Cruise missile (Inventions)

The invention: Aircraft weapons system that makes it possible to attack both land and sea targets with extreme accuracy without endangering the lives of the pilots.

The person behind the invention:

Rear Admiral Walter M. Locke (1930- ), U.S. Navy project manager

From the Buzz Bombs of World War II

During World War II, Germany developed and used two different types of missiles: ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Aballistic missile is one that does not use aerodynamic lift in order to fly. It is fired into the air by powerful jet engines and reaches a high altitude; when its engines are out of fuel, it descends on its flight path toward its target. The German V-2 was the first ballistic missile. The United States and other countries subsequently developed a variety of highly sophisticated and accurate ballistic missiles.
The other missile used by Germany was a cruise missile called the V-1, which was also called the flying bomb or the buzz bomb. The V-1 used aerodynamic lift in order to fly, just as airplanes do. It flew relatively low and was slow; by the end of the war, the British, against whom it was used, had developed techniques for countering it, primarily by shooting it down.
After World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union carried on the Germans’ development of both ballistic and cruise missiles. The United States discontinued serious work on cruise missile technology during the 1950′s: The development of ballistic missiles of great destructive capability had been very successful. Ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads had become the basis for the U.S. strategy of attempting to deter enemy attacks with the threat of a massive missile counterattack. In addition, aircraft carriers provided an air-attack capability similar to that of cruise missiles. Finally, cruise missiles were believed to be too vulnerable to being shot down by enemy aircraft or surface-to-air missiles.
While ballistic missiles are excellent for attacking large, fixed targets, they are not suitable for attacking moving targets. They can be very accurately aimed, but since they are not very maneuverable during their final descent, they are limited in their ability to change course to hit a moving target, such as a ship.
During the 1967 war, the Egyptians used a Soviet-built cruise missile to sink the Israeli ship Elath. The U.S. military, primarily the Navy and the Air Force, took note of the Egyptian success and within a few years initiated cruise missile development programs.

The Development of Cruise Missiles

The United States probably could have developed cruise missiles similar to 1990′s models as early as the 1960′s, but it would have required a huge effort. The goal was to develop missiles that could be launched from ships and planes using existing launching equipment, could fly long distances at low altitudes at fairly high speeds, and could reach their targets with a very high degree of accuracy. If the missiles flew too slowly, they would be fairly easy to shoot down, like the German V-1′s. If they flew at too high an altitude, they would be vulnerable to the same type of surface-based missiles that shot down Gary Powers, the pilot of the U.S. U2 spyplane, in 1960. If they were inaccurate, they would be of little use.
The early Soviet cruise missiles were designed to meet their performance goals without too much concern about how they would be launched. They were fairly large, and the ships that launched them required major modifications. The U.S. goal of being able to launch using existing equipment, without making major modifications to the ships and planes that would launch them, played a major part in their torpedo-like shape: Sea-Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs) had to fit in the submarine’s torpedo tubes, and Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) were constrained to fit in rotary launchers. The size limitation also meant that small, efficient jet engines would be required that could fly the long distances required without needing too great a fuel load. Small, smart computers were needed to provide the required accuracy. The engine and computer technologies began to be available in the 1970′s, and they blossomed in the 1980′s.
The U.S. Navy initiated cruise missile development efforts in 1972; the Air Force followed in 1973. In 1977, the Joint Cruise Missile Project was established, with the Navy taking the lead. Rear Admiral Walter M. Locke was named project manager. The goal was to develop air-, sea-, and ground-launched cruise missiles. By coordinating activities, encouraging competition, and requiring the use of common components wherever possible, the cruise missile development program became a model for future weapon-system development efforts. The primary contractors included Boeing Aerospace Company, General Dynamics, and McDonnell Douglas.
In 1978, SLCMs were first launched from submarines. Over the next few years, increasingly demanding tests were passed by several versions of cruise missiles. By the mid-1980′s, both antiship and antiland missiles were available. An antiland version could be guided to its target with extreme accuracy by comparing a map programmed into its computer to the picture taken by an on-board video camera.
The typical cruise missile is between 18 and 21 feet long, about 21 inches in diameter, and has a wingspan of between 8 and 12 feet. Cruise missiles travel slightly below the speed of sound and have a range of around 1,350 miles (antiland) or 250 miles (antiship). Both conventionally armed and nuclear versions have been fielded.


Cruise missiles have become an important part of the U.S. arsenal. They provide a means of attacking targets on land and water without having to put an aircraft pilot’s life in danger. Their value was demonstrated in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. One of their uses was to “soften up” defenses prior to sending in aircraft, thus reducing the risk to pilots. Overall estimates are that about 85 percent of cruise missiles used in the Persian Gulf War arrived on target, which is an outstanding record. It is believed that their extreme accuracy also helped to minimize noncombatant casualties.
See also Airplane; Atomic bomb; Hydrogen bomb; Rocket; Stealth aircraft; V-2 rocket.

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