Cruise Missiles

One of the most dangerous weapons of modern warfare, cruise missiles essentially are unmanned aircraft that cruise at various altitudes until they dive or crash into their targets. Conceptually, all cruise missiles trace their roots to the German World War II V-1 buzz bomb. The only real differences between today’s cruise missiles and the V-1 are the improved propulsion and guidance systems, range, accuracy, and warhead. The V-1’s pulse jet engine and simple gyro-timing guidance system have given way to highly efficient turbofans and a variety of guidance systems tailored to the missile’s specific mission or target. With those improvements have come a significant growth in price ($5,000 for a V-1, $500,000 for a modern U. S. Tomahawk) and capabilities. Today’s cruise missiles can fly a terrain-hugging deceptive flight route to a target 1,000 miles distant and have a 70 percent probability of a direct hit (99 percent chance of hitting within 30 feet).

The United States and the Soviet Union both exploited the German V-1 in trying to develop their own cruise missiles after World War II. By 1950, both countries had working prototypes of turbojet-powered flying bombs under development. The best-known of the American models were the U. S. Navy’s Regulus and the U. S. Air Force’s Hound Dog cruise missiles. Like the V-1, these missiles were seen as area attack weapons, but the American missiles carried nuclear instead of conventional warheads. The Regulus had a range of 600 miles and was to be fired from submarines, while the similarly ranged Hound Dog was air-launched from Boeing B-47 Stratojet and Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Neither American missile was particularly accurate, and both left service by the mid- 1960s.

With more accurate and powerful submarine-launched ballistic missiles entering service, the major Western naval powers dropped their cruise missile programs. Moreover, their possession of aircraft carriers obviated the need for their surface ships to have a long-range strike capability. However, the carrier-shy Soviet Union lacked the resources and experience to build aircraft carriers and therefore pursued a different path, developing a cruise missile in – tended to attack ships, the SS-N-1, in 1958. It was followed two years later by the SS-N-2. These missiles differed from their American counterparts primarily in having a radar-based terminal guidance system that took them into the targeted ship. France was the only country to see any value in developing its own antiship missiles, but the program enjoyed only a low priority.

All this changed with Egypt’s 1967 sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat with an SS-N-2 Styx ship-to-ship missile. Suddenly, all navies saw antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) as the poor man’s naval strike weapon. Moreover, they recognized the value of such weapons in situations where increasingly expensive aircraft carriers weren’t available. That led the United States and other powers to initiate accelerated cruise missile programs. ASCMs, such as the French Exocet and the American Harpoon and Tomahawk, were the first to enter service, but their relative light weight and expense, compared to that of an aircraft carrier and its air wing, led some to examine their use in the land-attack role. Meanwhile, the Soviets developed their own family of long-range ASCMs: the SS-N-3, SS-N-12, SS-N- 19 and SS-N-22.

The Yom Kippur War (1973) saw the first naval engagements fought entirely between ASCM-equipped patrol boats. Having been stung by these weapons in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel had developed its own ASCM, the Gabriel Missile, and installed it on a new class of small patrol boats and corvettes. More importantly, Israel had developed tactics and electronic countermeasures to defeat the Soviet-built ASCMs supplied to Egypt and Syria. The October 7, 1973, Battle of Latakia saw six Israeli patrol boats sink five Syrian naval units. During October 12-13, the Israelis sank three Egyptian missile patrol boats in the Battle of Baltim. Superior electronic countermeasures and tactics enabled the Israelis to win those battles without suffering any losses or damage. The Syrian fleet and Egypt’s Mediterranean-based fleets remained in port for the rest of the war. Unfortunately for Israel, it had not deployed missile patrol boats to its Red Sea port, Eilat, and Egypt’s Red Sea blockade remained unbroken.

