torpedo. It is a type of bomb.

Atmosphere of Earth Layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth

The atmosphere of Earth is the layer of gases, commonly known as air, that surrounds the planet Earth and is retained by Earth's gravity. The atmosphere of Earth protects life on Earth by creating pressure allowing for liquid water to exist on the Earth's surface, absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention, and reducing temperature extremes between day and night.

Intercontinental ballistic missile ballistic missile with a range of more than 5,500 kilometres

An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is a guided ballistic missile with a minimum range of 5,500 kilometres (3,400 mi) primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery. Similarly, conventional, chemical, and biological weapons can also be delivered with varying effectiveness, but have never been deployed on ICBMs. Most modern designs support multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), allowing a single missile to carry several warheads, each of which can strike a different target.


These weapons are in a distinct category from cruise missiles, which are aerodynamically guided in powered flight.

Cruise missile Aerodynamic missile

A cruise missile is a guided missile used against terrestrial targets that remains in the atmosphere and flies the major portion of its flight path at approximately constant speed. Cruise missiles are designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high precision. Modern cruise missiles are capable of travelling at supersonic or high subsonic speeds, are self-navigating, and are able to fly on a non-ballistic, extremely low-altitude trajectory.

Lift (force) force; aerodynamics term

A fluid flowing past the surface of a body exerts a force on it. Lift is the component of this force that is perpendicular to the oncoming flow direction. It contrasts with the drag force, which is the component of the force parallel to the flow direction. Lift conventionally acts in an upward direction in order to counter the force of gravity, but it can act in any direction at right angles to the flow.


Replica of V-2 Fusee V2.jpg
Replica of V-2

The earliest use of rockets as a weapon dates to the 13th Century (see History of rockets). A pioneer ballistic missile was the A-4, [1] commonly known as the V-2 rocket developed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s under the direction of Wernher von Braun. The first successful launch of a V-2 was on October 3, 1942, and it began operation on September 6, 1944 against Paris, followed by an attack on London two days later. By the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945, over 3,000 V-2s had been launched. [2]

History of rockets

The first rockets were used as propulsion systems for arrows, and may have appeared as early as the 10th century in Song dynasty China. However more solid documentary evidence does not appear until the 13th century. The technology probably spread across Eurasia in the wake of the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century. Usage of rockets as weapons before modern rocketry is attested in China, Korea, Indian subcontinent, and Europe. One of the first recorded rocket launchers is the "wasp nest" fire arrow launcher produced by the Ming dynasty in 1380. In Europe rockets were also used in the same year at the Battle of Chioggia. The Joseon kingdom of Korea used a type of mobile multiple rocket launcher known as the "Munjong Hwacha" by 1451. Iron-cased rockets, known as Mysorean rockets, were developed in Kingdom of Mysore by the mid 18th century in India, and were later copied by the British. The later models and improvements were known as the Congreve rocket and used in the Napoleonic Wars.

V-2 rocket worlds first long-range guided ballistic missile

The V-2, technical name Aggregat 4 (A4), was the world's first long-range guided ballistic missile. The missile, powered by a liquid-propellant rocket engine, was developed during the Second World War in Germany as a "vengeance weapon", assigned to attack Allied cities as retaliation for the Allied bombings against German cities. The V-2 rocket also became the first man-made object to travel into space by crossing the Kármán line with the vertical launch of MW 18014 on 20 June 1944.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state that controlled nearly all aspects of life via the Gleichschaltung legal process. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

The R-7 Semyorka was the first intercontinental ballistic missile.

R-7 Semyorka Intercontinental ballistic missile

The R-7 was a Soviet missile developed during the Cold War, and the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile. The R-7 made 28 launches between 1957 and 1961, but was never deployed operationally. A derivative, the R-7A, was deployed from 1959 to 1968. To the West it was known by the NATO reporting name SS-6 Sapwood and within the Soviet Union by the GRAU index 8K71. In modified form, it launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into orbit, and became the basis for the R-7 family which includes Sputnik, Luna, Molniya, Vostok, and Voskhod space launchers, as well as later Soyuz variants.

