Missiles and Rockets in Warfare

V-1 Buzz Bomb
A dreaded V-1 “buzz bomb” diving on the Picadilly section of London.

V-2 on mobile erector

A German V-2 on its mobile erector.

Republic JB-2 Loon

The JB-2 is a U.S. made copy of the famous German V-1 surface-to-surface pilotless flying bomb first used against England on June 12-13, 1944. The bomb was constructed from drawings prepared at Wright Field, using dimensions taken from the remains of several V-1s brought from Germany.

Camp Dora

The 3rd Armored Division inspects the ground of Camp Dora, 1945.

Launch of Polaris

The Polaris was the first missile to use solid fuel. This photo shows a Polaris missile launch at the navy’s San Clemente Island range, in1959.

Launch of Polaris from submarine

On July 20, 1960, the navy conducted the first successful full-scale test of the Polaris weapons system, launching two Polaris A-1 SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) from the submerged USS George Washington about 30 miles (48 kilometers) off of Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Launch of Minuteman

The Minuteman missile introduced use of the microchip into rocketry.

From the Centennial of Flight web site

Humanity has been using rockets in warfare since the
Chinese discovered gunpowder late in the first millennium. During the
War of 1812, the “rocket’s red glare” helped inspire the U.S. national
anthem. But the lack of a guidance system in these early rockets made
them inaccurate. In the 1930s, a group of German rocket enthusiasts
led by Wernher von Braun began building missiles equipped with primitive guidance systems. Their
efforts were eventually funded by the rearming German army, which was
interested in developing missiles because they were not among the restrictions
on artillery specified in the Versailles Treaty that ended World War

There are two types of
military missiles.
One is the cruise missile–a bomb with wings and an engine. The other, the
ballistic missile, is normally a rocket carrying a bomb as its payload. It does
not achieve lift from wings or
any other aerodynamic feature and when the power source, or fuel, is removed or
used up, it returns to Earth on a ballistic trajectory. In Germany, Nazi
propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels gave its cruise and ballistic weapons the
designation “v” for vergeltungswaffen
(weapons of revenge). Adolf Hitler felt that the V-weapons would “be decisive
against Great Britain and make the British willing to make peace.”

The Nazi cruise missile
was the V-1. It had a pulse-jet engine fueled
with gasoline and compressed air and was launched from a ramp. Its engine made
a loud, buzzing sound, leading to its nickname “buzz bomb.” The engine was set
to shut off after traveling a certain distance, which was when the bomb would
fall on the target and explode. It had no navigation system, so aiming was
simply a matter of launching it in the direction of the target. When the
buzzing noise stopped, the bomb was about to hit.

Because of their limited
range, the V-1s of World War II were launched from countries along the English
Channel that wereoccupied by Germany, landing in southern England and London.
The first one hit London on June 12, 1943. At the height of their use, 190 were
launched daily. But the British quickly became expert at intercepting the
slow-moving drones with Royal Air Force fighters and taking down the rest with
anti-aircraft artillery. Consequently, only 25 percent of all V-1s launched
ever reached their targets. The attacks ended when the Allies began to
recapture land in occupied Europe, seizing launch sites as they went. Using
captured V-1s as models, the United States began making its own cruise missile,
the JB-2 (Jet Bomb 2), which improved upon the German guidance system, but
stopped its development with the successful tests of the atomic bomb.

Germany’s ballistic
missile, the V-2, was developed by von Braun and his
colleagues at the research and testing facility the Nazis built for them at
Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. Since 1937, these researchers had worked with
various degrees of success on a series of rockets, each time refining the fuels
and guidance systems of earlier versions. It was not until 1942 that they had
developed a missile, the A4, that gained the German army’s interest. During a
test on August 16, 1942, the A4 became the first vehicle to break the sound barrier when it sped into the sky. In
future tests, the missile reached an altitude of 37 miles (60 kilometers), a
range of 119 miles (192 kilometers), a flight time of four minutes and 55 seconds,
and a final speed of 0.75 mile per second (1.2 kilometers per second). Hitler
ordered full-scale production of the A4, armed with a 2,000-pound
(907-kilogram) warhead of high explosives, in December 1942. The rushed
production meant that many kinks remained.

The Germans built the
weapon at a large underground facility called Mittlewerk that was staffed with
slave labor transferred from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Conditions at
the facility were horrific, and thousands of prisoners died due to malnutrition,
disease, exhaustion, or hangings by camp guards.

On September 7, 1944,
the first A4s, now designated the V-2, were fired at Allied targets. Soon they
were raining down primarily on London and Antwerp, and continued to do so until
March 27, 1945. The V-2 struck suddenly, giving its victims no time to seek
shelter. The only warning was the double sonic boom as the rocket reentered the
atmosphere. British morale began to drop as they realized there was no way to
fight the new weapon once it was launched.

The Allies’ only defense
was to destroy the V-2 launch sites, and their bombers destroyed as many fixed
launch sites as possible. In response, the Germans began to launch their
missiles from mobile launch platforms; sometimes they launched from city
streets, using the buildings as screens. Aiming the missiles became extremely
inaccurate, and targets were hit less often as launch sites moved from place to

Militarily, the V-2 was
a disaster for the Germans. Despite the fear it engendered among civilians, it
had no effect on the Allies’ ability to attack Germany. It was inaccurate and
had an insignificant warhead. It killed a total of approximately 2,000 people,
a small number when compared to a single bombing raid that could kill tens of thousands
in one night.

After the war, the
Americans estimated that the industrial effort and resources that Germany
devoted to the program could have been used to produce 24,000 fighter aircraft.
The program had drained both money and scarce materials such as steel and
aluminum from more useful weapons like tanks, airplanes, and submarines, and
probably helped the Allies’ cause. But although ineffective militarily, many
paid a high price for V-2 production: an estimated 20,000 prisoners died in the
inhumane conditions at Mittlewerk. The V-2 was one of the few weapons where
more people died from producing it than died from its use as a weapon.

