How missile guidance systems work will make you surprised


A Missile is a deadly weapon of warfare. Modern missiles can deliver high explosives at very high speeds precisely to their target. Guided missiles can always track their target even if it’s moving and hit it. Ballistic missiles hit their predetermined targets. If you are excited by missiles, did you ever wonder how they work?

Artist's concept of Tomahawk cruise missile launched from US Navy Ohio-class submarines.
Artist’s concept of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from US Navy Ohio-class submarines.

Guided Missile: A Bit of History

You might be wondering how come the missile can exactly know where its target is and strike it with deadly accuracy. To know how they work, first, let’s get to some of their histories. Rockets have been used for warfare for many centuries.

They were first developed and used by the Chinese to stop the Mongol invaders. The rocket technology then spread across the world. It was used against the British by South Indian ruler Tipu Sultan during the latter 18th Century.

Tipu’s rockets were very advanced for the time. British adopted this design and developed it into the Congreve rocket. The first liquid-fuelled large missile used for warfare was the V-2 missile developed by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

You might enjoy reading History of Rockets: Mysore, Tsiolkovksy, Goddard, von Braun, V-2, Katyusha, R-7, Sputnik, Laika, Etc.

Tomahawk cruise missile.
Tomahawk cruise missile.
Credits – Tim Evanson/Source/CC BY-SA 2.0

They attacked many cities in Western Europe, notably London and Antwerp. The missiles were successful in hitting their targets approximately, but they were not able to track their target and seek them. The development of computers was in its infancy at the time.

Missile Guidance System

A guided missile is made up of several main components, including them is the guidance system. For the guidance system to work correctly, the engine of the missile has to propel the missile along its proper trajectory at the required speeds.

The guidance system is based on some kind of electromagnetic radiation such as LASER light, radio waves, infrared light, etc. The radiation can be coming from the target such as its heat signature via infrared or enemy radar waves. The radar from the guided missile or military from its side can also send radio waves to track the enemy target.

TV guidance is also used in which visible light images are used to track the target. The missile can also be guided by an Inertial Navigation System, satellite guidance system, or Terrain Counter Matching (TERCOM).

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Brahmos missile is the fastest supersonic cruise missile in the world. It is jointly developed by Russia and India.
Brahmos missile is the fastest supersonic cruise missile in the world. It is jointly developed by Russia and India. Credits – Ministry of Defence, Government of India/Source/License

The missile is maneuvered to the target by the flight system that corrects the missile’s course. This can be done using thrust vectoring of its engines or aerodynamic maneuvering by using control surfaces such as the wings, fins, etc.

Missile Engine

The engine used in a missile is mostly a rocket or jet engine. If it uses a rocket engine, it is mostly solid-propellant based since it is easy to store and deploy. Cruise missiles usually use jet engines. These may be of the turbojet type or turbofan, ramjet, and scramjet types.

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