Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle

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The MIRV U.S. Peacekeeper missile, with the re-entry vehicles highlighted in red.
Technicians secure a number of Mk21 re-entry vehicles on a Peacekeeper MIRV bus.
LGM-118A Peacekeeper MIRV at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
A Trident II missile, operated exclusively by the US Navy and Royal Navy. Each missile can carry up to 14 warheads.[1]

A multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) is an exoatmospheric ballistic 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. An intermediate case is the multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) missile which carries several warheads which are dispersed but not individually aimed. All nuclear-weapon states except Pakistan[a] and North Korea are currently confirmed to have deployed MIRV missile systems. Israel is suspected to possess or be in the process of developing MIRVs.[4]

The first true MIRV design was the Minuteman III, first successfully tested in 1968 and introduced into actual use in 1970.[5][6][7] The Minuteman III held three smaller W62 warheads, with yields of about 170 kilotons of TNT (710 TJ) each in place of the single 1.2 megatons of TNT (5.0 PJ) W56 used on the Minuteman II.[8] From 1970 to 1975, the United States would remove approximately 550 earlier versions of the Minuteman ICBM in the Strategic Air Command's (SAC) arsenal and replace them with the new Minuteman IIIs outfitted with a MIRV payload, increasing their overall effectiveness.[6] As of 2017 the Minuteman III missile was converted to a single reentry vehicle system.[9][10] The smaller power of the warheads used (W62, W78 and W87) was offset by increasing the accuracy of the system, allowing it to attack the same hard targets as the larger, less accurate, W56.[8][11] The MMIII was introduced specifically to address the Soviet construction of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system around Moscow; MIRV allowed the US to overwhelm any conceivable ABM system without increasing the size of their own missile fleet. The Soviets responded by adding MIRV to their R-36 design, first with three warheads in 1975, and eventually up to ten in later versions. While the United States phased out the use of MIRVs in ICBMs in 2014 to comply with New START,[12] Russia continues to develop new ICBM designs using the technology.[13]

The introduction of MIRV led to a major change in the strategic balance. Previously, with one warhead per missile, it was conceivable that one could build a defense that used missiles to attack individual warheads. Any increase in missile fleet by the enemy could be countered by a similar increase in interceptors. With MIRV, a single new enemy missile meant that multiple interceptors would have to be built, meaning that it was much less expensive to increase the attack than the defense. This cost-exchange ratio was so heavily biased towards the attacker that the concept of mutual assured destruction became the leading concept in strategic planning and ABM systems were severely limited in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to avoid a massive arms race.


The military purpose of a MIRV is fourfold:

  • Enhance first-strike proficiency for strategic forces.[14]
  • Providing greater target damage for a given thermonuclear weapon payload. Several small and lower yield warheads cause much more target damage area than a single warhead alone. This, in turn, reduces the number of missiles and launch facilities required for a given destruction level - much the same as the purpose of a cluster munition.[15]
  • With single-warhead missiles, one missile must be launched for each target. By contrast, with a MIRV warhead, the post-boost (or bus) stage can dispense the warheads against multiple targets across a broad area.
  • Reduces the effectiveness of an anti-ballistic missile system that relies on intercepting individual warheads.[16] While a MIRV attacking missile can have multiple warheads (3-12 on United States and Russian missiles, or 14 in a maximum payload shorter-range configuration of the Trident II now barred by START), interceptors may have only one warhead per missile. Thus, in both a military and an economic sense, MIRVs render ABM systems less effective, as the costs of maintaining a workable defense against MIRVs would greatly increase, requiring multiple defensive missiles for each offensive one. Decoy re-entry vehicles can be used alongside actual warheads to minimize the chances of the actual warheads being intercepted before they reach their targets. A system that destroys the missile earlier in its trajectory (before MIRV separation) is not affected by this but is more difficult, and thus more expensive to implement.

MIRV land-based ICBMs were considered destabilizing because they tended to put a premium on striking first.[17] The world's first MIRV—US Minuteman III missile of 1970—threatened to rapidly increase the US's deployable nuclear arsenal and thus the possibility that it would have enough bombs to destroy virtually all of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons and negate any significant retaliation. Later on the US feared the Soviet's MIRVs because Soviet missiles had a greater throw-weight and could thus put more warheads on each missile than the US could. For example, the US MIRVs might have increased their warhead per missile count by a factor of 6 while the Soviets increased theirs by a factor of 10. Furthermore, the US had a much smaller proportion of its nuclear arsenal in ICBMs than the Soviets. Bombers could not be outfitted with MIRVs so their capacity would not be multiplied. Thus the US did not seem to have as much potential for MIRV usage as the Soviets. However, the US had a larger number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which could be outfitted with MIRVs, and helped offset the ICBM disadvantage. It is because of their first-strike capability that land-based MIRVs were banned under the START II agreement. START II was ratified by the Russian Duma on 14 April 2000, but Russia withdrew from the treaty in 2002 after the US withdrew from the ABM treaty.