A total of 30 nations have deployed operational ballistic missiles. Development continues with around 100 ballistic missile flight tests in 2007 (not including those of the US), mostly by China, Iran, and the Russian Federation.[ citation needed ] In 2010, the U.S. and Russian governments signed a treaty to reduce their inventory of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) over a seven-year period (to 2017) to 1550 units each. [3]

Side view of Minuteman-III ICBM Minuteman III diagram.png
Side view of Minuteman-III ICBM


An intercontinental ballistic missile trajectory consists of three parts: the powered flight portion; the free-flight portion, which constitutes most of the flight time; and the re-entry phase, where the missile re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. (The flight phases for shorter-range ballistic missiles are essentially the first two phases of the ICBM, as some ballistic categories do not leave the atmosphere.)[ citation needed ]

Ballistic missiles can be launched from fixed sites or mobile launchers, including vehicles (e.g., transporter erector launchers (TELs)), aircraft, ships, and submarines. The powered flight portion can last from a few tenths of seconds to several minutes and can consist of multiple rocket stages.[ citation needed ]

When in space no more thrust is provided, the missile enters free-flight. In order to cover large distances, ballistic missiles are usually launched into a high sub-orbital spaceflight; for intercontinental missiles, the highest altitude (apogee) reached during free-flight is about 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi). [4]

The re-entry stage begins at an altitude where atmospheric drag plays a significant part in missile trajectory, and lasts until missile impact.[ citation needed ]

Reentry vehicles reenter the Earth's atmosphere at very high velocities, on the order of 6-8 kilometers (4–5 miles) per second at ICBM ranges. [5]


The course taken by ballistic missiles has two significant desirable properties. First, ballistic missiles that fly above the atmosphere have a much longer range than would be possible for cruise missiles of the same size. Powered rocket flight through thousands of kilometers of air would require vastly greater amounts of fuel, making the launch vehicles larger and easier to detect and intercept. Powered missiles that can cover similar ranges, such as cruise missiles, do not use rocket motors for the majority of their flight, but instead use more economical jet engines. However, cruise missiles have not made ballistic missiles obsolete, due to the second major advantage: ballistic missiles can travel extremely quickly along their flight path. An ICBM can strike a target within a 10,000 km range in about 30 to 35 minutes.[ citation needed ] With terminal speeds of over 5,000 m/s, ballistic missiles are much harder to intercept than cruise missiles, due to the much shorter time available. Therefore, ballistic missiles are some of the most feared weapons available, despite the fact that cruise missiles are cheaper, more mobile, and more versatile.[ citation needed ]

Missile types

Trident II SLBM launched by ballistic missile submarine. Trident II missile image.jpg
Trident II SLBM launched by ballistic missile submarine.

Ballistic missiles can vary widely in range and use, and are often divided into categories based on range. Various schemes are used by different countries to categorize the ranges of ballistic missiles:

Tactical, short- and medium-range missiles are often collectively referred to as tactical and theatre ballistic missiles, respectively. Long- and medium-range ballistic missiles are generally designed to deliver nuclear weapons because their payload is too limited for conventional explosives to be cost-effective in comparison to conventional bomber aircraft (though the U.S. is evaluating the idea of a conventionally armed ICBM for near-instant global air strike capability, despite the high costs).


Throw-weight is a measure of the effective weight of ballistic missile payloads. It is measured in kilograms or tonnes. Throw-weight equals the total weight of a missile's warheads, reentry vehicles, self-contained dispensing mechanisms, penetration aids, and missile guidance systems—generally all components except for the launch rocket booster and launch fuel. While throw-weight may refer to any type of warhead, in normal modern usage it almost exclusively refers to nuclear or thermonuclear payloads. It was once also a consideration in the design of naval ships and the number/size of guns they carried.

Throw-weight was used as a criterion in classifying different types of missiles during Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the Soviet Union and the United States. [7] The term became politically controversial during debates over the arms-control accord, as critics of the treaty alleged that Soviet missiles were able to carry larger payloads and therefore enabled the Soviets to maintain higher throw-weight than an American force with a roughly comparable number of lower-payload missiles. [8]

The missiles with the world's heaviest payloads are the Russian SS-18 and Chinese CSS-4 and Russia is developing a new heavy-lift, liquid-propellant ICBM called the Sarmat. [5]

Depressed trajectory

Throw-weight is normally calculated using an optimal ballistic trajectory from one point on the surface of the Earth to another. An optimal trajectory maximizes the total payload (throw-weight) using the available impulse of the missile. By reducing the payload weight, different trajectories can be selected which either extends the nominal range, or decreases the total time in flight. A depressed trajectory is a non-optimal, lower and flatter trajectory which takes less time between launch and impact, but with a lower throw-weight. The primary reasons to choose a depressed trajectory are either to evade anti-ballistic missile systems by reducing the time available to shoot down the attacking vehicle (especially during the vulnerable burn-phase against space-based ABM systems), or in a nuclear first-strike scenario. [9] An alternate, non-military, purpose for a depressed trajectory is in conjunction with the space plane concept with use of air-breathing engines, which requires the ballistic missile to remain sufficiently low inside the atmosphere for air-breathing engines to function.

