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Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles – Enabling the End of the World

On 6th August 1945 the way we fight changed forever. With the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the world entered a new phase of warfare, a fearsome, terrifying phase where entire cities could be levelled in an instant. For the first time in history, global destruction of our making appeared a distinct possibility. 

But the bomb that fell on Hiroshima on the 6th, and the slightly larger bomb that hit Nagasaki three days later, were distinctly primitive compared to what would later appear. They also needed to be dropped by an aircraft, which wasn’t much of an issue as the Americans dominated the skies above Japan, but in terms of a global nuclear war, it was far from ideal. If warfare changed on 6th August 1945, it took an even darker turn with the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the 1950s.

Before we crack on with the history of the ICBMs, perhaps a quick definition. To be classified as an ICBM, a weapon needs to have a range of at least 5,500 km (3,400 miles) – which is, in theory, far enough to hit a different continent, though depending on where you are that could be done over a much shorter distance. These missiles typically carry a nuclear warhead, sometimes multiple warheads, the strength of which varies greatly across different models. 

World War II 

We’ve done several videos here on Megaprojects regarding the incredible level of ingenuity seen during World War II. There is something about war that seems to drive inventiveness to stratospheric levels. And in the case of Nazi Germany, no doubt the psychopathic tendencies of Hier Hitler. 

It was in Germany during World War II that we saw the very early designs that would eventually lead to ICBMs. The V-2 rocket was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile and could reach a range of roughly 320 km (200 miles), where it typically disgorged its 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) worth of Amatol (a mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate) in a fiery explosion. 

Layout of a V-2 rocket
Layout of a V-2 rocket by Eberhard Marx is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Thankfully – and I do mean that with a sense of perspective – the V-2 appeared fairly late in the war and apart from striking a degree of fear into the citizens of London, Antwerp and Liege, their impact was much smaller than traditional ariel bombing – but still, it’s estimated that 9,000 people died as a result of V-2 attacks. Had the German managed to develop the weapon earlier in the war, the outcome could have been very different. 

The V-2 program was led by Wernher Von Braun, a brilliant rocketry pioneer who would later be whisked away to America to become one of the leading figures in the development of the U.S space program. However, long before that, he was involved in Projekt Amerika, an expansive plan that explored the possibility of launching strikes against cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States, either through conventional aircraft or long-range missiles. 

The missile idea eventually focused on the A9 and A10 rocket designs. The aggregate rocket series had begun back in 1933 and the V-2 was an A4 rocket (A6 through A12 were designs only and were never built)

The development of the A10 rocket began back in 1940 with a projected first flight in 1946. If it had been built it would have most likely carried a cluster of four engines used on the V-2 rocket and stood roughly 20 metres (66ft) in height. In theory, it would have travelled at a top speed of 10,080 kph (6,300 mph). But thankfully, Hitler’s intercontinental ballistic missile plan came crashing down with the fall of the Third Reich. 

Cold War  

Call it opportunistic, but the poaching of hundreds of German scientists by the UK and USA in Operation Paperclip proved to be a masterstroke. Apparently, past affiliations could be easily forgotten if you could help your new employers gain the upper hand over the new enemy, the Soviet Union. 

No sooner had the ink dried on the formal Nazi surrender, former allies began eyeing each other suspiciously. This suspicion soon developed into the greatest arms race the world had ever seen and on several occasions pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war. 

Both the USA and USSR immediately began work on missile designs based primarily on the V2, but also on other Nazi designs that had been left in various degrees of production. The Soviet Union gained an early advantage because their efforts were centralised whereas each arm of the U.S armed forces began developing their own missiles, which led to a considerable amount of duplication. 


The first out of the gates was the Soviet R-7 which first appeared in 1957. Development of this rocket had begun 1953 at OKB-1 (a Soviet manufacturer of ballistic missile, spacecraft and space station components) in Kaliningrad in Moscow Oblast, with a reported 100 designs being rejected until its final approval. The R-7 was 34 metres (112 ft) long, 10.3 metres (34 ft) in diameter and weighed 280 tons. It had an effective firing range of 8,000–8,800 km (5,000–5,500 mi) and was capable of carrying a single 3-5 Megaton thermonuclear warhead. 

the russian rocket R-7 Semyorka
R-7 Semyorka by sergei arssenev is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Despite 28 test launches between 1957 and 1961, the R-7 was never deployed as a viable weapon and it is probably best known as the rocket that carried Sputnik into space on 4th October 1957, while a heavily modified R-7 named, Vostok, took Yuri Gagarin into space on 12 April 1961. 

