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A ballistic missile is a missile that follows a sub-orbital ballistic flightpath with the objective of delivering one or more warheads (often nuclear) to a predetermined target. The missile is only guided during the relatively brief initial powered phase of flight and its course is subsequently governed by the laws of orbital mechanics and ballistics. To date, ballistic missiles have been propelled during powered flight by chemical rocket engines of various types.



The first ballistic missile was the A-4, commonly known as the V-2 rocket, developed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s under direction of Walter Dornberger. The first successful launch of a V-2 was on October 3, 1942 and began operation on September 6, 1944 against Paris, followed by an attack on London two days later. By the end of World War II May 1945 over 3,000 V-2s had been launched.

A total of 30 nations have deployed operational ballistic missiles. Development continues, with around 100 ballistic missile flight tests (not including those of the US) in 2007, mostly by China, Iran and the Russian Federation.[1]


A ballistic missile trajectory consists of three parts: the powered flight portion, the free-flight portion which constitutes most of the flight time, and the re-entry phase where the missile re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.

Ballistic missiles can be launched from fixed sites or mobile launchers, including vehicles (transporter erector launchers, TELs), aircraft, ships and submarines. The powered flight portion can last from a few tens of seconds to several minutes and can consist of multiple rocket stages.

When in space and no more thrust is provided, the missile enters free-flight. In order to cover large distances, ballistic missiles are usually launched into a high sub-orbital spaceflight; for intercontinental missiles the highest altitude (apogee) reached during free-flight is about 1200 km.

The re-entry stage begins at an altitude where atmospheric drag plays a significant part in missile trajectory, and lasts until missile impact.

Missile types

Vanguard class submarine launched Trident II ballistic missile being fired.]]

Ballistic missiles can vary widely in range and use, and are often divided into categories based on range. Various schemes are used by different countries to categorize the ranges of ballistic missiles:

Short- and medium-range missiles are often collectively referred to as theater or tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs). Long- and medium-range ballistic missiles are generally designed to deliver nuclear weapons because their payload is too limited for conventional explosives to be efficient (though the U.S. may be evaluating the idea of a conventionally-armed ICBM for near-instant global air strike capability despite the high costs).[2]

The flight phases are like those for ICBMs, except with no exoatmospheric phase for missiles with ranges less than about 350 km.

Quasi ballistic missiles

A quasi ballistic missile (also called a semi ballistic missile) is a category of missile that has a low trajectory and/or is largely ballistic but can perform maneuvers in flight or make unexpected changes in direction and range.[1]

At a lower trajectory than a ballistic missile, a quasi ballistic missile can maintain higher speed, thus allowing its target less time to react to the attack, at the cost of reduced range.

Missiles that combine a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) with a terminal guidance system, allowing them to adjust the flight path as they near their target, are thought to be under development in China for use as anti-ship ballistic missiles.

Specific missiles

Specific types of ballistic missiles include:



File:Flag of the People' China


Template:Country data IND India

Template:Country data IRN Iran

Template:Country data ISR Israel

Template:Country data IRQ Iraq

Nazi Germany

Template:Country data PRK North Korea


Soviet Union/Russia

Template:Country data KOR South Korea


United States

Ballistic missile submarines

Specific types of ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) include:

File:Flag of the People' China



United Kingdom

United States

Template:Country data IND India

Additional ballistic missile submarines

See also



Bate, Mueller, White (1971). Fundamentals of Astrodynamics. Dover Publications, New York. ISBN 0-486-60061-0

Cirincione, Joeseph & Andrew Wade (2007). "Get Smart on Ballistic Missiles" – The Center for American Progress

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:



ballistic missile (plural ballistic missiles)

  1. (weaponry) A missile that is initially guided, but then follows a ballistic (freely falling) trajectory.


Derived terms

  • (ABM) antiballistic missile
  • (ICBM) intercontinetal ballistic missile
  • (IRBM) intermediate range ballistic missile
  • (LRBM) long range ballistic missile
  • (MRBM) medium range ballistic missile
  • (SRBM) short range ballistic missile
  • (SLBM) submarine launched ballistic missile

See also


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