Type of low-flying strategic guided missile developed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and '70s. The V-1 missile was a precursor. Powered by jet engines, cruise missiles may carry either a nuclear or a conventional warhead. They are designed to hug the ground, which makes them hard to detect by radar. They are launched from ships, submarines, airplanes, and the ground.
Learn more about cruise missile with a free trial on Britannica.com.
A cruise missile is a guided missile that carries an explosive payload and uses a lifting wing and a propulsion system, usually a jet engine, to allow sustained flight; it is essentially a flying bomb. Cruise missiles are generally designed to carry a large conventional or nuclear warhead many hundreds of miles with high accuracy. Modern cruise missiles can travel at supersonic or high subsonic speeds, are self-navigating, and fly on a non-ballistic very low altitude trajectory in order to avoid radar detection. In general (and for the purposes of this article), cruise missiles are distinct from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in that they are used only as weapons and not for reconnaissance, the warhead is integrated into the vehicle, and the vehicle is always sacrificed in the mission.
Immediately after the war the United States Air Force had 21 different guided missile projects including would-be cruise missiles. All were cancelled by 1948 except four: the Air Material Command BANSHEE, the SM-62 Snark, the SM-64 Navaho, and the MGM-1 Matador. The BANSHEE design was similar to Operation Aphrodite; like Aphrodite it failed, and was canceled in April 1949.
During the Cold War period both the United States and the Soviet Union experimented further with the concept, deploying early cruise missiles from land, submarines and aircraft. The main outcome of the U.S. Navy submarine missile project was the SSM-N-8 Regulus missile, based upon the V-1.
The U.S. Air Force's first operational surface-to-surface missile was the winged, mobile, nuclear-capable MGM-1 Matador, also similar in concept to the V-1. Deployment overseas began in 1954, first to West Germany and later to the Republic of China (Taiwan) and South Korea. On November 7, 1956 U. S. Air Force Matador units in West Germany, whose missiles were capable of striking targets in the Warsaw Pact, deployed from their fixed day-to-day sites to unannounced dispersed launch locations. This alert was in response to the crisis posed by the Soviet attack on Hungary which suppressed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
Between 1957 and 1961 the United States followed an ambitious and well-funded program to develop a nuclear-powered cruise missile, Project Pluto. It was designed to fly below the enemy's radar at speeds above Mach 3 and carry a number of hydrogen bombs that it would drop on its path over enemy territory. Although the concept was proven sound and the 500 megawatt engine finished a successful test run in 1961, no airworthy device was ever completed. The project was finally abandoned in favor of ICBM development.
While ballistic missiles were the preferred weapons for land targets, heavy nuclear and conventional tipped cruise missiles were seen by the USSR as a primary weapon to destroy US naval carrier battle groups. Large submarines (e.g. Echo and Oscar classes) were developed to carry these weapons and shadow US battle groups at sea, and large bombers (e.g. Backfire, Bear, and Blackjack models) were equipped with the weapons in their air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) configuration.
The use of Automatic Target Recognition algoritihms and devices is increasingly being used to increase the probability of success. The Standoff Land Attack Missile features an ATR unit from General Electric.
Guidance systems can vary across missiles. Some missiles can be fitted with any of a variety of navigation systems (Inertial navigation, TERCOM, or satellite navigation). Larger cruise missiles can carry either a conventional or a nuclear warhead, while smaller ones carry only conventional warheads.
(As of 2001) the BGM-109 Tomahawk missile model has become a significant part of the US naval arsenal. It gives ships and submarines an extremely accurate, long-range, conventional land attack weapon. Each costs about $600,000 USD. The US Air Force deploys an air launched cruise missile, the AGM-86. It can be launched from bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress. Both the Tomahawk and the AGM-86 were used extensively during Operation Desert Storm.
Both Tomahawk (as AGM-109) and ALCM (AGM-86) were competing designs for the USAF ALCM nuclear tipped cruise missile to be carried by the B-52 heavy bomber. The USAF adopted the AGM-86 for its bomber fleet while AGM-109 was adapted to launch from trucks and ships and adopted by the USAF and Navy. The truck-launched versions, and also the Pershing II and SS-20 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, were later destroyed under the bilateral INF (Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces) treaty with the USSR.
The British Royal Navy (RN) also operates cruise missiles, specifically the US-made Tomahawk, used by the RN's nuclear submarine fleet. Conventional warhead versions were first fired in combat by the RN in 1999, during the Kosovo War. The Royal Air Force uses the Storm Shadow cruise missile on its Tornado GR4 aircraft. It is also used by France, where it is known as SCALP EG, and carried by the Armée de l'Air's Mirage 2000 and Rafale aircraft.
India and Russia have jointly developed the supersonic cruise missile BrahMos. There are three versions of the Brahmos: ship/land-launched, air-launched and sub-launched. The ship/land-launched version were operational as of late 2007. The Brahmos has the capability to attack targets on land. Russia also continues to operate other cruise missiles: the SS-N-12 Sandbox, SS-N-19 Shipwreck, SS-N-22 Sunburn and SS-N-25 Switchblade. Germany and Spain operate the Taurus missile while Pakistan has developed its own cruise missile somewhat similar to Tomahawk cruise missile, named the Babur missile. Both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) have designed several cruise missile variants, such as the well-known C-802, some of which are capable of carrying biological, chemical, nuclear, and conventional warheads.
The US has 460 AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missiles (ACMs) with a W80 nuclear warhead (5 kt or 150 kt selectable yield) for B-52 Stratofortress (B-52H) external carriage. Also there are ca. 350 sea-launched cruise missiles with the same nuclear warhead. The range of the missile is 3000 km. These missiles have been "mothballed" and placed in storage.
The SSM-N-8 Regulus was also designed for a nuclear warhead.
Russia has Kh-55SM cruise missiles, with similar to US AGM-129 range of 3000 km, but are able to carry more powerful warhead of 200 kt. India is developing a cruise missile capable of carrying a 300 kt nuclear warhead to a distance of 1,200 km.