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Fastest Ballistic Missiles in the World
This is one introduction which is going to be a bit longer as compared to the ones I have written in other articles, primarily due to the confusion between Cruise and Ballistic missiles and the ensuing questions. Let’s address them one by one.
The article detailing the fastest cruise missiles had addressed the question on the difference between the two types of missiles which interested readers can have a read.
You can read about the fastest cruise missiles here
So let’s move on to the next question – how fast is the fastest ballistic missile? The answer is that most will be in the range of Mach 20-24. Why? Simple, if they are any faster than Mach 24, then they risk reaching orbital velocity and therefore, remain in orbit rather than falling on the intended target. While I made it sound simple, it is not just the velocity but also the mass of the ballistic missile, the launch trajectory, etc. which come into play. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain the fact that there are missiles which indeed attain orbital velocity and yet act as a ballistic missile and fall back on Earth; which also means that converting a ballistic missile to a peaceful rocket launch for payload delivery into orbit is possible.
Alright, now looking at the other side of the question on speed, what happens if the speed is too less? Nothing happens as far as the operation of the missile goes, it just becomes an easier target for anti-ballistic missiles to shoot them down. That is the reason we will see most of the ballistic missiles having a speed of Mach 20-24. Now, the more important question, how do they compare against the cruise missiles. Simply put, if there was a race between a cruise missile and ballistic missile, a ballistic one will reach its destination in half the time of the cruise missile and will be sipping its coffee waiting for the cruise missile to arrive.
What do I mean? Readers who have already gone through the article on cruise missiles would have noticed that there are very few countries having cruise missiles in the Mach 7 – Mach 10 range – very rare occurrence. Again, there are only a few countries having missiles in the Mach 5-7 and Mach 3-5 range; rest of the countries mostly have missiles in the lesser than Mach 3 and Mach 2 range. So, if we compare ballistic missiles traveling at Mach 22 with most of the cruise missiles traveling at Mach 2, they are a mind-boggling 11 times faster than cruise missiles; well, 11 times than at least most of the cruise missiles.
An important point to note here – the speed achieved by ballistic missile is the fastest any object or animal can achieve within the orbit of Earth. That is leaving alone the orbital velocity and beyond orbital velocity (where we will have to bring in light years), the ballistic missiles are the fastest man-made object moving inside the orbit of Earth.
Few final points of the introduction – ballistic missiles can further be classified as an Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), and intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). For the purpose of this article discussing the speed, we will look at all these variants together. Also, the speed of Mach 22-24 is achieved at the time of re-entry of the missile (See Figure 1). I mean, the speed is achieved when the missile is falling back to Earth and not while launching it. Unlike in my other articles, if I mention a particular missile having a speed of Mach 24, it does not mean that it is the only one at that speed. There may be one or even 10 more at the same speed manufactured by different countries. So, assume the missiles mentioned for different speeds as representative of that speed group.
With this, I complete the introduction (as warned, turned out to be a bit long) and move on to discuss the speed of the missiles which is our core theme.
1. Agni - V
Agni – V is an intercontinental ballistic missile developed by the Indian DRDO. This was part of the Agni series of missiles, however, the ones before Agni – V were severely low on operational range especially in forming a credible deterrence against the Chinese defense. The Agni – V is comparatively new in development and deployment as compared to the other missiles on the list. With the Agni –V India joined the elite club of countries with nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles.
- Missile: Agni - V
- Country: India
- Speed: Mach 24 [31,360 kmph or 19,478 mph]
- Missile Weight: 50 ton
- Warhead: 1.5 ton
- Operational Range: >5000 km
- Accuracy: 50 – 80 m
- Status: In production
Reports on two other missiles, the Agni – VI and Surya, have been raked up from time to time only to be played down by the DRDO. The expectations of both missiles are to be lighter, faster, have a longer range and ability to carry larger nuclear head. Till such time that the news is directly reported by India, it will continue to remain in the realms of speculation.
