Missiles Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Any type of aerial projectile delivered against a target, normally with a high trajectory and over greater distances than personal weapons. In modern times, the term “missile” usually refers exclusively to pilotless air vehicles carrying a warhead and powered by a rocket or jet engine.

Premodern Missiles

Air-delivered projectiles have been used since before the dawn of civilization. Although for thousand of years, armies depended primarily on hand-held weapons, such as swords and spears, kinetic-energy missiles in the form of arrows fired from bows and, later, bolts fired from crossbows had an auxiliary role on battlefields. Heavier projectiles were developed for use against fortifications and city walls. Roman armies employed artillery in the form of large engines that could hurl boulders at enemy fortifications. However, the birth of the modern missile came when gunpowder, a Chinese invention, was made to burn inside a tube that was closed at one end, causing the thrust to push out the other end and force the tube to lift. This use of missiles with their own propulsion, called rockets, slowly began to change warfare.

Pre-World War II Missiles

Early rocket-type missiles caused little physical destruction on the battlefield, but European armies began employing them in the late eighteenth century for illumination and psychological purposes. Military missiles remained mostly a curiosity until World War II. Missile development got its greatest boost in the early twentieth century from Dr. Robert H. Goddard, a physicist from Massachusetts, who began to experiment with liquid-fueled rockets. Although his experiments were largely ignored in the United States, his work became highly influential in Germany and became the basis for later German missile development.

World War II Missiles

Germany led the world in missile development during World War II. To make an effective weapon, missiles were fitted with warheads, which were bombs designed to explode either on impact or at a certain altitude. By 1943, Germany began to place more emphasis on so-called wonder weapons, high-tech weapons which would compensate for Germany’s deficiencies in manpower and resources. Among these were missiles. Nazi leaders believed that missiles might be able to inflict enough physical and psychological damage on the British that they might sue for a separate peace.

The German V-1 rocket was essentially a pilotless jet aircraft that would be pointed in the general direction of London, and would fly until it ran out of fuel. It would then crash and explode. The V-1 was followed by the V-2, a much more sophisticated device. The V-2 rocket was a true liquid-fueled guided missile. London received strikes from these weapons in 1944 and 1945. Of more than 8,000 V-1’s launched against London, fewer than 2,500 found their target. Only eleven V-2’s exploded in England. Fortunately for the British, the Germans were never able to produce them in large enough numbers to make a real impact on the British war effort. Even more importantly, the Germans neglected research into nuclear weapons, which, if fitted to even a small number of V-2’s, would have given Germany a means to inflict catastrophic damage on its enemies.

Post-World War II Missiles

After the war, both the United States and the Soviet Union became interested in German research into the field of missiles. Both nations began to expedite the movement of top German scientists to their own nations. The United States began its ballistic missile program under Wernher von Braun at Redstone Arsenal, outside of Huntsville, Alabama. Von Braun, a former Third Reich scientist who had developed the German V-1 and V-2, directed American missile research through the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the space program, including the Apollo missions. The United States became more focused on missile development when the Soviets launched the Sputnik 1 satellite in October, 1957, from a Soviet rocket. Sputnik showed the Americans that the Soviets had the technology to shoot a nuclear-tipped missile to the United States.

The Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC), which originally focused on using crewed bombers to deliver nuclear and conventional weapons to targets around the world, primarily in the Soviet Union, began in the 1950’s to develop ICBMs to counter the Soviet threat in this area. The Air Force had to struggle against both the Army and the Navy to acquire the missile missions. The Army argued that missiles were essentially very long-range artillery, whereas the Navy thought missiles would best be launched from ships and naval aircraft. In the end, the Air Force got the mission to develop and field the largest missiles, the ICBMs, which would carry nuclear warheads from inside the United States to strike cities and military targets in the Soviet Union. The Navy received authority to develop and field sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and other missile systems that would operate with the fleet. Eventually the Navy would build large submarines that functioned as platforms for launching ballistic missiles from the safety of the floor of the continental shelf. The Army received authority to develop and deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and other missile systems that could be used on the battlefield.


The first major American ICBM was the Atlas, which the U.S. Air Force first fielded in 1958. An offshoot of the Atlas was the development of the Thor, an IRBM. Although the Atlas had the ability to strike targets in the Soviet Union, it needed several hours prior notice for launch and was vulnerable to a first strike. In the event the Soviet Union attacked the United States first, the Atlas site would be a priority target. In the event of a Soviet nuclear strike within a mile or more or of an Atlas launch site, the United States would be unable to launch its Atlas missiles.