Mode of operation[edit]

In a MIRV, the main rocket motor (or booster) pushes a "bus" (see illustration) into a free-flight suborbital ballistic flight path. After the boost phase, the bus maneuvers using small on-board rocket motors and a computerized inertial guidance system. It takes up a ballistic trajectory that will deliver a re-entry vehicle containing a warhead to a target and then releases a warhead on that trajectory. It then maneuvers to a different trajectory, releasing another warhead, and repeats the process for all warheads.

Minuteman III MIRV launch sequence: 1. The missile launches out of its silo by firing its first-stage boost motor (A). 2. About 60 seconds after launch, the first-stage drops off and the second-stage motor (B) ignites. The missile shroud (E) is ejected. 3. About 120 seconds after launch, the third-stage motor (C) ignites and separates from the second-stage. 4. About 180 seconds after launch, the third-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. While the post-boost vehicle backs away, the RVs, decoys, and chaff are deployed (this may occur during ascent). 7. The RVs and chaff reenter the atmosphere at high speeds and are armed in flight. 8. The nuclear warheads detonate, either as air bursts or ground bursts.

The precise technical details are closely guarded military secrets, to hinder any development of enemy counter-measures. The bus's on-board propellant limits the distances between targets of individual warheads to perhaps a few hundred kilometers.[18] Some warheads may use small hypersonic airfoils during the descent to gain additional cross-range distance. Additionally, some buses (e.g. the British Chevaline system) can release decoys to confuse interception devices and radars, such as aluminized balloons or electronic noisemakers.

Testing of the Peacekeeper reentry vehicles: all eight (of a possible ten) were fired from only one missile. Each line shows the path of an individual warhead captured on reentry via long-exposure photography.

Accuracy is crucial because doubling the accuracy decreases the needed warhead energy by a factor of four for radiation damage and by a factor of eight for blast damage. Navigation system accuracy and the available geophysical information limits the warhead target accuracy. Some writers believe [weasel words] that government-supported geophysical mapping initiatives and ocean satellite altitude systems such as Seasat may have a covert purpose to map mass concentrations and determine local gravity anomalies, in order to improve accuracies of ballistic missiles.[citation needed] Accuracy is expressed as circular error probable (CEP). This is the radius of the circle that the warhead has a 50 percent chance of falling into when aimed at the center. CEP is about 90–100 m for the Trident II and Peacekeeper missiles.[19]


A multiple re-entry vehicle (MRV) system for a ballistic missile deploys multiple warheads above a single aimpoint which then drift apart, producing a cluster bomb-like effect. These warheads are not individually targetable. The advantage of an MRV over a single warhead is the increased effectiveness due to the greater coverage; this increases the overall damage produced within the center of the pattern, making it far greater than the damage possible from any single warhead in the MRV cluster; this makes for an efficient area-attack weapon and makes interception by anti-ballistic missiles more challenging due to the number of warheads being deployed at once.[6]

Improved warhead designs allow smaller warheads for a given yield, while better electronics and guidance systems allow greater accuracy. As a result, MIRV technology has proven more attractive than MRV for advanced nations. Multiple-warhead missiles require both a miniaturized physics package and a lower mass re-entry vehicle, both of which are highly advanced technologies. As a result, single-warhead missiles are more attractive for nations with less advanced or less productive nuclear technology. The United States first deployed MRV warheads on the Polaris A-3 SLBM in 1964 on the USS Daniel Webster. The Polaris A-3 missile carried three warheads each having an approximate yield of 200 kilotonnes of TNT (840 TJ). This system was also used by the Royal Navy who also retained MRV with the Chevaline upgrade, though the number of warheads in Chevaline was reduced to two due to the ABM counter-measures carried.[6] The Soviet Union deployed 3 MRVs on the R-27U SLBM and 3 MRVs on the R-36P ICBM. Refer to atmospheric re-entry for more details.

MIRV-capable missiles[edit]

  • DF-3A (retired, 3 warheads)
  • DF-4A (retired, 3 warheads)
  • DF-5B (active, 3-8 warheads)
  • DF-5C (active, 10 warheads)
  • DF-31A (active, 3-5 warheads)
  • DF-31B (active, 3-5 warheads)
  • DF-41 (active, up to 10 warheads)
  • JL-2 (active, 1-3 warheads)
  • JL-3 (under development)
  • M4 (retired, 6 warheads)
  • M45 (retired, 6 warheads)
  • M51 (active, 6-10 warheads)
  • Jericho 3 (active, suspected capability, not announced, 2-3 technically possible)[27]
USSR/Russian Federation
RSD-10 Pioneer MIRV at the National Air and Space Museum
United Kingdom
United States

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Pakistan is confirmed to possess MIRV technology, but there is no confirmation yet that it has deployed MIRV missiles."[2][3]


