Missiles and Missile Launchers
Guided Missiles are self-propelled projectile weapons or instruments, guided in flight toward a target either by remote control or by internal mechanisms. Guided missiles vary widely in size and type, ranging from large strategic ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads to small, portable rockets carried by foot soldiers. Although most are military weapons with explosive warheads, others may carry scientific instruments for gathering information within or above the earth's atmosphere.
Guided missiles consist of three separate systems: power source, guidance and control mechanism, and warhead or payload. Power sources normally are either self-contained rocket motors or air-breathing jet engines, but may also be airfoils or outside booster charges from ramp or tube launchers. Payloads are generally warheads designed for specific missions, from piercing armor plate to destroying entire urban areas.
Guided missiles today are grouped into four launch-to-target categories: surface-to-surface, surface-to air, air-to-surface, and air-to-air. Missiles may also be grouped by their area of operation: Tactical missiles are used by military forces in direct combat on and above the battlefield; support missiles are employed behind the main battle area; and strategic missiles are designed for intercontinental warfare.
Missiles may also be separated by their flight characteristics. Aerodynamic missiles are supported in flight by air pressure around their wing and body surfaces similar to conventional piloted aircraft; ballistic missiles depend solely on their internal power source, usually a rocket engine, to remain airborne. Aerodynamic missiles normally travel on a straight-line or flat trajectory toward their target, and ballistic missiles are usually surface-to-surface weapons that follow curved or arched trajectories similar to that of an artillery projectile.
A surface-to-surface missile is a guided projectile launched from a hand-held, vehicle mounted, trailer mounted or fixed installation or from a ship. They are often powered by a rocket motor or sometimes fired by an explosive charge, since the launching platform is typically stationary or moving slowly.
Tactical surface-to-surface guided missiles range from hand-portable anti-tank rockets to large ballistic missiles able to attack airfields, supply lines, and communications stations hundreds of kilometers behind the battlefield. Small missiles often employ line-of-sight guidance systems that relay corrections in the flight path of the missile. The Navy’s Tomahawk and the Air Force’s AGM-86 can be launched from ships, airplanes, or submarines to nearby targets such as ships or to tactical targets several thousand kilometers away deep within an enemy country.
Air-to-air and air-to-surface guided missiles are generally short-range, light, rocket-powered projectiles with sophisticated internal guidance systems. Most current air-to-ground guided missiles depend on their own target-sensing mechanism once launched.
- The AIM-7 Sparrow is a medium-range semi-active radar homing air-to-air missile.
- The AIM-9 Sidewinder is a heat-seeking, short-range, air-to-air missile carried by fighter aircraft and recently, certain gunship helicopters.
- The AIM-54 Phoenix is a radar-guided, long-range air-to-air missile, carried in clusters of up to six missiles
- The AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, is an air-to-air missile (AAM) capable of all weather day and night performance.
Air-to-air guided missiles are used to destroy hostile aircraft and are generally smaller, lighter, and faster than air-to-ground projectiles. The AIM-9 Sidewinder uses infrared heat-seeking guidance to locate its target, while the AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-54 Phoenix missiles rely on radar homing devices. While most fighter aircraft still carry machine guns, air-to-air missiles have replaced automatic gunfire as the main weapon of choice.
This type of missile was developed to protect ground areas from hostile air attack, especially from high-altitude bombers flying above the range of conventional anti-aircraft artillery.
Most air defense missiles employ separate radars to locate, track, and guide the missile toward hostile aircraft; final interception is accomplished by the internal guidance system of the missile itself. Some of these missiles are air-to-air weapons adapted for ground units; others, such as the U.S. Navy Standard, can also be used against ground targets. The Patriot antimissile system was used by the United States in the Persian Gulf War to intercept attacking missiles. A new addition has been the hand-portable antiaircraft missile. The U.S. FIM-92 Stinger is sighted optically and uses an internal infrared homing device.
Military guided missiles carry either high-explosive or nuclear warheads. Short-range tactical missiles employ high-explosive charges that produce damage through their force of impact and blast or through fragmentation. Anti-tank missiles, for example, normally depend on a concentrated blast effect to penetrate or splinter armor; warheads used against less protected targets such as aircraft rely more on fragmentation to produce the greatest damage. Nuclear warheads are weapons of mass destruction, carried primarily by inercontinental ballistic missiles.