As a response to this vulnerability, the U.S. Air Force developed and fielded in April, 1962, the first of the Titan series of ICBMs, which had a faster launch time, carried a larger payload, and were housed in protected underground silos. Throughout the life of the Titan system, including after the Titan missiles were removed from the strategic force in the 1980’s, the missile had a secondary role in launching crewed spacecraft, such as the Gemini Program, and satellites into orbit. The Titans were soon joined by the Minuteman series, which first became operational in November, 1962. Unlike earlier missiles, the Minuteman missiles had a solid propellent and could be launched within a few minutes of receiving an emergency war launch order. The Minuteman III would carry up to three warheads per missile. After heated debate over basing systems, fifty Peacekeeper missiles, each of which had the capacity to carry up to ten warheads, were based in hardened Minutemen silos by 1988. The Minuteman IIIs and Peacekeepers would be the mainstay of the U.S. ICBM force through the end of the Cold War.

Missiles in the Soviet Union

After World War II, the Soviet Union placed great emphasis on missiles in their military establishment. Unlike the United States, the Soviets created a new branch of their armed forces, the Strategic Rocket Forces, for missiles, although early Soviet rockets had impressive payloads and intercontinental ability, their accuracy was poor. By the early 1960’s, the Soviets placed more emphasis on IRBMs and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) to counter the American threat. The placing of 1,000-mile-range MRBMs and 2,000-mile-range IRBMs in 1961 in Cuba, from where they could strike most parts of the continental United States, led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

In the 1980’s, the Soviet decision to field their SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe led the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to allow American IRBMs into Western Europe. The U.S. Army fielded the Pershing missile while the U.S. Air Force fielded the ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). These were tactical weapons and had for their targets areas of troop concentration and supply depots. The Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty, signed in December, 1987, by U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, required both nations to withdraw and destroy those missiles, the first such reduction in nuclear weapons.

Strategic Air Command

Throughout its existence, the SAC focused on its ability to deliver a devastating counterstrike against the Soviet Union after the Soviet Union had attacked the United States. This formed part of the strategy known as mutually assured destruction (MAD), whereby the United States and the Soviet Union were each discouraged from launching a first-strike nuclear attack against the other because of the ability of the other nation to inflict a major counterstrike that would cause an unacceptable level of damage to the nation that struck first. This ability to withstand a nuclear attack and maintain enough assets to strike back, thereby discouraging the Soviet Union from attempting a first strike, became known as deterrence. In order to provide a credible deterrent, the SAC physically and operationally adopted measures to allow it to function after receiving such an attack. This included burying Titan and Minuteman missile silos and surrounding them with steel-reinforced hardened concrete. Although the SAC maintained a large missile force, it never contemplated discontinuing the use of the crewed bomber because, while a bomber once launched could be recalled, a missile once launched could not be stopped.

Post-Cold War Developments

During the Gulf War, U.S. missiles played a prominent role. Although the Patriot missiles, which became an important defense against Iraqi Scud missiles, received most of the press, much of the strategic air campaign of January and February, 1991, depended on missiles. The Air Force’s air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and short-range attack missiles (SRAMs), combined with the Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack missiles (ThANs), destroyed the Iraqi command and control networks before the United Nations ground offensive began.

After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Air Force began to implement a major reorganization. In 1992, most of the SAC was incorporated with most of Tactical Air Command to create the Air Combat Command. This arrangement lasted about one year, when the Air Force’s ICBM units were again transferred to Space Command. The end of the Cold War led the United States to scale back its numbers of and reliance on ICBMs, and instead ALCMs became an increasingly important weapon, as shown by their widespread use during the NATO air war with Yugoslavia in 1999. With their increasingly sophisticated guidance systems, which allow targets as small as a square meter to be regularly hit without exposing air crews to danger, guided missiles have become increasingly vital to the United States to carry out military objectives.

  • Boyne, Walter J. Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force, 1947-1997. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. A solid overview of the first fifty years of the Air Force as a separate branch of the U.S. military establishment. Emphasizes the people, equipment, and missions that shaped the development of the U.S. Air Force.
  • Neufeld, Jacob. The Development of Ballistic Missiles in the United States Air Force, 1945-1960. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Air Force History, 1990. An institutional history of the Air Force’s development and fielding of several missile systems, with the Air Force fielding the Atlas ICBM after a long period of technical and political development.
  • Stumpf, David K., and Jay W. Kelley. Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000. Follows the development, testing, and fielding of a single ICBM system. Provides a useful overview of how technical developments, politics, financial restraints, and national strategy all influenced the eventual form the Titan II would take.

Air Combat Command

Air Force, U.S.

Wernher von Braun

Robert H. Goddard

Gulf War

Korean War


Strategic Air Command

Tactical Air Command

World War I

World War II

Vietnam War

Categories: History Content