At this point, the Americans were well on their way to producing their own ICBM, but the news (and visual sight) of a Soviet craft travelling above them certainly set alarm bells ringing. American confidence had been booming through the late 40s and early 50s, but the successful launch of Sputnik and the operational success of the R-7 put a check on that. How much this knock had to do with the Americans eventually overtaking the USSR in the space race is debatable, but it certainly meant efforts were doubled. 


But the U.S weren’t far behind. The first test flight of the Atlas rocket came in 1957 and became operational two years later. America’s first ICBM was also used for space launches as part of the Mercury program and was included in the four manned orbital flights that took place between 1962 and 1963. 

The Atlas rocket had 24 test launches in the build-up to its deployment – 13 success and 11 failures and it was by no means smooth sailing. It’s been said that every single component of the Atlas failed at some point during testing – which is I guess why you have testing. But it was the balloon tanks carrying the fuel which caused the biggest headache. These were built using thin stainless steel but carried next to no rigid support structure. As a result, the tanks had to be pressurised at all times and have 5 psi of nitrogen in the tanks, even when not fueled. Another problem was the unstable engine boost which had a nasty habit of causing the entire missile to blow up while on the launch pad. This was remedied with the introduction of baffled injectors which essentially dampened the shockwaves from the combustion. 

When used as a missile, it stood at 26.06 metres (85 ft 6 in) with a diameter of 3 metres (10 ft). Atlas D, the first operational model, came with a single Rocketdyne LR105 rocket engine and a booster engine composed of a Rocketdyne XLR89 rocket engine with two 150,000 lbf thrust chambers. 

The first Atlas missiles carried the G.E. Mk 2 with a W49 thermonuclear weapon and a yield of 1.44 megatons. This was later updated to a Mk 3 and finally, the Mk 4 with a W38 thermonuclear bomb and a yield of 3.75 Mt. The final configuration seen on the Atlas made it over 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped over Nagasaki.

September 1959 saw the deployment of the first Atlas missiles to F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming where they were placed in above-ground launchers. More followed and were placed close by or at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, bringing the total number of Atlas ICBMs to 24.  

Both the Atlas and the R-7 shared a similar problem. Both used cryogenic liquid oxygen which meant long preparation times for a launch, which wasn’t exactly ideal for a quick nuclear strike and the Atlas ICBM was decommissioned in 1965 because by that time newer technology had overtaken it. 

It’s a MAD World

It seems ludicrous to think about it now, but back in the 1960s, there was a doctrine of a military strategy known as the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). As the acronym suggests, this was a frankly absurd idea where both sides seemed to come to a consensus that a nuclear strike from one or the other would lead to global annihilation because the retaliation would trigger a stampede of missiles in all directions. 

Therefore, the best way to prevent nuclear war was to stock up sufficient quantities of nuclear weapons, point them at the other guy, then wait for the weirdest, most destructive game of chicken you are ever likely to see. 

But strangely, it worked and that’s exactly how it played out. Both the USA and USSR spent unimaginable amounts of money on ICBMs as well as other forms of potential nuclear strikes and then never used them. 

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but it does seem like a bit of a waste of time and resources. At its peak in 1986, there were an estimated 70,000 nuclear weapons around the world. But that kind of madness couldn’t go on. As much as we like to think of nuclear disarmament as a great sign of peace, it had quite a bit to do with the vast amounts of money both sides were spending each year maintaining their nuclear arsenals. Between 1940 and 1996, the U.S spent roughly $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons programs and in 2019, it announced that it would cost an estimated $50 billion per year to maintain its slimmed down and modernised weapons over the next decade. This is a costly game to play.   


As other countries began developing their own ICBMs, the number dotted around the globe began to grow steadily. But if we’re talking about the ICBM game, there were really only two participants. The U.S and USSR have from the very early days dwarfed other nations in terms of their nuclear capabilities. 

But that’s not to say that significant efforts to reduce the vast numbers weren’t made by both sides. The SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) began in 1969 in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Three years later, the Anti-ballistic missile treaty was signed by both sides which essentially froze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers at existing levels. It did allow for additional submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers but only if the equivalent number of ICBMs were scrapped at the same time. 

If that was a big step for the two superpower enemies, SALT II which was signed in 1979 after seven years of negotiations went even further. This was the first time that both nations formally agreed to begin reducing their nuclear capabilities. Although, with the cap set at 2,250, including all forms of nuclear delivery, that was still enough for both nations to destroy the world many times over.  

SALT II was never formally signed by the U.S Senate in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which came six months after the signing, but both nations did abide by the terms of the treaty.  

ICBMs Around the World

If the world was past the peak of ICBMs and other nuclear weapons, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 accelerated the process. Shortly before, the U.S and USSR signed the START I treaty which proposed a massive reduction of nuclear warheads. The treaty meant that the U.S could retain 8,556 nuclear warheads, while the Soviet Union approximately 6,449 – overall when this was fully implemented it meant a reduction of roughly 80% in the number of strategic nuclear warheads around the world. And we all lived happily ever after. 

