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. About 60 seconds after launch, the 1st stage drops off and the 2nd-stage motor (B) ignites. 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 is a missile that follows a ballistic trajectory with the objective of delivering one or more warheads to a predetermined target. A ballistic missile is only guided during relatively brief periods of flight (there are unguided ballistic missiles as well, such as 9K52 Luna-M, although these may well be considered rockets), and most of its trajectory is unpowered and governed by gravity and air resistance if in the atmosphere. This contrasts to a cruise missile, which is aerodynamically guided in powered flight. Long range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are launched on a sub-orbital flight trajectory and spend most of their flight out of the atmosphere. Shorter range ballistic missiles stay within the Earth's atmosphere.


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]

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

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


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.)

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.

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.

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[edit]

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]

Culturally, being able to discuss throw-weight was often used as shorthand to suggest that a politician was capable of understanding a serious and high-profile but arcane and supposedly mathematically complex public policy issue.[9]

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[edit]

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.[10] 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.

Quasi ballistic missiles[edit]

A quasi ballistic missile (also called a semi ballistic missile) including anti-ship ballistic missiles is a category of missile that has a low trajectory and/or is largely ballistic but can perform maneuvers in flight or make unexpected changes in direction and range.[citation needed]

At a lower trajectory than a ballistic missile, a quasi ballistic missile can maintain higher speed, thus allowing its target less time to react to the attack, at the cost of reduced range.

The Russian Iskander is a quasi ballistic missile.[11] The Russian Iskander-M cruises at hypersonic speed of 2,100–2,600 m/s (Mach 6 - 7) at a height of 50 km. The Iskander-M weighs 4,615 kg carries a warhead of 710 – 800 kg, has a range of 480 km and achieves a CEP of 5 – 7 meters. During flight it can maneuver at different altitudes and trajectories to evade anti-ballistic missiles.[12][13]

China, India & Iran have recently developed anti-ship ballistic missiles.


Comparable systems

Shahab 3


See also[edit]


  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. ^
  4. ^ Almasy, Steve; Kwon, K. J.; Lee, Taehoon (14 May 2017). "North Korea launches missile". CNN. Retrieved 2017-10-14. 
  5. ^ a b "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. ^ CNN [1], Madeleine Albright: The Voice of America, December 16, 1996.
  10. ^ Science & Global Security, 1992, Volume 3, pp.101-159 Depressed Trajectory SLBMs: A Technical Evaluation and Arms Control Possibilities [2]
  11. ^ Shaurya surfaces as India's underwater nuclear missile
  12. ^ SS-26 Iskander-M
  13. ^ SS-26 Stone Iskander 9M72 9P78EBallistic missile system Archived July 25, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.

Further reading[edit]

  • Futter, Andrew (2013). Ballistic Missile Defence and US National Security Policy: Normalisation and Acceptance after the Cold War. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415817325. 
  • Neufeld, Jacob (1990). The Development of Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960. Office of Air Force History, U.S. Air Force. ISBN 0912799625. 
  • Swaine, Michael D.; Swanger, Rachel M.; Kawakami, Takashi (2001). Japan and Ballistic Missile Defense. Rand. ISBN 0833030205. 

External links[edit]