Warfare has come a long way from the first primitive projectiles, with a wide array of sophisticated missiles being available to modern combatants.
In fact, the very sophistication of modern weapons in general means the layman might have trouble distinguishing between missiles and other complex weaponry.
Modern bombs, for instance, often look like missiles because they are long, thin and equipped with fins. This is because bombing today is usually about precision targeting, with bombs frequently being laser guided.
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Rockets, meanwhile, have no internal guidance system and are aimed like rifles or artillery, though they do use their own thrust when launched at their intended targets.
Missiles combine both a guidance system and self-propulsion, though clever as they are, missiles cannot do everything. Other than rare multi-purpose missiles, they generally break down into four main types:
These are fired from a launcher on the ground or the surface of the sea (i.e. from the deck of a ship) at targets in the air, which may include other missiles.
These are launched from an aircraft at a target on either the ground or the surface of the sea.
Surface-to-surface missiles are launched from the surface of the sea or the ground at another target on either the surface of the sea or the ground.
These are used by one aircraft to take out a target that is also airborne, like plane, helicopter or drone.
The British Armed Forces use several missile types from across these four broad categories. The Army, Royal Navy and RAF have both unique requirements and many roles that overlap, and the missile systems they use reflect this.
What follows is a breakdown by service of these missile systems, which illustrates the ways in which the Army's, Navy's and RAF's missile systems are both similar and unique.
While missiles can reach the scale of intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, they are also small enough to be used by individual soldiers.
The Army, Royal Marines and RAF Regiment make use of the NLAW and Javelin, which really complement one another, and are essential forms of defence for infantry confronting enemy tanks.
They are both anti-tank weapons, though the NLAW is designed to be used by regular troops who do not have to be expert anti-tank specialists, while the Javelin is heavier, longer-ranged and used by specially trained units.
NLAW stands for Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon and it works by hurtling towards a target before diverting and striking it from above, where tanks and other armoured vehicles are weaker.
As well as this overfly top mode, the weapon also has a direct attack mode that enables it to be used against bunkers as well.
To use the NLAW, the firer rests it on their shoulder, uses the sight to lock onto a target and then releases the 150-mm anti-tank missile from the launcher. It is a fire-and-forget weapon meaning it can fire one missile, be reloaded, and then trained on another target, thereby 'forgetting' the first target and enabling a second one to be taken out next. It has a maximum effective range of 600 metres.
The Javelin, meanwhile, is the next step up. It is a medium-ranged weapon that can fire effectively up to 2,500 metres and is used by specialist anti-tank platoons. Two crew members use Javelins, with one acting as the firer and the other as the loader for the 127-mm HEAT (High-Explosive Anti-Tank) missile once it is fired.
Like the NLAW, it is a fire-and-forget weapon and has both overfly top and direct-fire modes, which means it can also be used to strike stationary targets like bunkers and buildings.
The Army also has anti-aircraft missile systems.
One of these is the Starstreak High Velocity Missile (or HVM).
Unlike the Javelin and NLAW, which both fire single missiles at a time, Starstreak launches canister missiles which contain three smaller explosive darts. In a sense, these work like the pellets in a shotgun shell, spraying the target – which might be a low-flying attack jet or helicopter – and increasing the odds that it will be hit.
The high-velocity part of HVM refers to the extremely high speed of its 130-mm canister missiles and the darts inside them, which travel at Mach 3.5, or 2,685 miles per hour. This is over three times the speed of sound and almost twice as fast as modern fighter jets like the Typhoon, which has a top speed of roughly 1,535 miles per hour. Its missiles, and darts, are effective up to an altitude of 1,000 metres (almost 3,300 feet.) According to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) Army website, Starstreak is effective at a range of up to five-and-a-half kilometres, though the manufacturer Thales has said this has been extended to seven.
Starstreak can be fired from a launcher rested on the shoulder of an operator on the ground, though it is more commonly mounted aboard an armoured vehicle known as a Stormer. This can fire eight Starstreak missiles as well as carrying 12 spares.
Thales also provides the Army with the newer Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM).
Also referred to as Martlet, this weapon can also be fired from shoulder-mounted launchers as well as from the Stormer, or another vehicle called the RAPIDRanger.