Well, not quite. The glorious internationalisation that we saw during the 1990s has struggled in the last couple of decades, with various nations joining the nuclear table and those already at the table developing smaller, more dangerous nuclear weapons. 

France and the UK have long possessed ICBMs, but the UK’s arsenal is now restricted to Trident nuclear submarines, while France has both submarine varieties and their M51 land-based ICBM.

China had begun developing its own nuclear arsenal in the early 1960s, with its first test taking place in 1964. During the 1970s, the first Chinese ICBM emerged, the DF-4, though not a lot of information is available on the missile and it’s estimated that only four were ever deployed. We know much more about its follow-up, the DF-5, with a blast yield of 4-5 Megatons and an operation range of between 12,000–15,000 km (7,500–9,300 mi). The DF-5 was initially stored horizontally in tunnels beneath mountains and when the time came for the missiles to be fired they were rolled out into the open and fueled there, a process that was believed to take two hours. While the Chinese don’t give out exact numbers, it’s generally thought that there are between 20 and 25 DF-5s deployed around China. 

Israel’s Jericho III ICBM entered service sometime in 2008, while India joined the club in 2012 with the introduction of the Agni V. Officially, India classes it as an intermediate-range missile with a range of 5,000 km (3,100 mi), although other sources put the range at 8,000 km (5,000 mi) – making it an ICBM. 

And then we come to North Korea. The small Asian nation that has taken fanaticism to an entirely different level introduced their own ICBM sometime in 2012 but hit the headlines on 28th November 2017, when it fired one of their new Hwasong 15 missiles around 1000km (620 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan. During the parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea on 10th October 2020, a new ICBM was spotted rolling through the streets of Pyongyang believed to be the Hwasong 16. Very little is known about it, but experts believe it could have a range of 13,000 km (8,000 miles) – which is enough to scare pretty much everybody.  

The Modern ICBMs

It is now over eighty years since German scientists began developing their rockets that would eventually lead to ICBMs. The peak, in terms of numbers, came in the early 1980s and since then there has been a general decrease. And while this has certainly led to a huge reduction in warheads floating around the world, modern ICBMs sometimes come with a strength that was unimaginable during their early development. 

But immense power isn’t always required. Today’s ICBMs are incredibly accurate, sometimes capable of hitting within 100 metres (328ft) of a target after travelling thousands of miles – some models may even have a better accuracy than that. With that kind of accuracy, you can rely on less powerful ICBMs that will still level absolutely everything in their path. 

We’ve also seen the introduction of ICBMs that can carry multiple warheads. The U.S LGM-118 Peacekeeper, which was in service between 1986 and 2005 could carry twelve separate warheads. I don’t know about you but that seems like too many nuclear warheads for an object named “Peacekeeper”.  

The U.S Minuteman III, the only U.S land-based ICBM in operation today, comes with three W62 Mk-12 warheads, each with a yield of between 350 to 475 kilotons – which is substantially less than previous models. It also comes with the D37D flight computer and a 16-bit high-speed microprocessor chip that keeps the missile on course for its target. The estimated 400 Minuteman IIIs are currently deployed around three separate Air Force bases, Malmstrom AFB in Montana, Minot AFB in North Dakota and Francis E. Warren AFB in Wyoming. 

ICBMs around the world today are generally deployed in four forms; in a purpose-built silo, onboard submarines (known as Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles), on the back of heavy trucks or purpose-built trains. The final three methods come with the added advantages of being mobile and so harder to track and a massive missile on a truck does also look rather impressive at military parades.

Enabling the End of the World

The exact number of ICBMs around the world is difficult to calculate, but a reasonable estimate would be around 900, spread across 8 countries (if we include ICBMs and SLBMs together), USA, Russia, China, France, UK, India, Israel and North Korea. 

Since the end of World War II, the most catastrophic global event we have ever seen, instead of moving away from war, we humans have been hell-bent on developing bigger and better ways to destroy ourselves. ICBMs stand at the pinnacle of this mayhem. Weapons that can be fired from thousands of miles away now have the technological capability of hitting a target with terrifying accuracy and causing the kind of devastation we’ve only briefly glimpsed.  

The fact that this power is held in the hands of a select few, some considerably less stable than the others, makes this bizarre situation all the more astonishing. While there are some on this earth still hunting with bows and arrows, others have the power to end humanity in the flick of a switch. It’s a scary, peculiar world we live in. And at this point, I tend to think about Albert Einstein’s famous quote, 

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” 

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