Warheads and Targets

Chemical and biological weapons can be
packaged in submunitions to be dispersed
over a wide area.

Ballistic and cruise missiles can be armed with conventional or nonconventional warheads. Conventional warheads are filled with a chemical explosive, such as TNT, and rely on the detonation of the explosive and the resulting metal casing fragmentation as kill mechanisms. Nonconventional warheads include weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons), as well as nonlethal warheads, a relatively new class of warhead designed to disable equipment rather than harm personnel. Conventional, biological, and chemical weapons can be packaged in unitary (single) warheads and in submunitions (multiple small bomblets) that are released at altitude to disperse over a wide area.

Conventional warheads can be optimized for specific types of targets. For example, submunitions can be used to create craters in an aircraft runway or destroy armored vehicles. A penetrator warhead, which uses a relatively small amount of explosive surrounded by a heavy metal casing, can pass through a hardened structure such as a bunker to destroy its contents.

Many ballistic and cruise missiles
are armed with nuclear warheads.

Photo: Defense Nuclear Agency

Ballistic Missile Warhead with

Photo: TommaX, Inc./Military Parade Ltd.

Almost all of the longer range ballistic missiles, and several types of land-attack cruise missiles, carry nuclear warheads. Most of these warheads have an explosive force that is tens to hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

Chemical and biological weapons are attractive to many Third World countries because they are much easier to produce than nuclear weapons. Many countries with chemical and biological warfare programs also are equipped with ballistic and/or cruise missiles. Accuracy is not very important for these weapons when used against urban areas or large concentrations of military forces. Chemical and biological weapons are capable of producing massive casualties, inducing panic and chaos in civilian populations, and severely degrading military operations.

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