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Know Your Missiles

Whether it's the Gaza Strip or the tragic mess of MH17, July has been a big month for missiles. So how do they work? And how did we get to this point?

Whether it’s the Gaza Strip or the tragic mess of MH17, July has been a big month for missiles. Stockpiled by every army on the planet, as well as countless junta and rebel groups, self-guided missiles are ubiquities of modern life. Sure, your great-grandparents would probably struggle to believe that a meathead rebel army could someday blow a plane out of the sky but unfortunately, that's the world we live in. So how is this possible? And how did we get to this point?


Let’s start with some clarification. Missiles are divided into two streams: ballistic and cruise. Ballistics is the science of how a projected object forms an arch as it falls and then lands in a predetermined area. Ballistic missiles are therefore powered by rockets on the way up, and fall towards the target on the way down. They’re also generally the ones to carry nuclear warheads. Cruise missiles on the other hand, are guided by on-board jet engines for the whole journey, so are suitable for carrying light-weight explosives with pin-point accuracy.

Both formats originated in Nazi Germany. Fritz Gosslau and Paul Schmidt were the two aerospace engineers behind the V-1 rocket, which evolved into the modern cruise missile. They worked for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, creating the first jet engines. After that, in 1942, they made another conceptual leap—replacing the jet pilot with a payload of explosives, thus creating a flying bomb. V-1 rockets announced their attack with a loud buzzing sound, and while they could only carry small payloads,  they were incredibly accurate for the period.

Wernher von Braun. Image via

V-2 rockets were designed simultaneously by Wernher von Braun, but the approach was fundamentally different. Von Braun was convinced that liquid fuel combustion would create enough thrust to carry enormous payloads over long distances, so he focused on what would become the modern ballistic missile. Introduced in September 1944, V-2 rockets had little effect on Germany’s ailing war efforts, but they were unstoppably fast (5,760 km/h or 3579 mph) and could be launched 320 kilometres (200 miles) from their targets.


Both missiles migrated from Germany to pretty much everywhere with the fall of Berlin in 1945. Both the US and the USSR tried to lure former Nazi scientists to work for their arms programs, and most of the von Braun team took the American bait and left for Huntsville, Alabama. Not many went with the Soviets except for a guy called Helmut Gröttrup, who was allegedly sick of being an assistant on von Braun’s team. From this divergence, the Nazi designed V-2 rocket evolved into the Redstone missile in the US, and the R-2 in the USSR.

From here, missiles spread exponentially. It’s a messy family tree, but basically your nation’s arms technology is basically a descendant of whatever side of the Cold War you landed. For example, today’s Chinese missiles evolved from the 1950s Dong Feng range, which was a copy of the Soviet R-2. Likewise India’s missiles were originally reverse engineered from the 1960s Soviet SA-75 SAM, while most countries throughout the Middle East use on descendants of Soviet technology. Exceptions are in Egypt and Israel, which both buy and develop arms from the US.

Modern arms show in Paris. Image via

According to Amnesty International “the United States is by far the world’s largest arms trader, accounting for around 30 percent of conventional arms transfers in terms of value.” American arms companies supply weapons to around 170 countries, including most NATO partners, and a few human rights-free zones such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Proxy conflicts such as Vietnam and Afghanistan mean that one side use Russian arms, while the other uses American.


Since the Cold War there have been several advancements in missile technology, the main one being how they’re guided. As a missile closes in on the target, a diverse range of systems are used, depending on what it is. To target buildings and structures, Tomahawk missiles use a system called DSMAC (Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation) which takes photos of the target and compares it with pre-programmed images from a satellite. Other missiles designed for moving targets use thermal imaging, while the Soviet BUK missile system, which is currently copping the blame for downing MH17, uses a tracking technique called semi-active radar homing. This searches for radar signals emitted from something like a plane, and then measures how the radar pulse bounces off the ground, to chase down the source.

Missiles have also become a lot more destructive. The warhead in most modern missiles doesn’t explode when they hit the target, they explode on top so nothing obstructs the blast wave. How the blast is directed however, and how the casing shatters, all depends on the target. Currently, the bulk of Israeli warheads are designed to pierce tanks and bunkers in the Gaza strip. HEAT (High-explosive anti-tank warheads) explode with a hypersonic ray of molten metal (often copper) hurled at the target, which slams through most steel or concrete. Thermobaric warheads are also designed to deal with bunkers, by filling confined spaces with molecularized fuel and setting fire to it. Many of them operate in a two stage detonation—the first charge destroys any armor, while the second kills the contents.


The BUK missile that likely brought down MH17, is able to be loaded with a number of interchangeable anti-aircraft warheads. The most common forms are continuous-rod warheads in which the explosive warhead is encased in a cylinder of steel rods, welded end to end. When the warhead explodes, the bars expand into a zig-zag shaped ring, slicing through the plane’s fuselage. The other option, which according to Bloomberg is looking more likely, is a fragmentation warhead which shreds planes with a cloud of metal shards.

Detonation of a continuous rod warhead at China Lake, California. Image via

Each of the aforementioned developments are pretty clever in an icy, sad way. In fact people say rocket science usually to describe something clever, although space rockets came from missiles, and you probably wouldn’t praise missile science. And despite all these leaps and bounds, the essential core to conflict remains: humans disagree and want to kill each other. From some far-ahead alien race it’s possibly not so impressive to build a missile. It’s probably kind of a dumb thing to do. Not making rockets for the purpose of carrying death and destruction is the real rocket science.

Follow Julian Morgans on Twitter: @MorgansJulian