What are the Differences between a Ballistic Missile and a Cruise Missile?

Many countries choose missiles because they may be deployed efficiently against an enemy with a strong air defense system, making the use of human aircraft in such an attack impossible or too expensive. There is less need for personnel, supplies, and upkeep when using missiles instead of manned aircraft.

So, What are the Differences between a Ballistic Missile and a Cruise Missile?

When a missile test is being reported, the terms “ballistic missile” and “cruise missile” are frequently used. Ballistic and cruise missile systems are seen as emblems of national power and a cost-effective armament by many governments. Cruise and ballistic missiles are widely used by many countries, both offensively and defensively.

How do cruise missiles and ballistic missiles maneuver, and what are the differences between the basic principles of these maneuvers?

Guided cruise and ballistic missiles were first used when Germany attacked targets in England and Northern Europe with V1 cruise missiles and V2 ballistic missiles during World War II. Although these missiles were inaccurate, their use resulted in tens of thousands of Allied casualties.

The Federation of American Scientists says that a ballistic weapon follows a ballistic path for most of its flight. That means once the rocket’s fuel is gone, it will keep moving, just like a bullet does after being shot out of a gun.

Ballistic missiles climb very high, exiting the atmosphere. According to Wikipedia, short-range ballistic missiles stay within the Earth’s atmosphere, while intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are launched on a sub-orbital trajectory.

What are the Differences between a Ballistic Missile and a Cruise Missile?

According to one definition, a sub-orbital space flight reaches an altitude greater than 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. At this altitude, known as the Kármán line, once the fuel runs out, the missile’s direction cannot be altered; it follows a path based on the speed of its launch and the force of gravity attempting to pull it back to the Earth’s surface. Gravity eventually guides the missile and its payload toward its intended target, which could be a chemical or biological weapon or a nuclear device.

Ballistic missiles are broadly categorized into four groups based on their range:

  1. Short-range ballistic missiles cover distances less than 1,000 kilometers (approximately 620 miles).
  2. Medium-range ballistic missiles spanning 1,000 to 3,000 kilometers (approximately 620 to 1860 miles).
  3. Intermediate-range ballistic missiles range from 3,000 to 5,500 kilometers (approximately 1860 to 3410 miles).
  4. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are capable of traveling over 5,500 kilometers, thus posing a threat to targets across the globe.
In exchange for weapons, Russia can transfer China nuclear arsenal technology.
Chinese DF-26 medium-range ballistic missiles.

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Top 10 Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs)

Short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are called theatre ballistic missiles, while ICBMs and long-range ballistic missiles are referred to as strategic ballistic missiles. On their flight path, ballistic missiles are capable of traveling at a high rate of speed. With terminal velocities of over 5,000 meters per second, an ICBM can strike a target within a range of 10,000 kilometers in approximately 30 to 35 minutes. Due to the limited time available, ballistic missiles are significantly more difficult to intercept than cruise missiles.

Sarmat missile
Sarmat missile

For example, the Russian RS-28 Sarmat ICBM can reach almost 25,000 kilometers per hour or over 15,000 miles per hour. To further complicate matters, most ICBMs carry not a unitary large warhead but several smaller and fully independent nuclear missiles called MIRVs (Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicle). 

The Sarmat can carry up to 24 MIRVs; each MIRV carries nuclear warheads with yields ranging anywhere from hundreds of kilotons to a few megatons. Each MIRV can hit a target hundreds of kilometers away from each other, and some MIRVs will carry decoys and countermeasures, putting additional stress on defensive systems.

Even though cruise missiles are cheaper, more mobile, and more versatile, ballistic missiles are among the most feared armaments in existence. No nation has launched an ICBM as an act of war against another nation, although some nations have tested these missiles during training exercises.

Abu Mahdi
Iranian missiles named Abu Mahdi are pictured during the IRGC Army and Navy joining ceremony, in Tehran, Iran, in this image obtained on July 25, 2023. (Photo credit: Iran Ministry of Defense/WANA (West Asian News Agency/Handout via Reuters)

Cruise missiles are unmanned vehicles that are propelled by jet engines, much like an airplane with turbofan engines, in particular being preferred due to their greater efficiency at low altitudes. They range in speed from subsonic to hypersonic, while less common supersonic and hypersonic cruise missiles utilize ramjet and scramjet engines. They can be launched from ground, airplane, and sea platforms like submarines and surface warships.

They tend to have shorter ranges than ballistic missiles. Unlike ballistic missiles, cruise missiles are usually categorized by intended missions and launch mode instead of maximum range. The two broadest categories are land attack cruise missiles (LACMs) and anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCMs). The success of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles during the Persian Gulf War has heightened interest in cruise missile acquisition in many countries.

