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American first generation Atlas-B ICBM (1958)
Second generation Minuteman II-ICBM
Third Generation
Peacekeeper ICBM
R-36M - Soviet UTTCh (SS-18 mod 4) on takeoff

Intercontinental missiles (English I nter c ontinental B allistic M issile, ICBM , Russian М ежконтинентальная б аллистическая р акета, МБР ), or long- range missiles , are high-range ballistic missiles . Its primary purpose is military as a missile weapon . ICBMs are the primary means of delivering nuclear weapons . According to the SALT-II treaties, ICBMs are all ballistic missiles with a range of more than 5,500 km. The abbreviation ICBM is usually understood to mean land-based systems. Sea-based ICBMs are referred to as submarine-launched ballistic missiles ( SLBM ).

After the rocket-propelled launch, the projectile reaches near-earth space , which is flown through largely without propulsion on a ballistic path ( suborbital flight ) to the target; the typical range is 5,500 to 15,000 km. In contrast, short- and medium-range missiles fly in the lower regions of the earth's atmosphere and achieve a shorter range.

The development of these weapon systems was caused by the Cold War between the superpowers USA and the Soviet Union . The first functional ICBM , a Soviet development, was launched in 1957 , triggering the so-called Sputnik shock and opening a new arms race between the superpowers. In the period that followed, the so-called balance of terror was established primarily with ICBMs . For the first time in human history, humans can use it to destroy themselves . For decades ICBMs form the core of the nuclear forces of the nuclear powers .

ICBMs are also considered space weapons in the United States because they cover a large part of their trajectory outside the Earth's atmosphere. From July 1, 1993, the US ICBM forces were incorporated into the Air Force Space Command . Control was previously exercised by the Air Combat Command . On October 1, 2002, the United States Strategic Command was merged with the United States Space Command .

In Russia ICBMs are subordinate to the Strategic Missile Forces .


While first-generation ICBMs consisted of rocket engines with partially cryogenic liquid fuel , more and more storable liquid fuels and solid propulsion were used . Rocket engines with solid fuel propulsion are less efficient, but are easier to use and have a shorter response time - there is no need to refuel the rocket.

Modern ICBMs sometimes have a liquid fuel rocket motor in the last drive stage, but this is adjustable. These rocket stages can now be stored throughout, the fuel is stored in the rocket for years and retains its chemical properties. Thanks to the control option, the missile can be maneuvered until shortly before impact. On the one hand, this improves accuracy and, on the other hand, makes defense more difficult because the trajectory is no longer purely ballistic .


Aggregate 9/10 (computer graphics)

The development of ICBMs began in Germany during the Second World War with the development of the Aggregat 9 and the Aggregat 10 . The American company Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation presented the MX-774 to the US Air Force in 1946 , which was adopted from Germany after the war. At that time, however, this project was not particularly urgent and received little funding. However, it was the cornerstone for the SM-65 (Atlas) project, which was given the highest priority by the US Air Force from 1954. The construction of relatively lightweight warheads based on the development and successful testing of hydrogen bombs of the Teller-Ulam design with solid fuel made ICBMs appear as a viable option from this point onwards.

ICBM studies had been carried out in the Soviet Union since 1950, and development had started in 1953 with the establishment of the criteria for the R-7 missile . On May 15, 1957, the first unsuccessful test flight of an ICBM took place in Baikonur . Only the third test flight of the R-7 on August 21, 1957 was successful. Although the re-entry head broke on re-entry, this problem was known before the flight and was therefore not rated as negative.

The Atlas missile's flight test program began in Cape Canaveral on June 11, 1957 and, like the R-7's maiden flight, was a failure. On December 17, 1957, an Atlas-A flight was successful. The Atlas-A was just a development model without a central engine and with a greatly reduced range.

On September 9, 1959, the Atlas-D was declared operational by the Strategic Air Command and three missiles were placed on alert at Vandenberg AFB . The operational readiness of the Soviet R-7 was declared on January 20, 1960. These first ICBMs still had many shortcomings in terms of operational readiness and handling. They were powered by liquid oxygen and kerosene . The oxygen could not be stored on board the rocket, which meant that the rocket had to be refueled before launch. The R-7 was also too big and complex to be safely stored in a silo . This was possible with the Atlas F stationed from 1962 and the parallel development Titan I , but the constantly evaporating oxygen prevented ignition in the silo, so that the rockets had to be lifted out of the silo on large lifts and only started on the surface. In addition to the response time in the event of an attack, this also increased the costs of the complex system. In the Soviet Union, only four to eight of the slightly improved R-7A versions were stationed in Baikonur and Plesezk . In the USA 123 Atlas-D, -E and -F and 54 Titan I were stationed. The R-7, Atlas / Titan-1 are known as the first generation ICBMs.

