The Threat

Ballistic and cruise missiles present a significant threat to US and allied forces overseas, as well as to the United States and its territories. Missiles are attractive to many nations because they can be used effectively against an adversary with a formidable air defense system, where an attack with manned aircraft would be impractical or too costly. Missiles also have the advantage of fewer maintenance, training, and logistic requirements than manned aircraft. Even limited use of these weapons could be devastating, since missiles can be armed with chemical, biological, or nuclear warheads.

The US Air Force, in cooperation with the other services, is responsible for countering the ballistic and cruise missile threat through deterrence and, if necessary, active suppression. Threat suppression may include attacks on missile systems, both before launch and in flight, as well as attacks on their supporting infrastructure. This document includes information on some of the major current and projected ballistic and cruise missile threat systems.


Photo: German Museum, Munich


Photo: Adapted from photo
by J. Frank Durham

Guided cruise and ballistic missiles were first used when Germany attacked targets in England and Northern Europe with V-l cruise missiles and V-2 ballistic missiles during World War II. Although these missiles were inaccurate, their use resulted in tens of thousands of Allied casualties.

The ballistic and cruise missile threat continues to increase with the proliferation of missile technology. Over 25 countries have ballistic missile systems, and it is likely that missiles will be a threat in future conflicts involving US forces. Ballistic missiles have been used in several recent conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq War, the Afghan Civil War, the war in Yemen, the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, and the 1999-2000 Russian military action in Chechnya. Although land-attack cruise missiles have not yet been widely proliferated, as many as 20 countries could possess cruise missiles in the next decade.

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