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A ballistic missile is a missile that follows a sub-orbital ballistic flight path 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.
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:
- Tactical ballistic missile: Range between about 150 km and 300 km
- Battlefield range ballistic missile (BRBM): Range less than 200 km
- Theatre ballistic missile (TBM): Range between 300 km and 3500 km
- Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) or long-range ballistic missile (LRBM): Range between 3500 km and 5500 km
- Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM): Range greater than 5500 km
- Submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM): Launched from ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), all current designs have intercontinental range.
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).
The flight phases are like those for ICBMs, except with no exo-atmospheric 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.
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.
A cruise missile is a guided missile that carries an explosive payload and uses a lifting wing and a propulsion system, usually a jet engine, to allow sustained flight; it is essentially a flying bomb. Cruise missiles are generally designed to carry a large conventional or nuclear warhead many hundreds of kilometers with high accuracy. Modern cruise missiles can travel at supersonic or high subsonic speeds, are self-navigating, and fly on a non-ballistic very low altitude trajectory to avoid radar detection.
Cruise missiles are distinct from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in that they are used only as weapons and not for reconnaissance, the warhead is integrated into the vehicle, and the vehicle is always sacrificed in the mission.
Cruise missiles generally consist of a guidance system, payload, and propulsion system, housed in an airframe with small wings and empennage for flight control. Payloads usually consist of a conventional warhead or a nuclear warhead. Cruise missiles tend to be propelled by a jet engine, turbofan engines being preferred due to their greater efficiency at low altitude and sub-sonic speed.
Guidance systems also vary greatly. Low-cost systems use a radar altimeter, barometric altimeter and clock to navigate a digital strip map. More advanced systems use inertial guidance, satellite navigation and terrain contour matching (TERCOM). Use of an automatic target recognition (ATR) algorithm/device in the guidance system increases accuracy of the missile. The Standoff Land Attack Missile features an ATR unit from General Electric.
Cruise missiles can be categorized by size, speed (subsonic or supersonic), and range, and whether launched from land, air, surface ship, or submarine. Often versions of the same missile are produced for different launch platforms; sometimes air- and submarine-launched versions are a little lighter and smaller than land- and ship-launched versions.
An anti-ballistic missile (ABM) is a missile designed to counter ballistic missiles (a missile for missile defense). A ballistic missile is used to deliver nuclear, chemical, biological or conventional warheads in a ballistic flight trajectory. The term “anti-ballistic missile” describes any antimissile system designed to counter ballistic missiles. However the term is used more commonly for ABM systems designed to counter long range, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).