The 76-mm LMM can be used as both a surface-to-air and a surface-to-surface missile – in other words it can perform an anti-aircraft as well as an anti-armour role, making it a kind of hybrid of Starstreak and the NLAW and Javelin. Because of this, it might be thought of or referred to as being another anti-tank missile. However, while the manufacturer Thales does indicate it is useful against tracked and armoured vehicles, technically it is not really powerful enough to knock out a full battle tank. Having only a three-kilogram warhead as opposed to the nine-kilogram warhead on Hellfire missiles (see below), the LMM is therefore less able to take on the explosive reactive armour on full modern battle tanks. In its land role, it is therefore better suited to taking on Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) and other ground targets. Also, it does not travel as quickly as Starstreak, with its missiles going instead at Mach 1.5.
Additionally, when used by the Royal Navy's Wildcat HMA helicopters, LMM, or Martlet, can also perform an air-to-surface role when fired from helicopters at small vessels on the surface of the ocean. This is illustrated in the image below.
For longer-ranged firing, specifically on targets on the ground up to 70 kilometres away, the Army has the Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMRLS).
Like the Starstreak and LMM, the GMRLS is fired from the back of an armoured vehicle, in this case a modified American Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
Just as the "high velocity" part of High Velocity Missile and the "multirole" part of Lightweight Multirole Missile refer to specific capabilities, the "multiple rocket" part of the GMRLS is key. It refers to the system's ability to also fire rockets, and a crew of three can launch a dozen of the 200-lb (91-kilo) rockets within 40 seconds.
Its missiles, however, are much larger. At 610 millimetres in diameter, four metres in length and weighing in at 1,670 kilograms, shoulder mounting or rapid firing them would be impossible.
The trade off is that these missiles, which are referred to as ATACMS (or more precisely, the US MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System), go a lot further than GMRLS rockets, reaching distances of over 300 kilometres. Furthermore, they are due to be upgraded to the US Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) in 2024, which will take the range up to almost 500 kilometres.
More powerful anti-aircraft missiles are delivered by the Rapier Field Standard C air defence system. More commonly known as the Rapier, this can fire at two attacking aircraft simultaneously, making it more responsive than the aforementioned HVM or LMM missiles.
Firing its missiles up to 8,200 metres, Rapier is short-ranged and integrated with radar. It is designed to provide a limited defence against potential air attacks within a high-value area.
The next step up from the Rapier is its replacement, the Sky Sabre, which was introduced into Army service at the end of January 2022. This is also referred to as CAMM (Common Anti-Air Modular Missile), Land Ceptor and, where it has already been in use by the Royal Navy, as Sea Ceptor.
By every measure, Sky Sabre is a huge step up from the Rapier. It too is radar integrated, but instead of detecting and engaging two targets simultaneously, it can detect and engage up to 24, and at distances of up to 15 kilometres from one another.
Its missiles also travel three times as far, up to 25 kilometres.
Sky Sabre has a sophisticated Battle Management and Intelligence suite. This controls its various missiles and guides them towards targets, as well as allowing for information to be shared with the RAF and Royal Navy, and with allies in NATO.
Sky Sabre's missiles are also noteworthy for their speed, being almost as quick at Mach 3 (2,300 mph) as Starstreak's Mach 3.5 missiles, something that makes it more effective at intercepting fast-moving air threats like fighter jets.
The Army also has air-to-surface missiles in their arsenal, a function of them having their own air arm, the Army Air Corps (AAC).
Its fleet of Apache AH-64E helicopters are equipped with Hellfire missiles, or more precisely the AGM-114R Hellfire II. These missiles have a largely anti-armour role and can strike tanks from up to 11 kilometres away, though typically direct targeting takes place up to eight kilometres. The Romeo variant, or 114R, have a multi-purpose warhead meaning that they can be used to strike a number of targets as well as tanks where several different kinds of Hellfire missiles would have been required before.
The Hellfire has been referred to as the most important heliborne weapon of the Western Bloc due to it helping to neutralise the threat of the Communist Bloc's huge numbers of tanks.
According to the MOD: "Each missile has its own guidance computer, steering control and propulsion systems, which help to ensure precision targeting … (and) … The air-to-surface missile can travel at up to 425 metres per second; which means it takes fewer than 20 seconds to reach a target five miles away."
Additionally, the Army's Apache helicopters are due to have their missile suites upgraded to include the Lockheed Martin AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM), according to a May 2021 announcement by Jeremy Quin, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement.
Like existing Hellfire missiles, JAGMs have varying warheads for different types of targets – be they tanks, more thinly armoured vehicles, buildings etc – although an improved guidance and targeting system. Hellfire missiles use laser targeting as a guidance device, whereas the JAGM will use a multimode seeker making it better able to function at night, in adverse weather conditions and against any countermeasures.
