What is an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile? ICBMs (Explained)

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One of the most Googled questions since the start of the Russian-Ukraine war is “What are ICBMs?”

ICMB stands for Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. They are one of the deadliest and most sophisticated weapons of the modern era. In this article we’ll briefly talk about what they are and help you understand how they work, why they made and other basic facts that are important to their understanding.

So without further ado let’s get started.

What are they?

An intercontinental ballistic missile or an (ICBM) is a missile that has a minimum range of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 mi).

It is primarily designed to carry nuclear warheads (one or more thermonuclear warhead). They have the potential to carry chemical and biological weapons as well, but they have never been deployed for that use (at least for now).

In their early days, ICBMs had limited precision which meant that they, were only good for large targets (such as cities or big military installations). As research and technology advanced, especially in the weapons market, they have become more precise(capable of landing within a meter of a target), and are a serious deterrent to the use of Military Force.

Brief History of ICBM’s

The technology was patented and designed in Nazi Germany’s V-2 missile rocket program. Developed by Werhner von Braun and his team, the V-2 rocket was widely used by Nazi Germany to mostly bomb British and Belgian cities.

Inspired by the V2 rocket program, the “Projekt Amerika” program was started by The German Ministry of Aviation with the goal to develop a new intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit targets in America, like New York or other cities.

The project was quickly abandoned when it was deemed too expensive, too reliant on unstable material, and/or technically unfeasible at the time.

This lead to the development of the A9/10 ICBM.

This missile was proposed to use an advanced version of the A9 to attack targets on the US mainland from launch sites in Europe, for which it would need to be launched atop a booster stage, the A10.

It was considered that existing guidance systems would not be precise enough over a distance of 5,000 km, and they decided to make the A9 piloted. The pilot was to be guided on his terminal glide towards the target by radio beacons on U-boats and by automatic weather stations…

Soviet and American Research race

After the end of World War II, the Soviets and Americans began similar research programs based on the V-2 and other German wartime designs.

In the Soviet Union, the biggest attention was given to the research of rockets that could hit European targets. That changed in 1953, when the development of a real ICBM started, giving it the possibility to carry newly developed hydrogen bombs (nuclear bomb) for the first time.

After extensive research and funding, the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System was made. Given it the name R-7, it was the first successful weapon system of this type. Meaning that the Soviets won the first prize in that race.

The first strategic-missile unit became operational on February 9, 1959.

The R-7 was able to fly over 6,000 km (3,700 mi). Besides being tested to carry nuclear bombs, the R-7 vehicle placed the first artificial satellite in space on October 4, 1957.

Today a heavily modernized version of the R-7 is still used by the Russian Military, giving it more than 60 years of operational history since Sergei Korolev‘s original rocket design.

The American ICBM research program was started back in 1946 with code name RTV-A-2 Hiroc project. The project had some setbacks and wasn’t taken too seriously, that is until the first Soviet tests of the thermonuclear weapon.

Immediately after the first successful tests by the Soviet Union, the Atlas Missile Program was given the highest national priority. The first test flight of the Atlas rocket lasted less than a minute before the rocket failed and blew up. The first successful flight of an Atlas missile to full range occurred on November 28, 1958.

The first armed version of the Atlas, the Atlas D, was declared operational in January 1959 at Vandenberg, although it had not yet flown. The first test flight was carried out on 9 July 1959, and the missile was accepted for service on 1 September.

How do they work?

On a very basic level, ICBM’s work by launching from a ground-based (or submarine-based) launcher, reaching suborbital space-flight at about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers), and eventually releasing their payloads to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and plummet towards their target back on Earth.

ICBM’s are multi-phase rockets that go through a sequence of events prior to the rocket reaching its target. Those events can be divided in three phases.

A visual representation of the different phases of an ICBM
A visual representation of the different phases of an ICBM

The Boost Phase

During this phase of the missile trajectory, the rockets get the missile airborne. It usually lasts somewhere around 3 to 5 minutes depending on the type of rocket fuel being used.

