World of Tactical Missiles

Tactical missiles perform a wide range of roles such SAM (Surface to Air Missile), SSM (Surface to Surface) and AGM (Air to Ground). Unlike strategic missiles which a deployed to strike targets at a large distance, tactical missiles have a shorter range and are often grouped according to guidance system and the roles they play. One of the first missiles to be used were the German V missiles which were deployed during the Second World War. They were considered to be long range tactical missiles that were fired into European cities to bombard targets. However these missiles lacked precision of hitting specific targets. The V-2 rocket cut of propulsion engine when a certain distance was covered. The continuous search for precision and advancements in the field of electronics aided development of guidance systems that significantly improved the precision of the missiles.  

Active and Passive Guidance System

Active guidance system uses a radar transceiver which is contained in the missiles itself to track targets. These missiles eliminate the need to get inputs from the platform that fired it. This ensure that the location of the firing platform whether aerial, naval or land based remain hidden. Passive guidance are predominantly heat seeking missiles. These missiles do not require any input command from the platform that fires it, they lock on to the heat signature emitted by the target.  These are the predominant guidance systems used in tactical guided missiles.

Infrared Guidance

Infrared homing uses the heat signature generated from the engines of various platforms such as battle tanks, aircrafts and helicopters. These missiles are termed as heat seeking missiles. These missiles use infrared seekers that are mounted on to a gimbal in the missile to maintain stability of the seeker in flight while tracking the target. One of the most successful heat seeking missile is the AIM-9 sidewinder missiles air to air missile. Sidewinder missiles were so successful that they continue to remain in service today. 

Semi Active Guidance

Semi active guidance system uses a passive radar receiver that is built into the missile. The targeting radar on the aircraft detects the target the guides the missile towards it. One of the main drawback of the system is that the aircraft must maintain the radar lock on the target and hence has to manoeuvre to keep up with the target.


The type of fuses used in tactical missiles includes contact fuse, proximity fuse and delay fuse. Contact fuses trigger the explosion of the warhead when the missile hits the target. Proximity fuses trigger the explosion of the warhead when the missile is at a specific distance of the target. Delay fuses are used in missiles that are designed to detonate after penetrating the target. These fuses are typically used in anti-ship missiles and missiles that are used against hardened concrete structures.

Cruise Missiles

Cruise missiles are missiles that travel at a constant speed for the majority of their flight path. Cruise missiles are supersonic as well as sub sonic. Cruise missiles fly very close to the surface and hence they are detected when they are too close to the target. This leaves the target with very less time to react. Cruise missiles can be launched from multiple platforms and can be used in anti- ship roles as well. Cruise missile use a variety of guidance including passive sensors, GPS and terrain mapping. Cruise missile typically have operational range with 500-800 kilometres.

Some of the missiles that are currently used in the Russia – Ukraine conflict includes the Kalibr cruise missile which has a range 300 – 600 kilometres depending on the version. Kalibr missiles are based on the Russian 3M missile platform that has been in service since the early 1990s. The missile can be launched from multiple platforms including submarines. Yakhont cruise missiles have also been used by the Russian forces. These missiles have an operation range of 600-800 kilometres depending on the version. The missile carries a 300 kg warhead and can be used in anti-ship role. Apart from these the Russian tactical missile ISKANDER-M is also being used against Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian forces currently use the Stinger man portable air defense systems that are capable of tacking down aerial platforms such as UAVs and aircrafts. Stinger missiles use IR and UV sensors to make them resilient against countermeasures. The missiles have been in service since the 1980 and has a proven track record in multiple conflicts. Germany is supplying the Ukrainian forces with the 9K32 Strela man portable air defense system. The missile used infrared guidance and uses a high explosive warhead. The missile has been in service since the late 1960s and had a proven track record in multiple conflicts. Apart from these the Ukrainian forces also uses the British NLAW anti-tank missiles and the American Javelin missiles to slow down the Russian armored columns.

It is important to note that proliferation of missile technology to developing nations could lead to more missile systems being developed in the future. Tactical missile systems will continue to evolve and become more capable with the advancement in guidance systems and missile propulsion systems. Proliferation of SCRAM jet technology could give rise to supersonic missiles being built by developing countries.

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