The RAF also makes use of Hellfire missiles – Reaper drones can carry a variety of Hellfire AGM 114 missiles alongside 500lb GBU-12 laser-guided bombs. The Romeo variant is the example given in the table below.
As one would expect, though, most RAF missiles tend to be air-to-air rather than ground-to-air, due to the various fighter aircraft it has.
At present, the Typhoon is the main fighter jet of the RAF and has an array of missiles with which to conduct its missions.
The first of these is the ASRAAM, which is also used to equip the RAF's other fighter jet, the F-35B Lightning II.
ASRAAM stands for Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile, with 'short' range, in this case, referring to its ability to hit targets out to just over 25 kilometres from the aircraft that launched it. These missiles move at a speed of Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound.
Launching of the missile is done in conjunction with the acquisition of a target via the aircraft's radar or the helmet sight of the pilot. Then, once in flight, it has a heat-seeking capability that helps guide it towards the target aircraft.
Once it reaches the target, the 166-mm missile has a warhead that has proximity fuses that are laser and impact guided and detonate the warhead at the exact moment necessary to maximise its effectiveness. In other words, it detonates slightly differently when hitting a large target than it does when hitting a small target (i.e. a larger bomber versus a small fighter aircraft or even a drone).
Typhoons and F-35s also have the 178-mm AMRAAM missile, which means Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile. It is also heat seeking and can strike targets out to ranges of between 55 and 75 kilometres.
Since late 2018, Typhoons have also had the MBDA Meteor, the most advanced air-to-air missile in the world, capable of hitting targets at ranges of over 200 kilometres, travelling at a speed of over Mach 4.
Able to hit targets at well beyond the visual range of the pilots that fire it, Meteor is guided by radar and capable of hitting an array of different targets including other fighter jets, drones and even cruise missiles. According to the manufacturer MBDA, its ramjet propulsion system – made up of solid fuel, variable flow and a ducted rocket – enables the missile to have full trust all the way to its target. When it gets there, the combination of both impact and proximity fuses, as well as a fragmentation warhead, helps to detonate the missile at the optimum point, causing maximum target damage.
Additionally, the RAF also has the even longer ranged air-to-ground missile Storm Shadow. Also known as SCALP and previously carried on Tornados, these days the missile is delivered by the RAF's Typhoons. It is a deep-strike weapon designed to hit fixed or stationary targets as much as 250 kilometres away or more.
Finally, the Typhoon also carries Brimstone air-to-ground missiles. These perform a similar role to Paveway bombs, except that they are both guided and have their own thrust to get them to their targets. These may be moving vehicles on the ground, or moving ships on the surface of the ocean.
Brimstone missiles are guided by both laser (or Semi-Active Laser, SAL) and Millimetric Wave radar, which MBDA says helps to guide the missile to fast-moving targets in cluttered environments (i.e. an ISIS Toyota truck crossing a wreck-strewn battlefield.)
It has a range of up to 60 kilometres from fixed-wing aircraft like the Typhoon.
The RAFs and Royal Navy's F-35s are also equipped with some of these missiles, or are due to be in the coming years, though the advantage of the F-35 over the typhon is that it can carry a small number of missiles internally, making it less visible to radar.
The Royal Navy
While those in the Royal Air Force are geared up to deploy with air-to-surface missiles, those in the Royal Navy have to be prepared to counter this threat.
To this end, the Royal Navy's main fighting ships, its Type-45 Destroyers, are equipped with the Sea Viper, a guided surface-to-air missile system that can launch eight missiles in 10 seconds. Also known as PAAMS (Principle Anti Air Missile System), once airborne, the Sea Viper system can also guide 16 missiles to targets that are as far away as 70 miles (113 kilometres.)
Describing a missile test carried out by the Type-45 Destroyer HMS Defender in 2019, the MOD described the Sea Viper in action: "Just two and a half seconds after erupting from HMS Defender's silo, the missile accelerates to more than four times the speed of sound – otherwise known as Mach 4.
"High over the seas, it then manoeuvres at G-forces which no human being could withstand, to close in and destroy the target."
The Sea Viper system actually uses two kinds of missiles, the Aster 15 and the Aster 30, the latter of which is longer ranged. The stats for the Aster 30 are the ones used in the table below.
In addition to Sea Viper, the naval variant of the Sky Sabre system known as Sea Ceptor, or CAMM (Common Anti-Air Modular Missile) already in service on the Navy's Type 23 Frigates, will also be added to its Type-45 Destroyers.