It can use two types of fuel: solid-fuel or liquid propellant (the time is always shorter for the solid fuel rocket). For more info on different kinds of rocket propellants, check out this informative page from NASA here.

There is no difference in the distance that the different fuels can send their payloads. Also depending on the trajectory chosen, typical burnout speed is 4 km/s (2.5 mi/s), up to 7.8 km/s (4.8 mi/s). Altitude at the end of this phase is typically 150 to 400 km (93 to 249 mi).

Midcourse Phase

This phase lasts around 10-25 minutes depending on the trajectory of the ICBM. Here, the rocket reaches space(sub-orbital spaceflight).

The flightpath represents a part of an ellipse with a vertical major axis. At this point the rocket is going to be moving incredibly fast, somewhere around 25,000-27,000 kph (15,000-17,000 mph). Halfway through the midcourse phase the rocket will fly at an altitude of 1,200 km (750 mi) and by the ending phase it will reach altitudes between 3,000-6000 km (2000-4000 mi). This is where the missile will reach it’s fastest velocity.

Terminal phase

Starting at the altitude of 100 km (62 mi), the last phase is where the rocket reenters the Atmosphere. The nose cone section carrying the warhead separates from the final rocket booster and drops back to Earth. At this point the warhead is only minutes from the target, and it is also impossible to use any counter-measures to stop it from finishing its path.

Modern ICBM’s

Russia's Sarmat ICBM
Russia’s Sarmat ICBM

Modern ICBMs typically carry multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), each of which carries a separate nuclear warhead, allowing a single missile to hit multiple targets.

MIRV was an outgrowth of the rapidly shrinking size and weight of modern warheads and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties which imposed limitations on the number of launch vehicles.

ICBMs can be deployed from various platforms such as: Missile silos, submarines, heavy trucks and mobile launchers on rails.

Today there are a small number of countries that possess nuclear weapons, and the proper ICBM technology which carries those warheads to their targets.

Even though many refer to them as “doomsday” devices or weapons, nobody has thought of using them(since 1945, but those were atomic bombs).

These weapons represent more of a deterrent than an actual threat to us. Russia, The United States, China, North Korea and India are the only countries that currently possess land-based ICBMs.

Israel has tested ICBM’s but has not been open about the deployment of them.

Here are some examples of the most powerful ICBMs in the World

RS-28 Sarmat


The RS-28 Sarmat, nicknamed “Satan” is currently the best ICBM in the Russian arsenal and in the World.

The Sarmat missile was developed to replace Russia’s Soviet Era R-36.

The Sarmat is capable of carrying a MIRV that can hold up to dozens of light warheads. In addition, the new missile has an estimated range  of 10,000 to 18,000 km (6,200 and 11,180miles)

The Trident D5


The Trident D5, or Trident II, is a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

It is an improved version of the previous Trident C4  with greater payload, range and accuracy. The Trident II missile has a range of 7,800 km with full load and 12,000 km with a reduced load.

So even though the Trident II does not have the longest range comparing with other ICBMs, ballistic submarines armed with these missiles can always approach their targets to reduce their flight range. Each US Trident II missile can carry up to 14 warheads.

The Soviet R-36


The SS-18 Satan is a very capable missile, mainly because of its high speed and extremely high throw weight. Russia was and is still ahead of the West in development of missile engines. The R-36M2 missile has a range of 11 000 km and carry up to 10 MIRVs. The Satan is a silo-based missile.

Silos are located in dispersed locations across Russia. Silo launcher and Command Points are built to protect against a nuclear explosion. However, the positions of these silos are known. That why this missile is ranked second on this list. Though in terms of range and payload it is clearly superior to the US Trident II.


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Although they have the power to wipe out our own species, ICBM technology was also used to explore space and was used in space missions as mentioned briefly above.

The countries that have access to these weapons are hopefully not prepared to use them, as long there are sane and normal people that don’t want to plunge the Human Race into a Nuclear Holocaust. Its important to notice that besides being a weapon of mass destruction (if armed as such) or being used for space missions, the ICBM technology is continued example of the human engineering and ingenuity.

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