Background of ballistic missile ranking

Updated: Feb 8


Comparison of missiles: RSD-10 vs. Pershing II

--> Top 100 ballistic missile ranking


In engineering an assessment must be based on numbers, values.

If values are considered, a ranking can be made.


As such values are not openly available, the considered missile systems must be reverse engineered in a good calculation model. Known details must be included in the calculation, e.g. total mass, other unknown data must be approximated e.g empty mass.

In fact, the only missile system about which nearly all data is known for the calculation model is the long decommissioned U.S Titan II ICBM.

Official maximum payload and range values are often inaccurate or direct disinformation. Only a benchmarkend calculation model can make reasonable prediction on these two parameters.


However does such a reverse-engineered model enable a ranking with realistic and legitimate representation, on how the different missile system compare to each other?


The answer is no.


In systems as complex as ballistic missiles, details are involved which can hardly be quantified in in numbers and if they could, it may be based on deliberate and potentially biased differing weightings of the involved parameters.


Top 100 missile ranking: Total


The level on available data on missiles differs considerably (layout Peacekeeper MX)

This ranking is already forced to do such a potentially biased parameter weighting, in order to create a to some degree representative system performance, the total ranking.


The parameters considered are:


  • Maximum range (weighting 1,4)

  • Payload at maximum range (weighting 0,6)

  • Size, represented by length (weighting 0,3)

  • Mass (weighting 0,3)


With these parameters and weighting, the instances of misrepresenations/anomalies, where an obviously superior missile e.g Scud-C performs worse than the lower range baseline R-17 Scud-B, can be avoided.


Data and approximate shape of reverse engineered missiles

So the goal of this total ranking is to not just include how much the missile can throw how far, but also how large and heavy the missile is. The more compact the missile and higher the kinematic performance, the better it will score.


Top 100 missile ranking: Kinematic


Trident II, top ranked missile in total ranking

A second ranking is included, wich dismisses potentially misleading weighting by just considering 1/1-factor range performance and 2/3-factor payload performance at that range. Here the results of the kinematic system performance count, not how large or heavy the missile is.


In this ranking the greatly improved survivability of more compact missile systems is neglected. This is reasonable only for highest degree hardened launch concepts or if there is no threat to the missile systems launch due to inferior capabilities of the adversary.


Things to consider: Lifetime system cost


Many aspects can not be easily included to the ranking because of difficult representative quantification.

Fiberglass composite motor casing of French S-3 2nd stage

Here an example:


The Chinese DF-26 IRBM can be equipped with a nuclear warhead, but is mostly equipped with conventional warheads for long range precision strike missions.

For the latter application, its designers preferred to use a less expensive, faster produceable steel motor casing, although China has the technology for higher performance composite motor casings, as used in its new generation nuclear-only strategic missiles.

The comparable French S-3 IRBM (out of service), was developed for a relative small nuclear arsenal and had no conventional variant. In this role, it already used composite motor casing in its upper stage in the 1980's, as thrid country after the U.S.A and the Soviet Union.

While the DF-26 is clearly a technically superior missile system, it gets similarly ranked as the S-3 because the production cost parameter is not considered.


The Soviet Union's R-27 Zyb SLBM achieved similar performance levels as the U.S Polaris SLBM, it was developed to compete against.

It did so with a single stage instead of the two stages of the Polaris. Fewer stages mean in general less complexity, costs and smaller size.


Lifetime costs are another aspect: Soviet Union used R-17 Scud SRBM in their war in Afghanistan in the 1980's. At that point, the system was already about 25 years in service.

The 1980's vintage, advanced Oka missile system (now dismantled), would have probably needed two expensive solid propellant replacements refurbishments, if it was to be used 25 years after its production.


Things to consider: Special capabilities


MaRV of Irans's Haj Qasem and HGV of China's DF-17 missile

Some missiles have special features, which put them beyond the capabilities of ordinary missile system.

A missile with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles like the Soviet R-36M2 "Satan", has to carry a high capacity post boost vehicle as a defacto payload. This is not considered in the parameters, when compared to the unitary warhead U.S Titan II that lacks a PBV bus.


A Chinese DF-21A with a unguided ballistic RV, is ranked better than the superior DF-21C with a maneuvering re-entry vehicle. Its because the latter is significantly longer and has slightly more drag because e.g of its frontal steering fins.


The Russian Iskander-M ranks worse than missiles which use it as model, such as the Hyunmoo-2 or Grom, because the latter lack a TVC capability and very high altitude dynamic steering control.


The 480km reverse-engineered range of the U.S ATACMS block 1A, make it rank better than the 1000km Iranian Dezful, because its short size and low weight. Dezful's 10,3m length is still sufficiently short for low footprint mobile operation, but its slender design reduced its rank.


The 1990's Russian technology Topol-M ranks worse than the 60's U.S technology Minuteman III. Kinematically superior, the Topol-M uses this superiority partially for penetration aids against anti-ballistic missile systems. As well as a protection coating of the stages against boost-phase interception by directed energy weapons and nuclear dust cloud erosion after strikes against Topol-M silos. Such erosion protection is also present in the Minuteman III, but less robust.


None of these details is included in the ranking, nor can be easily due to the difficult quantification of the values these features have.


Resulting misrepresentations


Typically very slender older generation Iranian BM

In this context, my defacto technologically demonstrated Khorramshahr-Salman ICBM of Iran, or a hypothetical Jericho-3 ICBM, perform unrepresentatively well in the ranking:

  • both lack any PBV or MaRV or heavy penetration aids

  • are lightweight and have no thick stage protection coating

  • Khorramshahr-Salman is very short and has just two stages

  • lack a fairing and thus saved weight and have aerodynamic pointy nose tips

  • most importantly; deliver a low payload to a long range

An Indian Prithvi II SRBM ranks better than a Pakistani Ghauri-2 MRBM, because the former was designed to deliver a heavy first generation nuclear warhead, while the latter is very long for its kinematic performance.


Conclusion


The ranking in its current form, while not considering important parameters, is the most comprehensive and representative on the internet. A future revision my include important system parameters and quantify them accurately.


The ranking in its current form also includes systems that are:

  • Not well known (e.g Yars)

  • Not confirmed to exist (e.g Jericho-3 ICBM)

  • Only demonstrated by subsystems (e.g Khorramshahr-Salman ICBM)

  • Abandoned and not successfully developed (e.g Hwasong-10)

  • Not yet test flown or confirmed to be real (Puguksong-4)

  • Decommissioned or not existing anymore (e.g Pershing II)

For various reasons and considerations such systems were included in the ranking.


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Enthusiast-level open source (-only) military technology and missile analysist