Ballistic Missile Characteristics

Relative Ranges of Ballistic Missiles

Operational ballistic missiles are deployed in silos, on submarines, and on land-mobile launchers, including trucks and railcars. Mobile missiles are favored by many nations because they can be hidden, which greatly increases their survivability.

In many short-range ballistic missiles, the entire missile remains intact until the warhead detonates. In longer range ballistic missiles, warheads are contained in separating reentry vehicles. Some long-range ballistic missiles carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), with up to 10 reentry vehicles (RVs) per missile. RVs reenter the Earth's atmosphere at very high velocities, on the order of 4-5 miles per second at ICBM ranges.

Ballistic Missile Category Maximum Range
Short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) <1,000 km (621 mi)
Medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM)1,000-3,000 km (621-1,864 mi)
Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM)3,000-5,500 km (1,864 - 3,418 mi)
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)>5,500 km (3,418 mi)
Submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM)Any ballistic missile launched from a submarine, regardless of maximum range

Ballistic missiles can use solid- or liquid-propellant rocket propulsion systems. The trend in modem missile systems has been toward the use of solid propellants because of their reduced logistical requirements and simplicity of operation. However, some Third World nations have greater access to liquid-propellant technology and therefore continue to develop new liquid-propellant missiles.

Multiple-stage missiles, with each stage having its own independent propulsion system, are more efficient for longer range missions. ICBMs typically have two or three stages, with powerful liquid-propellant engines or solid-propellant motors to propel the payload toward its target, in addition to a post-boost vehicle (PBV) with a much smaller propulsion system. A post-boost vehicle can be used to improve the RV deployment accuracy for a single-RV missile. For a missile with a MIRV payload, the PBV is used to release reentry vehicles so that they follow different trajectories, allowing them to hit targets that may be separated by over a thousand miles.

Mobile missiles can move frequently to
avoid being targeted by hostile forces.

Photo: TommaX, Inc./Military Parade Ltd.

A ballistic missile with a high-quality inertial guidance system is capable of delivering a reentry vehicle within a few hundred feet of the target after a flight of over 6,000 miles. For many missiles, accuracy can be greatly improved by utilizing satellite-aided navigation. As more modern guidance technology is proliferated, countries will be able to improve the accuracy and lethality of their missile forces. However, even a missile with an inaccurate guidance system is capable of inflicting massive casualties when armed with a weapon of mass destruction. Therefore, many Third World ballistic missiles, although inaccurate, have the potential to pose a serious threat to urban targets.

Many ballistic missiles carry penetration aids to improve the chances of a reentry vehicle penetrating a ballistic missile defense system. Penetration aids are devices that attempt to deceive or jam sensors used to detect and track missiles and RVs. Penetration aids are of increasing importance to countries developing and operating ballistic missiles.

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