  1. ^ Parsch, Andreas. "UGM-133". Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles. Archived from the original on 2011-03-15. Retrieved 2014-06-13.
  2. ^ "Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat Assessment". March 6, 2018. Retrieved March 31, 2024.
  3. ^ a b Usman Haider; Abdul Moiz Khan (18 November 2023). "Why Did Pakistan Test Its MIRV-Capable Ababeel Missile?". The Diplomat. Retrieved 11 March 2024.
  4. ^ "Agni-5 missile: What is MIRV technology?". The Times of India. Retrieved 2024-03-11.
  5. ^ "Military says Minuteman missiles ready". Lewiston Morning Tribune. (Idaho). Associated Press. July 20, 1970. p. 1. Archived from the original on August 28, 2020. Retrieved May 31, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c d Polmar, Norman; Norris, Robert S. (1 July 2009). The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems since 1945 (1st ed.). Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1557506818. LCCN 2008054725. OCLC 602923650. OL 22843826M.
  7. ^ "The Minuteman III ICBM". Archived from the original on 2019-01-18. Retrieved 2017-09-17.
  8. ^ a b "Nuclear Chronology" (PDF). July 2021. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 12, 2022. Retrieved January 18, 2024.
  9. ^ "The End of MIRVs for U.S. ICBMs". The Equation. 2014-06-27. Retrieved 2024-01-19.
  10. ^ "NMHB 2020 [Revised]". Retrieved 2024-01-19.
  11. ^ "W87-1 Modification Program" (PDF). March 1, 2019. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 26, 2023. Retrieved January 18, 2024.
  12. ^ "Last Malmstrom ICBM reconfigured under treaty". Great Falls Tribune. Archived from the original on 2020-08-28. Retrieved 2018-09-08.
  13. ^ "Putin has touted an 'invincible' nuclear weapon that really exists — here's how it works and why it deeply worries experts". Business Insider. Archived from the original on 2018-09-08. Retrieved 2018-09-08.
  14. ^ Buchonnet, Daniel (1 February 1976). "MIRV: A BRIEF HISTORY OF MINUTEMAN and MULTIPLE REENTRY VEHICLES". Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. United States Department of Defense. Archived from the original on 15 September 2019. Retrieved 24 November 2019. The idea of multiple warheads dates back to the mid-1960s, but the key year in the history of the MIRV concept was 1962 when several of technological developments made it possible for scientists and engineers to conceive of multiple, separately targeted warheads that could hit a growing list of Soviet nuclear threat targets. One important innovation was that the weapons laboratories had designed small thermonuclear weapons, a necessary condition for deploying multiple reentry vehicles on the relatively small Minuteman.
  15. ^ The best overall printed sources on nuclear weapons design are: Hansen, Chuck. U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History. San Antonio, TX: Aerofax, 1988; and the more-updated Hansen, Chuck, "Swords of Armageddon: U.S. Nuclear Weapons Development since 1945 Archived 2016-12-30 at the Wayback Machine" (CD-ROM & download available). PDF. 2,600 pages, Sunnyvale, California, Chukelea Publications, 1995, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9791915-0-3 (2nd Ed.)
  16. ^ Robert C. Aldridge (1983). First Strike!: The Pentagon's Strategy for Nuclear War. South End Press. pp. 65–. ISBN 978-0-89608-154-3. Archived from the original on 16 July 2014. Retrieved 26 February 2013.
  17. ^ Heginbotham, Eric (15 March 2017). "China's Evolving Nuclear Deterrent: Major Drivers and Issues for the United States". Archived from the original on 2017-12-01. Retrieved 2017-12-01.
  18. ^ "Question Re Mirv Warheads — Military Forum |". Archived from the original on 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2008-07-02.
  19. ^ Cimbala, Stephen J. (2010). Military Persuasion: Deterrence and Provocation in Crisis and War. Penn State Press. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-271-04126-1. Archived from the original on 26 April 2016. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
  20. ^ "India conducts first test flight of domestically developed missile that can carry multiple warheads". 11 March 2024.
  21. ^ "India's MIRV-tipped Agni-5 Missile Test : All your questions answered". Business Standard.
  22. ^ "One missile, many weapons: What makes the latest Agni-5 special". The Indian Express. 2024-03-12. Retrieved 2024-03-14.
  23. ^ "Why India Testing Agni-5 is a Milestone Moment". News18. 2024-03-12. Retrieved 2024-03-14.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  24. ^ Rout, Hemant Kumar (2021-09-13). "India to conduct first user trial of Agni-V missile". The New Indian Express. Retrieved 2024-03-12.
  25. ^ "Mission Divyastra successful: A look at evolution of Agni missiles". India Today. Retrieved 2024-03-12.
  26. ^ Gady, Franz-Stefan. "India Launches Second Ballistic Missile Sub". Retrieved 2024-03-12.
  27. ^ "Jericho 3". Missile Threat. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Archived from the original on 21 January 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2020.
  28. ^ "Pakistan missile test confirms its MIRV ambitions". IISS. Retrieved 2024-04-04.

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