2. UGM - 133 Trident II
The UGM – 133 Trident II is a submarine-launched, intercontinental ballistic missile, which the Americans developed to complete their nuclear triad. It is also known as Trident D5 and currently serves both the American and British navies. It was designed in the 90s and remains operational even today.
- Missile: UGM – 133A Trident II
- Country: United States of America
- Speed: Mach 24 [31,360 kmph or 19,478 mph]
- Missile Weight: 59 ton
- Warhead: MIRV (10-12 thermonuclear)
- Operational Range: 12,000 km
- Accuracy: 90 m
- Status: Deployed with the U.S. and U.K. navies
The missile is housed in the Ohio class submarines of the U.S. and the Vanguard class of the U.K. There are, of course, other submarines armed with the Trident 2, however, the mentioned two are the well-known ones. It has the distinction of the most number of successful test flights since the 90s to one as recent as March 2018. At full load, the missile has an operational range of 7500+ km.
3. LGM - 30 Minuteman
The LGM – 30 Minuteman is one of the oldest American ICBM, its research being initiated in the 1950s. It came into operation in the 1960s and continues to be in service. As of 2018, the more advanced variant LGM – 30G Minuteman III forms the only land-based ICBM in service in the United States; of course, as per information available in the public domain.
- Missile: LGM – 30 Minuteman
- Country: United States of America
- Speed: Mach 23 [30,053 kmph or 18,667 mph]
- Missile Weight: 35 ton
- Warhead: MIRV (3)
- Operational Range: 13,000 km
- Accuracy: 200 m
- Status: In service since 1962
Minuteman was the first MIRV to be deployed. It was developed in response to intelligence that the erstwhile USSR was developing anti-ballistic missiles. The thought process was that the minuteman capable of launching three warheads at the same time would be difficult for the anti-ballistic missile to counter and thus started the era of MIRV.
4. Dongfeng 5
The Dongfeng 5 is a Chinese ICBM and was first tested in 1971. The introduction of the missile into service in 1981 coincided with the rise of China. In comparison to the available missile technology of the time, the DF – 5 appeared crude, considering parameters like fueling time of nearly an hour before launch, etc. That said, it is still a potent force in China’s arsenal.
- Missile: Dongfeng 5
- Country: China
- Speed: Mach 22 [28,746 kmph or 17,855 mph]
- Missile Weight: 180 ton
- Warhead: MIRV (10 warheads)
- Operational Range: 12,000 – 15,000 km
- Accuracy: ~800 m
- Status: In service since 1981
The Dongfeng 5 is planned to be replaced by the much powerful Dongfeng 41. However, the recent upgrade that the Dongfeng 5 has received as an MIRV, may have prolonged its life. There may be a case of both the Dongfeng 5 and Dongfeng 41 serving alongside.
5. RS - 28 Sarmat
RS-28 Sarmat, though coming at the end of this list for its speed, if we consider its weight alone it is easily the big daddy of ICBMs. In fact, it is classified as super heavy ICBM and is capable of carrying MIRV in many configuration, including HGVs. HGVs would be kind of game changer considering missile inside a missile, which could be further maneuvered separately to hit a target.
- Missile: RS-28 Sarmat
- Country: Russia
- Speed: Mach 22 [27,047 kmph or 16,800 mph]
- Missile Weight: 220 ton
- Warhead: MIRV (10 -24)
- Operational Range: ~10,900 km
- Accuracy: 10 m
- Status: Deployed
The RS-28 is one of the newest strategic weapons unveiled by Russia in 2018 and it is touted to replace another monster, the R-36 M (SS-18 Satan).
Launch into Orbit
Reminding readers once again that there are many missiles which may fall at the same speed or even in-between of those mentioned in this article. These are missiles whose speeds are taken as representation of a speed category. Also, at the beginning of this article we mentioned that the ballistic missiles can be utilized for carrying peace payloads into orbit and that, I personally feel, will be a much better utilization of such marvels of engineering.
This article intends to bring in the aspect of fun while looking at the speeds these missiles can achieve and I hope readers take it in the same vein.
Which Missile's speed impressed you?
© 2018 Savio Koman