See also

Related Research Articles

Anti-ballistic missile Surface-to-air missile designed to counter ballistic missiles

An anti-ballistic missile (ABM) is a surface-to-air missile designed to counter ballistic missiles. Ballistic missiles are used to deliver nuclear, chemical, biological, or conventional warheads in a ballistic flight trajectory. The term "anti-ballistic missile" is a generic term conveying a system designed to intercept and destroy any type of ballistic threat, however it is commonly used for systems specifically designed to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

LGM-30 Minuteman 1961 family of intercontinental ballistic missiles of the United States Air Force

The LGM-30 Minuteman is a U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), in service with the Air Force Global Strike Command. As of 2018, the LGM-30G Minuteman III version is the only land-based ICBM in service in the United States.

Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle ballistic missile payload containing several warheads capable of independent targeting

A multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) is a missile payload containing several warheads, each capable of being aimed to hit a different target. The concept is almost invariably associated with intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying thermonuclear warheads, even if not strictly being limited to them. By contrast, a unitary warhead is a single warhead on a single missile. An intermediate case is the multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) missile which carries several warheads which are dispersed but not individually aimed. Only the United States, Pakistan, Russian Federation, France and China are currently confirmed to possess MIRV missiles while India and Israel are known or suspected to be developing or possessing same.

Submarine-launched ballistic missile Ballistic missile capable of being launched from submerged submarines

A submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is a ballistic missile capable of being launched from submarines. Modern variants usually deliver multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) each of which carries a nuclear warhead and allows a single launched missile to strike several targets. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles operate in a different way from submarine-launched cruise missiles.

Dongfeng (missile) Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile

The Dongfeng series, typically abbreviated as "DF missiles", are a family of short, medium, intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles operated by the Chinese People's Liberation Army Rocket Force.

Jericho is a general designation given to a loosely related family of deployed ballistic missiles developed by Israel from the 1960s forward. The name is taken from the first development contract for the Jericho I signed between Israel and Dassault in 1963, with the codename as a reference to the Biblical city of Jericho. As with most Israeli unconventional weapons systems, exact details are classified, though there are observed test data, public statements by government officials, and details in open literature especially about the Shavit satellite launch vehicle.

Intermediate-range ballistic missile ballistic missile with a range of 3,000–5,500 km

An intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) is a ballistic missile with a range of 3,000–5,500 km, between a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Classifying ballistic missiles by range is done mostly for convenience; in principle there is very little difference between a low-performance ICBM and a high-performance IRBM, because decreasing payload mass can increase range over ICBM threshold. The range definition used here is used within the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. Some other sources include an additional category, the long-range ballistic missile (LRBM), to describe missiles with a range between IRBMs and true ICBMs. The more modern term theater ballistic missile encompasses MRBMs and SRBMs, including any ballistic missile with a range under 3,500 km (2,175 mi).

UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile, built by Lockheed Martin Space System

The UGM-133A Trident II, or Trident D5 is a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, California, and deployed with the American and British navies. It was first deployed in March 1990, and remains in service. The Trident II Strategic Weapons System is an improved SLBM with greater accuracy, payload, and range than the earlier Trident C-4. It is a key element of the U.S. strategic nuclear triad and strengthens U.S. strategic deterrence. The Trident II is considered to be a durable sea-based system capable of engaging many targets. It enhances the U.S. position in strategic arms negotiation with performance and payload flexibility that can accommodate active treaty initiatives. The Trident II's increased payload allows nuclear deterrence to be accomplished with fewer submarines, and its high accuracy – approaching that of land-based missiles – enables it to be used as a first strike weapon.

SM-64 Navaho

The North American SM-64 Navaho was a supersonic intercontinental cruise missile project built by North American Aviation (NAA). The final design was capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the USSR from bases in the US, while cruising at Mach 3 at 60,000 feet (18,000 m) altitude. The missile is named after the Navajo Nation.

A surface-to-surface missile (SSM) or ground-to-ground missile (GGM) is a missile designed to be launched from the ground or the sea and strike targets on land or at sea. They may be fired from hand-held or vehicle mounted devices, from fixed installations, or from a ship. They are often powered by a rocket engine or sometimes fired by an explosive charge, since the launching platform is typically stationary or moving slowly. They usually have fins and/or wings for lift and stability, although hyper-velocity or short-ranged missiles may use body lift or fly a ballistic trajectory. The V-1 flying bomb was the first operational surface-to-surface missile.

Nuclear weapons delivery technology and systems used to place nuclear weaponry at the point of detonation

Nuclear weapons delivery is the technology and systems used to place a nuclear weapon at the position of detonation, on or near its target. Several methods have been developed to carry out this task.

