A missile is defined as an object or weapon that is fired, thrown, or otherwise projected at a target. Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.), Chief of Research for the Center for Defense Information stated that "the first 'ballistic' weapons probably were rocks that cavemen hurled at each other." In its simplest form, a missile can be a rock hurled from a slingshot, or it can be as complex as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) carrying a nuclear warhead from one country to another. Aside from nuclear warheads, missiles can carry biological and chemical agents.
A missile is equipped with a tracking system to locate its target. Trackers can use radiation, thermal imaging, or an image correlator and camera to pinpoint a missile's target. Missiles can be guided with the help of a guidance system. Guidance systems can determine a missile's location through many methods. Terrain contour matching (TERCOM), for example, is a guidance system with a database that can survey the terrain below the missile and use that information to determine its location.
A ballistic missile is guided for the first part of its flight. Once the missile comes closer to its target, it goes into freefall. There are a variety of ballistic missiles that have different traveling ranges.
Short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM): Travels under 1,000 km
Medium- range ballistic missiles (MRBM): Between 1000-3,000 km
Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM): 3500- 5,500 km
Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM): 5,500+ km
Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are long range missiles that can travel over 5,500 km. ICBMs are built to carry nuclear warheads. An intercontinental ballistic missile relies largely on ballistic trajectory to get to its target. Once released from the rest of the missile, ballistic warhead can travel 5 miles per second down to its target. ICBMs are seen as a considerable threat to security because they can travel faster and farther than other ballistic missiles.
Categorized as light weapons, man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) are small, light, and used for missile launching. They are easy enough to use that one person on the ground can use his portable missile launcher to fire at an aircraft. MANPADS are widely used by terrorist groups and many others lacking the proper authorization to use them.
A missile launched from a portable missile launcher is attracted to heat from an aircraft's exhaust. Once it reaches the target, the missile will explode and shrapnel will tear the aircraft apart. MANPADS are also considered extremely dangerous because they are inexpensive and easily transported. A portable missile launcher is typically only 5 feet long, making it easy to hide and move around. Because of this, many states agree that there needs to be strict controls over the transfer of MANPADS. There have been many agreements put forth by the United Nations attempting to curb the brokering and sale of MANPADS, but the issue remains that terrorist groups and others are still trying to acquire them. MANPADS remain a viable threat to the security of aircrafts today.
A Brief History of "Missiles" and Ballistic Missile Defense
By Colonel Daniel Smith, USA (Ret.), Chief of Research, Center for Defense Information
The first "ballistic" weapons probably were rocks that cave men hurled at each other. These "missiles" were followed by sticks fitted with pointed stone heads to make spears and later by wood and "string" devices that propelled smaller wooden shafts through the air.
But it wasn't until catapults evolved that "missiles" which could be anything from large flaming arrows (used by the Chinese in the 11th century) to large stones to a body (infected if possible) became really useful in warfare. In the west, the Greeks set the early design standards for mechanical catapults, designs on which the Romans relied for their siege warfare machines.
The Chinese, who invented gunpowder, were also the first to employ explosives to power missiles and the first, in the 1300's to fire a multistage missile. By the 17th century western military forces were experimenting with "war" rockets. Yet not until World War II were long range (up to 180 miles) rockets- the Nazi V-1- and ballistic missiles- the A-4, renamed the V-2- developed. Although it was possible to counter the noisy, relatively slow V-1, there was virtually no defense against the ballistic V-2.
As the wartime Allied coalition split, the new antagonists concentrated on developing long range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's) that could carry nuclear warheads. Strategic defenses were oriented more toward aircraft (with an estimated $200 billion spent between 1945-1961) rather than missiles for the simple reason that the technology for the latter was not available. Very early U.S. attempts at developing anti-missile missiles such as the short range hit-to-kill Thumper and the longer range Wizard were poorly funded and inconclusive.
Nonetheless, aware that the Soviets were pressing ahead with their missile developments, the Pentagon continued research on missile defenses. Then, on October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched into orbit the Sputnik satellite atop a multi-stage missile. A few weeks later the first U.S. attempt ended in disaster when the Vanguard rocket blew up on the launch pad. Not until January 1958, when a Pentagon ban on Army missile launches was lifted did a U.S. Jupiter-C loft in its Explorer I satellite into orbit. Both offensive and defensive long range missile development become priorities in a matter of a few weeks.
The Ballistic Threat Emerges
The Soviet launch of Sputnik spurred the U.S. civilian and military space programs. For the military, the key step was combining warheads, missiles, inertial guidance, and command and control systems for both land-based and submarine launched systems. By 1960 the United States had achieved both options, with the Soviets close behind. Over the next 11 years, before the first arms limitation talks began, Moscow developed and fielded nearly 1,500 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with nuclear warheads. They also were working to develop a defense to intercept U.S. missiles, a project that eventually resulted in deployment of the nuclear tipped Galosh anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system.
While the Soviets had always been regarded as the primary threat to U.S. national survival, the Chinese Communists were developing capabilities of their own. In 1959 they exploded their first atomic bomb. Then, in 1964, the Chinese launched their first ICBM. While Beijing would never begin to match the numbers of offensive missiles that the Soviets had-never fielding more than about 20-24 missiles and not achieving even a rudimentary submarine platform until the 1980s-the very existence of the Chinese force added another dimension to the missile threat to the United States.
Recognizing that anti-missile technology was such that the United States could not stop an all-out attack by Soviet ICBMs, the Pentagon during the Johnson Administration proceeded with development of a "thin" anti-ballistic umbrella designed to protect major U.S. cities.
In 1969, the Nixon Administration refocused the ABM system from guarding cities to guarding vital military locations, including Minuteman ICBM missile fields, Strategic Air Command bases, and the National Command Authority in Washington, DC. But this system was scrapped because it was too costly.
Where then, in the summer of 2000, does the long range missile threat to the U.S. stand? Russia, for all its problems, remains the only nation possessing enough ICBMs and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to overwhelm the proposed U.S. defensive umbrella. China continues to have only 20-24 ICBMs while its SLBMs are much shorter range. No other nation has operational ICBMs and only two, France and the UK, have SLBMs.
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