CRUISE MISSILES: A RAPIDLY EVOLVING CAPABILITY
Geopolitics|August 2021
Unlike heavyweight ballistic missiles which have larger CEP and can be used for devastating nuclear strikes on enemy cities, cruise missiles are lightweight, tremendously manoeuvrable and highly accurate, explains AMARTYA SINHA
AMARTYA SINHA

The 20th century was a transformative and transitional period in the history of contemporary warfare as new generation kinetic strike weapons took to the skies after the second world war. Starting right from the first Gulf War in 1990 and ending with the Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria campaigns in the first two decades of the 21st century, the world witnessed the usage of game-changing aerial weapons which tipped the balance in the aggressor’s favor in the opening hours of the war. Such weapons play a very pivotal role not just in maintaining conventional deterrence, but also in executing tactical level nuclear strikes over the enemy’s ground-based infantry and armored mobile formations in case of an escalation.

The emergence of turbofan-powered terrain-hugging cruise missiles which can fly at lower altitudes (below enemy radar coverage) and at treetop heights are some of the most formidable and destructive weapons in the conventional battlefield. A heavy barrage of air-launched, ship-launched, submarine-launched, and ground-launched cruise missiles during wars can take out the enemy’s airfields, dams, bridges, railheads, army garrisons, anti-aircraft positions, heavy-artillery bases, underground nuclear weapons storage facilities, and other important strategic installations in the opening hours of the war thus clearing the way for an aerial kinetic bombardment campaign and simultaneous ground incursion inside hostile territory. Unlike heavyweight ballistic missiles which have larger CEP (Circular Error Probability) and can be used for devastating nuclear strikes on enemy cities, cruise missiles are lightweight, tremendously maneuverable, and highly accurate. Such weapons are jet-propelled flying bombs raining surprise death on the enemy. Whereas some cruise missiles with larger RCS (Radar Cross Section) can be engaged with ground-based SAM (Surface to Air) Air-Defence (AD) missile units, the task becomes almost impossible if the incoming missile is flying at supersonic speeds. At lower altitudes and at subsonic speeds such deadly flying weapons can be engaged Within the Visual Range (WVR) with the help of high-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns like the CIWS, L-60, and L-70 systems through Line of Sight (LOS) automatic fire target engagement. But a supersonic missile flying at speeds of Mach 2.8 (almost 3500 km an hour) will give very little reaction time to the enemy for a counterattack and counter engagement of the projectile in midcourse flight. Moreover, if the weapon is launched in an air-launched configuration from a fighter jet or a bomber aircraft, the high-velocity release of the missile and increased range provides extra kinetic energy to the package for long-range Beyond Visual Range (BVR) target engagements from aerial platforms. So, it can be confidently stated that an air-launched supersonic cruise missile is the enemy’s worst nightmare in the 21st-century tactical level conventional battlefield as the enemy will be dead even before they come to know what exactly hit them.

A deadly supersonic punch

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