Sea Ceptor's missiles do not have the range of Sea Viper's Aster 30 missiles, but they are able to protect a much wider area from air attack, one around 500 square miles, which is about the size of Greater Manchester.
As BFBS has reported, Sea Ceptor is meant to give the Navy an improved defence against common airborne threats like supersonic anti-ship missiles, fighter jets, helicopters and UAVs, though it can also intercept small water-based attack craft, something Sea Viper is not capable of.
As of December 2021, the Navy has been in the process of phasing in Sea Ceptor as a replacement for the Sea Wolf missile system, which had formerly been the Navy's Type-23 Frigates' main air defence missile system. Sea Ceptor's range of 25 kilometres is a significant increase on the 10 kilometres Sea Wolf missiles can operate at.
As well as Sea Ceptor, the Navy's Type-23 Frigates (or Duke Class) also have the Harpoon, an anti-ship surface-to-surface missile that can strike ships at ranges of up to 80 miles away (almost 130 kilometres). The almost-five-metre-long and 691-kilogram missiles fly at a speed of 0.9 Mach (i.e. just under the speed of sound) and have an explosive warhead carried to target by lightweight turbojet that accelerates the missile right after it is launched.
It uses a combination of radar and inertial guidance – which is the use of internal instruments and sensors to keep the missile on a pre-arranged flight path – to deliver it to its target.
Harpoon is due to go out of service in 2023.
The Royal Navy also has its own air-to-surface anti-ship missiles, delivered by the Wildcat HMA helicopters in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA.) This missile system is Sea Venom.
It is also manufactured by MBDA, and it was test fired by the Royal Navy for the first time in 2017 and although not due to come into service until 2022, it has been reported that Wildcat helicopters in Carrier Strike Group 21 were already equipped with the Sea Venom missiles.
Aircraft-mounted missiles also come with the Hawk T1, which both the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm and the RAF use for training. In both services it is capable of taking on a warfighting role as well, and when it does, it is armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
These were developed by the US Navy for the defence of their fleet. They are infrared heat-seeking, air-to-air missiles with a high-explosive warhead for air-to-air combat between fighter aircraft.
Finally, the Royal Navy has missiles that are carried not only in the air above the surface of the sea, but two kinds of missiles that are carried below it.
The first of these is the Tomahawk IV cruise missile, carried by the Navy's Astute-class submarines.
Known within the Navy as the Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM), this missile can be sent up and out of the water towards a target on land over 1,000 miles away. In fact, its range seems to be considerably more than that. The MOD simply says it is over 1,000 miles (or 1,600 kilometres) while the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is more precise, giving it a range of up to 2,500 kilometres (over 1,500 miles.)
Its long range aside, the Tomahawk's most impressive capability may instead be its ability to loiter for hours. In other words, like a drone, it can be sent up out of the water high into the air with a particular target programmed in, and then be set to wait before striking. In the interim, a new target may be selected.
It is also capable of sending back images of the battlefield to the submarine that launched it.
The Royal Navy's other underwater-borne missile is Trident, carried by its Vanguard-class subs.
The Trident D5 is a ballistic missile, meaning that its trajectory is arched steeply up and then downwards. The missile is guided by inertial navigation to some degree, though gravity also plays a role in delivering it to the target area.
It can travel more than 4,000 miles, or 6,400 kilometres, and up to a speed of 13,000 miles per hour according to the MOD – a speed equivalent to about 17 Mach, or 17 times the speed of sound.
While these are impressive technological feats, Trident, being the UK's nuclear deterrent, is the one type of missile above all others in the British Armed Forces that one hopes is never actually used.
A comparison of British Armed Forces missiles:
Length and weight
Army, Royal Marines, RAF Regiment
Army, Royal Marines, RAF Regiment
Surface-to-air, surface-to-surface, air-to-surface, air-to-air
Army, Royal Navy FAA (as Martlet)
500 – 8,200 metres
Army (as Land Ceptor); Royal Navy (as Sea Ceptor)
Hellfire (Romeo variant)
0.5 – 11 km
Army, RAF (on drones)
55 – 75 km
RAF, Royal Navy FAA
40 - 60 km*
Royal Navy FAA, RAF
454 KG (payload)
1,600 + km
Royal Navy Submarine Service
Surface-to-surface ballistic missile
6,400 + km
Royal Navy Submarine Service
*Range can vary depending on the height at which it is launched.
Cover image: A Javelin missile fired during Exercise Heavy Strike, which took place in the Brecon Beacons in 2020 (Picture: MOD).