After the war ended, dozens of remaining
V-2s and the scientists who designed them were captured by the United
States and the Soviet Union. The rockets and rocket men formed the basis
for both countries’ early rocket research. Von Braun and many of his
colleagues emigrated to the United States, where they worked on the
Jupiter and Redstone missiles and later the Saturn rockets. They built rockets
designed to launch nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union and humans to
the Moon. In
return, the United States protected them from war crimes trials resulting
from the use of slave labor.

These rockets began the arms race of
the second half of the 20th century, as the United States and Soviet
Union competed to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles that could
deliver nuclear warheads faster than the other. Each new missile was
an advance in the science: solid
fuel in the Polaris, the microchip in the Minuteman, and multiple
warheads. Improved guidance systems by the year 2000 meant that a missile
could land a few hundred feet from a target after traveling more than
a thousand miles in space. Each advance was increasingly deadly as nations
built arsenals to kill not only the enemy but with the potential to
annihilate the entire world several times over. Other nations added
warheads with different weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological,
or radiological. Missiles represented the ultimate deterrent from war.

Only one ballistic
missile has seen actual war combat, the Soviet-built SS-1 “Scud,” based on the
A4. The missile was produced for the Soviet army in the 1950s and although
primitive, used in combat during the Soviet-Afghanistan War that began in the
late 1970s. The Soviets also sold the missile in large numbers to other
countries, most notably in the Middle East. Countries such as Iran and Iraq
used the missiles and produced their own copies with minimal improvements in
wars against each other as well as during the Gulf War. The Scuds have guidance
and quality problems similar to the V-2, but much like the V-2, their
psychological effects far exceeded the physical damage they caused. The
constant fear of attack in Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War,
combined with the extraordinary surveillance and defense systems needed from
satellites, took up much of the coalition’s resources.

The United States had
always favored the use of cruise missiles over ballistic missiles for tactical
uses, but their development was impeded by faulty guidance systems. The U.S.
Navy’s first operational cruise missile was the Harpoon. The Harpoon program
began in 1969, and the missile entered operational service in 1977, with its
first mission in 1986 as part of Operation El Dorado against Libya. The Harpoon
was a jet-powered missile with a digital computer and on-board radar to help
find the target. The navy found these systems particularly useful because they
could be fired from surface ships, not just aircraft carriers, off the coast of
enemy nations. Eventually, the military adapted cruise missiles for launch from
submarines, airplanes, and land bases.

The next generation
cruise missile, the Tomahawk, debuted during the Gulf War. It was much more
difficult to pick up on radar, flying at a low altitude and powered in flight
by a turbofan engine, which emits little heat. Early versions featured Terrain
Contour Matching (TERCOM) systems, an on-board computer that compares a stored
image of a target with the real target. But unfortunately, when a second
missile is fired after the first strike, there is the danger that the target
has been altered by the earlier strike and the TERCOM system then fails to find
the new match. The computer tries to correct the course, but ends up sending
the missile off course. A modified Tomahawk, the AGM-86C, featured a navigation
system using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, allowing for more
accurate target hits.

Many supporters of
cruise missiles promote them as “cheaper and safer” than crewed bomber
aircraft. And they have proven useful in situations when sending in bomber
aircraft is politically unacceptable or dangerous. Cruise missiles also are
extremely hard to track, especially when they are close to the ground, as are
their mobile launch pads. Furthermore, land-launched cruise missiles offer an
opportunity for a defensive bombing ability without the cost, training,
technology, or air superiority required for an aircraft-based bombing campaign.
But cruise missiles are not a cheaper option, comparatively. A single Tomahawk
cruise missile costs approximately $1.2 million, while a single laser-guided
bomb costs $73,000. Multiple conventional bombs can also be carried by a single
bomber and can penetrate “hard” targets such as bunkers.

As planners look to the
modern battlefield, it is these weapons that will very likely dominate
defensive planning. During the Cold War, the United States and Canada developed
the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as a multi-layered system
to warn and defend these countries against Soviet ICBMs. The modern battlefield
demands a similar system on a smaller scale to detect incoming enemy missiles.

–Pamela Feltus and
Dwayne Day

References and Further Reading:

Beon, Yves. Planet Dora: A
Memoir of the Holocaust and the Birth of the Space Age. Boulder, Colo.:
Westview Press, 1997.

Burrows, William E. This
New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age. New York: Random House, 1998.

Cooksley, Peter G. Flying
Bomb. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.

Crouch, Tom. Aiming for the
Stars: The Dreamers and Doers of the Space Age. Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

DeVorkin, David. Science
With a Vengeance. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992.

Hallion, Richard P. Storm Over
Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution
Press, 1992.

Hölsken, Dieter. V-Missiles
of the Third Reich, The V-1 and V-2. Hong Kong: Monogram Aviation
Publications, 1994.

Neufeld, Michael. The
Rocket and the Reich. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Werrell, Kenneth P. The
Evolution of the Cruise Missile. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air University
Press, 1985.

Winter, Frank N. The First
Golden Age of Rocketry: Congreve and Hale Rockets of the Nineteenth Century.
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.

Centre for Defence & International Security Studies: www.cdiss.org/hometemp.htm

FAS Tomahawk Page: www.fas.org/man/dod-10/sys/smart/bgm-109.htm

“How Stuff Works: Cruise Missiles.” www.howstuffworks.com/cruise-missile.htm

“Rocketry Through the Ages.” http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/rocketry

Space Race: Military Origins: www.nasm.si.edu/galleries/gal114/SpaceRace/sec200/sec200.htm