By the early 1980s, advances in microminiaturization, avionics, and navigation systems brought land-attack cruises back into vogue for both conventional and nuclear missions. The American Land-Attack Tomahawk initially had a Terrain Contour Matching guidance system that enabled it to navigate over land by matching its onboard radar’s picture of the terrain below against a computer developed map of its flight route to the target. By the late 1990s, this system was replaced by a module that guided the missile by using the Global Positioning System (GPS), making the missile accurate to within 1-2 meters. Finally, a Digital Scene Matching Area (DSMA) correlation feature was added to ensure that the missile would select the right target as it entered the target area by matching a digital image of the target scene (radar, optical, or infrared or a com bination of them) against an onboard image data base. DSMA is particularly useful against mobile targets. By the end of the Cold War, treaties and other considerations had driven all of the nuclear cruise missiles out of service. Conventional cruise missiles were now so accurate that Western political and military leaders had come to see them as politically safe precision weapons that could be employed in an infinite variety of situations.

ASCMs figured prominently in the 1982 Falklands War, with Argentine naval air force units sinking two British warships and damaging four others with their French-supplied AM-39 Exocet missiles. Iraq employed the same weapon in larger numbers against Iranian shipping during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Although the missiles failed to sink any tankers or merchant ships, they dam aged more than 200, driving up insurance rates and forcing the United States to escort tankers through the Persian Gulf during the war’s final year. More ominously, on March 17, 1987, the Iraqis hit the American frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) with two Exocets, killing 37 crewmen and injuring 21 (more than a third of the crew). The crew saved the ship, but it took more than 18 months to repair the damage and return it to service.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War saw the first major employment of land-attack cruise missiles. The anti-Iraq coalition opened Operation DESERT STORM by launching 122 of the U. S. Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack missiles (TLAMs) against key Iraqi air defense posts, radar systems, and communications facilities. The TLAMs were employed almost entirely against targets considered too dangerous or risky for attack by aircraft. Typically, they preceded an air strike, taking out a key facility that was critical to the Iraqis’ local or area air defense. The United States fired nearly 300 TLAMs during the war at a total cost of approximately $360 million. The TLAMs then became the weapon of choice for U. S. retaliation against terrorist attacks, striking Al Qaeda and related camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. More than twice as many were fired during the later Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003, and America’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was also preceded by a series of TLAM strikes against Taliban-related targets.

Cruise missiles are a relatively inexpensive, expendable alternative to expensive aircraft and ballistic missiles. Unlike bomber air craft, they do not put crewmen in harm’s way. For nations not concerned with accuracy, cruise missiles remain a cheap solution to their long-range strike problem. However, for militaries seeking precision, for both antiship and land-attack missions, cruise missiles have become the complex weapons of choice for retaliatory strikes and the initial military operations conducted during a war. The newest have incorporated stealth technologies to make them more difficult to detect and engage. Others rely on supersonic dash speeds to defeat air defenses. In any case, cruise missiles are used to take out key enemy command centers, air defense sites, and air fields before manned aircraft are committed to the fight. In peace time, cruise missiles are used for situations where a rapid and precise attack is required and the political-military leadership doesn’t want to risk pilot losses.

China, France, India, Israel, Russia, Taiwan, and the United States produce ASCMs, but only two countries-the United States and Russia-manufacture land-attack cruise missiles. China, India, and Pakistan have their indigenous cruise missiles under development that are expected to enter operational service by 2010. Undoubtedly, the 21st century will see a proliferation of cruise missiles. In combination with unmanned aerial vehicles, they will become an increasingly prominent element of modern warfare.

References Finlan, Alastair. The Gulf War, 1991. Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2004. Frieden, David R. Principles of Naval Weapons Systems. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985. Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East from the War of Independence to Lebanon. Westminster, MD: Random House, 1984. Hewson, Robert. Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons, 2001. London: Jane’s, 2002. Hooten, Ted. Jane’s Naval Weapons Systems, 2001-2002. London: Jane’s, 2002. Knight, Michael, ed. Operation Iraqi Freedom and the New Iraq. Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2004. Tripp, Robert. Lessons Learned from Operation Enduring Freedom. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2004.


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  1. Pingback: Aircraft Carriers Belong with Battleships – In Museums – Kaja's Kreations

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