Cruise missiles can reach their objectives from a variety of altitudes so long as they remain within the atmosphere. The trajectory of the vast majority of objects remains close to the Earth’s surface, occasionally hovering just meters above the ground. Their low flight path makes it difficult for most radar and sensor systems to detect the missile unless the radar or sensor system is airborne and directed toward the ground.

Some cruise missiles can only fly at extremely high altitudes, and then they descend steeply once they’ve reached their destination. Higher-altitude flight uses less fuel than lower-altitude flight, allowing the missile to travel further. Unfortunately, modern radars and sensors are often set up to identify and track threats at high altitudes, making the missile more vulnerable to missile defense systems.

Altitude Variation for Tactical Advantage

Cruise missiles are renowned for dynamically altering their flight trajectory, capitalizing on both high and low altitudes. This strategic maneuver enhances their overall performance by combining the advantages of different altitudes. Typically, these missiles initiate their journey at high altitudes to extend their operational range. 

However, as they near their target or potential missile defenses, they adeptly descend to lower altitudes, skimming the sea or terrain. This transition serves to elude detection and countermeasures, highlighting the adaptability of cruise missiles in various operational scenarios.

Precision Strikes Defined

The hallmark characteristic of cruise missiles lies in their remarkable precision. Often boasting ranges under 300 kilometers, with the most extended variants reaching approximately 1600 kilometers, these missiles exhibit extraordinary accuracy. 

A frequently cited example underscores this accuracy, asserting that cruise missiles can cover a thousand miles and hit a target as compact as a single-car garage. This precision opens avenues for surgical strikes and minimizes collateral damage in contemporary warfare.

Guidance Mechanisms for Pinpoint Accuracy

Cruise missiles harness a repertoire of guidance methods to ensure the impeccable placement of their payloads on intended targets while outmaneuvering missile defense systems. Among these methods, inertial guidance stands as a foundational approach, relying on a pre-programmed flight path set before launch.

Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM): Navigating with Terrain

Another pivotal guidance method is Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM). This intricate mechanism involves the comparison of an onboard terrain map with the actual topography over which the missile traverses. This technique guarantees the missile’s adherence to the designated path, further reinforcing its accuracy and operational efficacy.

Precision Through Global Positioning: GPS and GLONASS

Several cruise missiles integrate GPS systems to achieve pinpoint accuracy. These systems necessitate connectivity with the GPS or GLONASS satellite networks and facilitate adherence to predetermined flight paths. Cruise missiles can strike designated targets with unparalleled precision by leveraging specific coordinates, augmenting their role in modern warfare.

Enhancing Terminal Phase Precision

Cruise missiles deploy advanced guidance methods in the terminal phase of flight to elevate their accuracy.

Laser-Guided Precision: Target Painting

Laser-guided systems emerge as a crucial asset in this phase. Equipped with sensors, these systems detect targets designated by laser markers. While immensely accurate, this method can be vulnerable to interference from environmental factors such as dust and smoke, potentially hindering target acquisition.

TV Guidance: Human Intervention

Terminal guidance can also involve TV guidance, where an operator employs a nose-mounted camera to identify the target and manually guide the missile visually. This dynamic approach allows operators to abort the strike if anomalies are detected, underscoring the human element in precision warfare.

Radar Seekers: Radar-Equipped Accuracy

Certain cruise missiles integrate radar seekers in their nose sections to identify and remain on course toward their targets during the terminal phase. These seekers may utilize passive radar to detect emissions from the target’s radar or active radar to emit signals for target detection.

Infrared (IR) Guidance: Homing in on Heat

Infrared (IR) guidance presents yet another terminal phase technique, steering missiles toward heat-emitting sources like engines. Despite its efficacy, IR guidance’s simplicity renders it incapable of distinguishing between friendly, adversarial, or extraneous IR signals in crowded battlefields. Consequently, it is often employed alongside other guidance systems.

Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation (DSMAC): Image-Reliant Precision

Among the diverse guidance methods, Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation (DSMAC) relies on an onboard camera to identify the target. This image is then compared to a stored reference image using an image correlator, accentuating the missile’s ability to refine target identification during the terminal phase.

Cruise Missiles: Transformative Force in Modern Warfare

Cruise missiles hold a pivotal role across all military branches, reshaping the landscape of modern warfare. Their effective utilization in contemporary conflicts has the potential to sway the outcome without resorting to nuclear options. 

As technology advances, the horizon holds promises of more intelligent, self-managing, and hypersonic cruise missiles entering the global market. Irrespective of these changes, cruise missiles are poised to endure as one of the most dependable weapons in the foreseeable future.