While work was still being carried out on the first generation of ICBMs, considerations for a second generation began in the USA and the Soviet Union in the context of the arms race . This should have storable propellants that could be left permanently in the rocket. Lengthy refueling before take-off as before should therefore be avoided. These missiles should also be able to detonate in the silo, which promised a considerable reduction in response time. In the USA, the development of the Titan II with liquid storable fuel and the solid-powered Minuteman began . In the Soviet Union one worked on the R-9 and R-16. Like its predecessor, the R-9 had oxygen and kerosene as a fuel combination, but it had greatly improved properties compared to the R-7. She was stationed from 1965. The R-16 used liquid, storable fuels and entered service in late 1963. Titan II and Minuteman came into the silos in the USA from 1963.

In 1967, after six years of intensive armament, the USA had 1,054 ICBMs in service of the Titan II and Minuteman I and II types. This number remained constant until the end of the Cold War due to the SALT Agreement, the Minuteman III ( MIRV) equipped with multiple warheads ( Stationed from 1970) and MX Peacekeeper (stationed from late 1986) only replaced the Minuteman I and Titan II. With the retirement of the Titan II in 1987, the USA only had rockets with solid fuel and MIRV in its arsenal.

The development of the Soviet arsenal was far more variable than that of the USA. After all, there were a large number of different missile types and sub-variants. In contrast to the USA, the Soviet Union relied heavily on heavy liquid fuel rockets and, in addition to MIRV, kept rockets with individual warheads of 20 MT in its arsenal until the 1990s. It was not until the 1980s that the Soviet Union introduced solid rockets in large numbers, the Topol and the RT-23 . Some of these systems were stationed mobile on road vehicles and railroad cars and were therefore difficult to locate. The USA did not introduce mobile land-based systems, although several plans were made, such as the Minuteman I, MX Peacekeeper and, most recently, the stopped Midgetman development.

SALT I from 1972 could not prevent the further expansion of the strategic arsenals; between the early 1970s and 1980 the number of warheads for ICBM and SLBM of the two superpowers grew from around 2,000 each - with the USA slightly ahead of them - to more than 10,000 (USA) and around 9,000 (USSR).

In the 1980s the increase even continued until it was stopped at the end of the decade as a result of global political developments and since then gradual reductions have been possible.

The only country, besides the USA and the USSR / Russia, that has put ICBMs into service is the People's Republic of China . Since the early 1960s, the country conducted research in the field of ballistic missiles and was able to put the DF-5 into service in 1981 , a missile with storable liquid propellants. Due to the southern location compared to the Soviet Union / Russia, Chinese missiles must have a considerably longer range in order to be able to reach targets in North America. The DF-5 has a range of 13,000 km, while Soviet / Russian missiles are usually only designed for ranges of 8,000 to 11,000 km.

The end of the Cold War brought about a drastic disarmament of ICBMs from the superpowers, but improvements continued. Russia put the Topol-M into service as a modernized version of the Topol. China developed the mobile solid-propelled DF-31 and DF-31A. The US did not develop new ICBMs, but carried out a massive modernization program on its Minuteman III arsenal. Other states currently working on land-based ICBMs are North Korea and India .


With a ballistic trajectory, ranges of up to approx. 13,000 km are common. The Soviet R-36 rocket, which is no longer in service, even had a partially orbital warhead in one of its variants , which could reach any point on earth remotely from a stable orbit ( FOBS ).

Due to the high performance of the rockets, obsolete or decommissioned ICBMs are also used to launch satellites , for example the Russian UR-100N as a Rockot launcher.



ICBMs have so far only been equipped with nuclear warheads. The throwing weight is the weight of the warhead that the missile can carry. Since the second generation, multiple warheads ( MIRV ) have been used almost exclusively . H. When it re-enters the atmosphere at the latest, the tip divides into several warheads, which can be programmed for different targets.

The warheads ( English warheads ) had an explosive force of several million tons of TNT equivalent in the first generations of missiles , such as the W-53 warhead of the Titan II with 9 MT. With the introduction of MIRV with its increased accuracy and larger number, the explosive force sank to a few hundred kT. However, the Soviet Union was still stationing rockets with individual warheads with an explosive force of up to 20 MT in the 1980s.

Recently there has been discussion in the USA about equipping ICBMs with conventional warheads in order to be able to attack distant bases of terrorists. The Russian side comments on this very critically, since it would make it impossible to identify weapons equipped with nuclear warheads, an essential basis of previous disarmament agreements .