Launch on warning

Launch on warning (LOW) is a strategy of nuclear weapon retaliation that gained recognition during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the invention of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), launch on warning became an integral part of mutually assured destruction (MAD) theory. Under the strategy, a retaliatory strike is launched upon warning of enemy nuclear attack while its missiles are still in the air and before detonation occurs. U.S. land-based missiles can reportedly be launched within five minutes of a presidential decision to do so, and submarine-based missiles within 15 minutes.

MGM-134 Midgetman intercontinental ballistic missile

The MGM-134A Midgetman, also known as the Small Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (SICBM), was an intercontinental ballistic missile developed by the United States Air Force. The system was mobile and could be set up rapidly, allowing it to move to a new firing location after learning of an enemy missile launch. To attack the weapon, the enemy would have to blanket the area around its last known location with multiple warheads, using up a large percentage of their force for limited gains and no guarantee that all of the missiles would be destroyed. In such a scenario, the U.S. would retain enough of their forces for a successful counterstrike, thereby maintaining a deterrence.

Nuclear triad

A nuclear triad is a three-pronged military force structure that consists of land-launched nuclear missiles, nuclear-missile-armed submarines and strategic aircraft with nuclear bombs and missiles. Specifically, these components are land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and strategic bombers. The purpose of having this three-branched nuclear capability is to significantly reduce the possibility that an enemy could destroy all of a nation's nuclear forces in a first-strike attack. This, in turn, ensures a credible threat of a second strike, and thus increases a nation's nuclear deterrence. The main theory of creating the nuclear triad was to spread the assortment of weapons across various platforms, making military forces more likely to survive an attack and able to respond to a first strike successfully. The military strategy of distributing weapons over the three platforms developed as an answer to countries' concerns when surviving a nuclear strike. This would ensure that nuclear forces could survive a first strike and be deployed in a retaliatory strike, resulting in "mutual assured destruction."

Air-launched ballistic missile

An air-launched ballistic missile or ALBM is a ballistic missile launched from an aircraft. An ALBM allows the launch aircraft to stand off at long distances from its target, keeping it well outside the range of defensive weapons like anti-aircraft missiles and interceptor aircraft. Once launched, the missile is essentially immune to interception. This combination of features allowed a strategic bomber to present a credible deterrent second-strike option in an era when improving anti-aircraft defences appeared to be rendering conventional bombers obsolete.

Prompt Global Strike (PGS) is a United States military effort to develop a system that can deliver a precision-guided conventional weapon airstrike anywhere in the world within one hour, in a similar manner to a nuclear ICBM. Such a weapon would allow the United States to respond far more swiftly to rapidly emerging threats than is possible with conventional forces. A PGS system could also be useful during a nuclear conflict, potentially replacing the use of nuclear weapons against 30% of targets. The PGS program encompasses numerous established and emerging technologies, including conventional surface-launched missiles and air- and submarine-launched hypersonic missiles, although no specific PGS system has yet been finalized as of 2018.

In nuclear strategy, a counterforce target is one that has a military value, such as a launch silo for intercontinental ballistic missiles, an airbase at which nuclear-armed bombers are stationed, a homeport for ballistic missile submarines, or a command and control installation.

A ballistic missile goes through several distinct phases of flight that are common to almost all such designs. They are, in order, the boost phase when the main boost rocket or upper stages are firing, the post-boost phase when any last-minute changes to the trajectory are made by the upper stage or warhead bus and the warheads and any decoys are released, the midcourse which represents most of the flight when the objects coast, and the terminal phase as the warhead approaches its target and, for longer-ranged missiles, begins to reenter the atmosphere.


  1. Zaloga, Steven (2003). V-2 Ballistic Missile 1942–52. Reading: Osprey Publishing. p. 3. ISBN   978-1-84176-541-9.
  2. Clayton K. S. Chun (2006). Thunder Over the Horizon: From V-2 Rockets to Ballistic Missiles. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 54.
  3. U.S. Department of State (8 April 2010). "Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms": Retrieved 25 November 2018.
  4. Almasy, Steve; Kwon, K. J.; Lee, Taehoon (14 May 2017). "North Korea launches missile". CNN . Retrieved 2017-10-14.
  5. 1 2 "Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat". Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee. June 2017.
  6. (2nd LD) N.K. leader calls SLBM launch success, boasts of nuke attack capacity - Yonhap, 25 Aug 2016 08:17am
  7. James John Tritten, Throw-Weight and Arms Control, Air University Review, Nov-Dec 1982.
  8. New York Times, What Is Throw-Weight?, July 15, 1991.
  9. Science & Global Security, 1992, Volume 3, pp.101-159 Depressed Trajectory SLBMs: A Technical Evaluation and Arms Control Possibilities

Further reading