How missiles became the modern weapon of choice

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The author is a Hoover fellow at Stanford University

This year may be the year of the missile. Last month, Iran launched a salvo of approximately 150 of them, many shot down by American and Israeli missiles. This was followed by an Israeli retaliation, and a week or so later, yet another missile volley in response from an Iraq-based (and likely Iranian-linked) militant group. This year has also seen prolific Houthi missile attacks on Middle East international shipping, a large-scale Russian missile campaign targeting Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure, and Ukrainian ATACMS strikes within Russian-occupied territory.

Why missiles now? And will they change who fights and wins wars?

Missiles — propelled weapons with explosive warheads — trace their roots to second world war German rockets. During the cold war, long-range ballistic missiles dominated nuclear competition but it wasn’t until the microprocessor that missiles transitioned to the conventional battlefield. The Yom Kippur war of 1973 heralded a precision-guided revolution as computing improved accuracy, ushering in new anti-tank, anti-air, cruise and conventional ballistic missiles. These long-range precision strike weapons became a mainstay of US foreign policy throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, part of shock and awe campaigns, Balkan air wars and terrorist decapitation strikes.

Over time, missile technology — once available only to the best militaries — became cheaper and more accessible. Their wide range of size and manoeuvrability gave users the ability to customise arsenals for their own needs. They could, for example, choose between smaller missiles, which are more difficult to target, and larger, less manoeuvrable but more lethal variants. Given this flexibility, missiles could be adapted for offence and defence, capable of launch from land, air or sea. Unlike many of their drone cousins, missiles are largely automated or autonomous after launch, thus requiring limited logistical support or remote control. Above all, missiles — as opposed to gravity bombs — allow states to launch attacks from long distances, often without the risk of sending a manned platform into an adversary’s territory.

All these characteristics — their availability, flexibility and ability to mitigate risk — make missiles a weapon of choice in modern combat. But are they as effective as they are alluring? The evidence is mixed. There is no doubt that missiles have revolutionised operational warfare. Advances in anti-tank, anti-air and anti-ship missiles have made it harder for platforms to hide, making battlefield warfare more dangerous for many attackers. Despite these advantages, there is limited evidence that missiles can, on their own, make a decisive strategic impact. 

It has long been a tempting theory of warfare that surgical strikes targeting strategic centres of gravity or civilian populations could erode political will and convince actors to demur without having to launch an invasion. But time and again strategic strike campaigns have failed. America couldn’t roll back the Viet Cong with waves of B-52s. Its precision strikes on the Taliban were accompanied by an ultimately unsuccessful two-decade ground war. More recently, Iranian missile salvos made little to no impact on Israeli operations in Gaza.

Escalation control is also tricky. Missiles are certainly a less risky option than manned aircraft. However, using them to create just the right amount of effect to signal capability and will without triggering all-out war is a dangerous game of perceptions (and misperceptions).  Paradoxically, the greater the effect of missiles, the more likely they are to cross red lines that inadvertently cause a spiral into full-scale conflict.

Perhaps the real way that modern missile exchanges alter the balance of power is how they allow actors to keep wars limited while bleeding each other dry. Missiles replace expensive and scarce platforms, benefiting states without sophisticated arsenals of destroyers or stealthy jets. Houthi missile strikes cost the US tens of millions of dollars to intercept, and impose even greater expense on the global economy. Even the largely ineffectual Iranian missiles salvo probably cost Israel, America and others over $1bn to defend against.

Missiles may rarely win wars on their own, but they can change who gets to start wars and who can sustain them. Right now the advantage is with states such as Iran, Russia and North Korea who can raise costs for defenders, while staying under a threshold of war in which they would be overmatched by more capable militaries. But they should be cautious. They may inadvertently start a war they don’t have the arsenal to win.

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