Re-entry body

Since ICBMs cover a large part of the flight path in space, they have to reenter the earth's atmosphere in order to reach their destination. In order not to burn up, they need a heat - resistant re-entry body .

Multiple warheads (MRV) and (MIRV)

Re-entry vehicle after a test with the Thor-Able medium-range missile in April 1959
left: MIRV configuration from W78 warheads in MK12-A re-entry vehicles;
Right: LGM-30G Minuteman III payload fairing
Cross-section through warheads of the type W78, MK12-A MIRV including MIRV bus
Re-entry traces of Peacekeeper -MIRVs at the Kwajalein -Atoll, long exposure

ICBMs are often equipped with multiple warheads so that a larger target area can be attacked per launch. In addition, launching a rocket is very resource-intensive; so it is more efficient to carry multiple warheads with one missile.

The first generation of multiple warheads could not yet be controlled independently of one another (MRV: Multiple Re-Entry Vehicle), for example with the Soviet R-36 (SS-9 Mod 4).

Later one could target warheads independently of each other ( MIRV : Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle). The individual warheads sit on the so-called MIRV bus, a maneuverable adapter. After the last rocket stage has burned out, it carries out course corrections and releases the warheads on their final ballistic trajectory. As a result, the individual warheads can be positioned anywhere within the target area, which is usually several hundred kilometers in diameter. The scattering circle radius in modern systems is between 90 and 500 m, the explosive force between 50 and 800 kT.

Russia, the US, France and the UK have MIRV systems in service. Land-based MIRV systems were supposed to be banned by the START II treaty, but this did not come into force. The US decommissioned its LGM-118A  Peacekeeper by the end of 2005, but Minuteman IIIs with up to three warheads are still in service. Russia currently has the R-36M UTTHk, R-36M2 (SS-18 Mod 4 and Mod 5) and UR-100N UTTH (SS-19) with multiple warheads in service and is developing a MIRV variant of the Topol-M ( RS- 24 , SS-27 Mod-X-2).

Maneuverable Warheads (MARV)

From the 1980s, an alternative technology was introduced: the warheads with limited maneuverability in the final phase of the approach ( MARV - Maneuverable Re-Entry Vehicle) were supposed to penetrate the missile defense around Moscow and / or achieve very high accuracy ( CEP ) of approx. 50 m . From 1976 the USA developed a corresponding system, the MGM 31B-Pershing II , and from 1985 it was stationed in the Federal Republic and destroyed under the INF Treaty .

The US Navy also planned such a system. The very precise UGM-133 Trident II D-5 ( CEP 120 m with a range of 10,000 km) was to be developed as a launch vehicle . From 1990 onwards the system was put into service in a version based on MIRV (UGM-133B) on some Ohio-class submarines . The Soviet / Russian armed forces have also largely completed these developments. Russia has z. Currently about 40 land-based (potentially mobile) Topol M missiles in the strategic arsenal. The sea-based version Bulawa (SS-N-32) is currently being tested on a Typhoon-class submarine .


In the Soviet FOBS system ( F ractional O rbital B ombardment S ystem ) was warhead in a low earth orbit ( LEO ) brought, from which could reach any point of the earth from it. To do this, the warhead only had to be braked at a certain point in time after it had reached orbit.

The missiles were supposed to fly over the poles and attack the US from the south. This would have bypassed the US radar network, which was facing north. The R-36O (NATO code: SS-9 Scarp Mod 3) was intended as the launch vehicle . The system was fully operational from November 1968. It carried a warhead with an explosive power of 1 to 3 MT. However, it was only in service for a short time and never available in sufficient numbers. Furthermore, it was very imprecise ( CEP up to 5 km) and therefore unsuitable for attacking hardened targets (e.g. missile silos).

Since the time between braking and impact at the finish was only a few minutes, the warning time would have been very short. Furthermore, the floors would have moved at lower heights than previous ICBMs, so that detection by radar systems would have been more difficult. Both of these led to the prohibition of this type of weapon under the SALT treaties.

Flight phases

A distinction is made between the following flight phases:

  1. Start or boost phase - 3 to 5 minutes (shorter with solid propulsion than with liquid propulsion). Take off with a steep launch angle (less air resistance), after about 2 minutes deflection in the direction of flight. Height at the end of the fire between 150 and 400 km depending on the flight path, a speed of 7 km / s (25,000 km / h) up to the 1st  cosmic speed .
  2. Middle flight phase - about 25 minutes - suborbital flight in an elliptical orbit , the apogee of which has an altitude of 1,200 km. The major semi-axis of this ellipse has a length between the full and half the radius of the earth ; the projection of the orbit on the earth is close to the great circle , slightly shifted due to the earth's rotation during flight. In this phase, the missile can eject several independent warheads and entry aids such as metal-coated foil balloons, chaffs or entire decoys .
  3. Re-entry phase, starting at an altitude of 100 km - duration of 2 minutes - impact at a speed of up to 4 km / s (14,400 km / h), with early ICBM less than 1 km / s (3,600 km / h).


