Courtesy Reuters

The Cruise Missile: The End of Arms Control?

The long-range cruise missile has touched off an arms control debate as controversial as the one seven years ago surrounding the MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle). Although it is by no means a "superweapon" which can give its possessor a credible first-strike threat, the new cruise missile's revolutionary characteristics-particularly its accuracy, near-undetectable size, and multiplicity of firing ranges and launch platforms-threaten to undermine the basic principles underlying successful U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements to date. Thus, the cruise missile-even more than the MIRV-puts the immediate future of SALT into jeopardy.

Distant prospects are even more bleak. The missile's capabilities obscure the already hazy distinctions between strategic and tactical missions, as well as between nuclear and conventional weaponry. Thus, looking beyond SALT, the cruise missile will complicate the process of finding a new framework for arms control. If arms control is to remain meaningful in the future, enforceable restraints on qualitative improvement of weapons systems must complement the the quantitative restrictions achieved at SALT. While the cruise missile is only one of many weapons in the qualitative arms race, halting its development would be a positive first step toward more comprehensive restrictions in this crucial area.


A cruise missile is basically a pilotless jet airplane. Unlike a rocket-driven ballistic missile, which leaves the atmosphere at supersonic speeds and sails to its target in a bullet-like, arched trajectory, a cruise missile is continuously propelled by air-breathing jet engines, and flies at subsonic speeds without leaving the atmosphere.

Cruise missiles are by no means new. They can be traced back to the World War II, German V-I "buzz-bomb." Other ancestors were deployed by the U.S. Navy on submarines, but abandoned because of their bulky size, short range, poor accuracy, and inability to be fired from underwater. The Soviet Navy still has many similarly primitive, short-range cruise missiles deployed on certain surface ships and submarines for use primarily in tactical anti-shipping roles. Both the U.S. and Soviet Air Forces likewise

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.