In general, in the 1960s and 70s it was assumed that ICBMs, due to their high speed - around 20 times the speed of sound - and flight altitude, can only be repelled safely with anti-missile missiles equipped with nuclear weapons . The advancing technology later made possible systems that hit the approaching warhead precisely through precise target acquisition and can destroy it through kinetic energy alone ( hit-to-kill ). Since the American and Soviet ICBMs were often programmed for a flight over the North Pole, the corresponding defense systems were each aligned to the north; the American missile detection and defense systems were in Alaska .

During the Cold War, the USA and the USSR negotiated an agreement that allowed each side to set up exactly one anti- missile defense system, the ABM (anti-ballistic missile) agreement . While the USA protected its missile fields, but took the facility out of operation again after a short time, rumored to be only one day, the ABM missiles of today's Russia are still stationed around Moscow. This is also attributed by observers to the fact that the scientific, economic and political structure of the Eastern Bloc at that time and now Russia is completely oriented towards central Moscow.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the USA has been developing a defense system called " National Missile Defense ". Its purpose is to protect United States territory and its overseas troops from ballistic missiles, especially ICBMs. For this purpose, new sensors were developed and existing systems improved, and new weapon systems created. Some parts of the system are still under development or testing, while others have already been used in combat.


  • Dec. 5, 1964 - An LGM30B Minuteman-I missile was put on tactical alert on the L-02 launcher at Ellsworth Air Force Base , South Dakota. Two Air Force employees were posted to the launch facility to repair the missile silo's security system. In the middle of the inspection, a brake rocket ignited under the warhead, causing it to fall about 23 m to the bottom of the rocket silo. On impact, the ignition and altitude control systems broke loose, so that the power supply to the warhead failed. The warhead was badly damaged by the impact, but all safety devices worked as intended so that no explosion and no release of radioactive material occurred.
  • August 9, 1965 - An accident occurred in a silo (Launch Complex 373-4) equipped with an LGM-25C Titan-II ICBM near Little Rock Air Force Base and the town of Searcy , Arkansas. During maintenance work as part of the Yard-Fence project to harden the silos against possible impacts by nuclear weapons nearby, 53 people were killed in a fire outbreak.
  • According to the US Air Force, there were around 125 accidents involving titanium ICBMs in Arkansas, Arizona, and Kansas between 1975 and 1979. From March 1979 to September 1980, there were 10 leaks and accidents in the silos in Arkansas.
  • Aug. 24, 1978 - In a silo (Launch Complex 533-7) containing an LGM-25C Titan-II missile near McConnell Air Force Base southeast of Wichita , Kansas, two U.S. Air Force soldiers were leaked due to the Missile killed and 30 others injured by gas leak. The silo was damaged and the nearby settlements were evacuated.
  • September 19, 1980 - During maintenance work in a silo (Launch Complex 374-7) of an LGM-25C Titan-II rocket near Little Rock Air Force Base and near Damascus (Faulkner County) in the US state of Arkansas, an air force technician fell a socket wrench in the silo. This ricocheted off the side of the first point of impact, hit the missile and caused a leak in a pressurized fuel tank. The missile base and the surrounding area were cleared. Eight and a half hours later, the fuel fumes exploded inside the silo; the force of the explosion blew off the two 740-tonne silo lids and hurled the 9-megaton warhead 180 meters. An Air Force specialist died and 21 other US Air Force members were injured. The documentary Damascus, USA. The GAU (English: Command and Control , German premiere at arte on July 21, 2020) is about these events.


Overview of ICBMs deployed 1959–2014
Launch of a US Titan II ICBM from a silo
MGM-134A Small Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (SICBM) Hard Mobile Launcher (HML) (planned introduction of the launch system was discontinued by the USA in 1992)
Russian railway missile
complex (closed in 2005)
UGM-133A Trident II is launched from a submarine

(Italic = not in service, either obsolete or still under development)

United States

USSR / Russia

Topol-M, a Russian ballistic ICBM
  • land-based: (Soviet name. Defense Intelligence Agency, NATO code in brackets)
    • R-7 (SS-6, Sapwood)
    • R-9 (SS-8, Sasin)
    • GR-1 (SS-10 Scragg, not commissioned)
    • R-16 (SS-7 Saddler)
    • R-26 (SS-8 Sasin, confused with R-9, not put into service)
    • R-36 (SS-9 Scarp)
    • R-36-O (SS-9 FOBS , orbital capable R-36)
    • R-36M "Voivode" (SS-18 Satan) (various versions)
    • UR-100 (SS-11 Sego)
    • UR-100MR "Sotka" (SS-17 Spanker)
    • UR-100N or RS-18 (SS-19 stiletto)
    • UR-200 (SS-X-10 Scragg, confusion with GR-1, not put into service)
    • UR-500 "Proton" (not in service)
    • RT-1 (no NATO code available, not put into service)
    • RT-2 (SS-13 Savage)
    • RT-20P (missile) (SS-15 Scrooge)
    • RT-21 "Temp-2S" (SS-16 Sinner)
    • RT-2PM "Topol" (SS-25 Sickle)
    • RT-2UTTH "Topol-M" (SS-27 Sickle-B), first successful test of the mobile version on December 24, 2004 in Plesezk
    • RS-24 Jars (SS-27 Mod-X-2)
    • RS-26 Rubesch (SS-X-31 or SS-X-29B)
    • RT-23 "Molodets" (SS-24 Scalpel)
    • RSS-40 "Kuryer" (NATO code SS-X-26 is obsolete, project has been abandoned)
  • sea-based:


  • land based:
    • CSS-3
    • Dongfeng 5 (other name CSS-4)
    • DF-6 (project was abandoned)
    • DF-22 (different designation DF-14, project was abandoned)
    • DF-31 (different designation CSS-9 )
    • DF-41 (different designation CSS-10 , early 2013 still in the test phase)

North Korea :

  • land based:
    • Taepodong-2
    • Hwasong-13 (Rodong-C, NATO code KN-08 and KN-14)
    • Hwasong-14 (NATO code KN-20)
    • Hwasong-15
    • NKSL-1 (Taepodong-1 with third stage, can bring satellites into orbit, provisional designation)
    • NKSL-X-2 (Taepodong-2 with third stage, can bring satellites into orbit, provisional designation)

Great Britain

  • (sea-based, submarines):



  • land based:
    • Agni V and VI (Agni VI in development, Agni V: first successful test on April 19, 2012):


  • land based:
    • Taimur


Japan (potentially)

  • Mu-V , Epsilon (rocket) , JI (Due to the solid rocket engine and high throwing weight, these launchers can be converted very quickly into ICBMs. Only the payload and the guidance system would have to be exchanged)



Some time ago the British government commissioned the further development of the Trident ICBM. In cooperation with the US military, a new generation of nuclear weapons is to be created from parts of the existing missiles and warheads that have already been tested.

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: ICBM  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. SALT II contracts, Article II, paragraph 1. Accessed July 31, 2019 (English).
  2. ^ Gert Krell , Dieter S. Lutz: Nuclear Armament in the East-West Conflict. Potentials, doctrines, arms control, Baden-Baden 1980, p. 109
  3. A Missile Strike Option We Need . Washington Post
  4. Why does Pentagon need nonnuclear warheads? . RIA novosti (English)
  5. http://everything2.com/e2node/Reentry%253A%2520Aerodynamics%2520to%2520Thermodynamics
  6. MILNET: US Nuclear Weapons Accidents - Mirror ( Memento of August 17, 2004 in the Internet Archive )
  7. techbastard.com: Titan II Accident Searcy AR, August 9, 1965
  8. ^ Accident ( memento of July 19, 2001 in the Internet Archive )
  9. https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/093660-000-A/damascus-usa-der-gau/
  10. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5598206/
  11. http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/systems/icbm.htm
  12. http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/systems/slbm.htm
  13. Archive link ( Memento of April 8, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) CSS-10 on missilethreat.com; Retrieved January 21, 2013
  14. Pakistan intercontinental missile underway “Taimur” Intercontinental ballistic missile ( Memento of the original from January 14, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / pakconnects.blogspot.ca
  15. ^ William E. Rapp: Paths Diverging? The Next Decade in the US-Japan Security Alliance. Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, January 2004, p. 82 , accessed October 29, 2012 : “119. Japan has the weapons grade plutonium, technology for weaponization, and delivery means in the MV-5 rocket, indigenous, solid fueled, 1800 kg payload capacity, to go nuclear very rapidly should it choose. This dramatic step, however, would require a complete loss of faith in the American nuclear umbrella "
  16. http://fas.org/irp/threat/missile/rumsfeld/pt3_japan.htm