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ABC of global missile race: Know where India stands

North Korea's latest missile test shows it can 'hit any part of the world', analysts have said. A look at the operational missile systems of various countries.

What is a missile?

A missile is essentially a sophisticated bomb. Once released, a bomb is governed by the laws of ballistics, which means only the force of gravity acts upon it. By attaching a propulsion system, it can be made more accurate and faster. A bomb with a propulsion system is called a rocket. If guided and controlled, a rocket can be made deadlier — and that is what a missile is. Missiles are classified variously based on the launching system. Thus, missiles can be surface-to-surface (SSM), air-to-surface (ASM), air-to-air, etc. Based on the working principle, missiles can be ballistic or cruise and classified by range and proposed use — strategic or tactical. Key to modern warfare, missiles can carry tons of nuclear warheads at speeds way higher than fighter planes.

How is a ballistic missile different from a cruise one?

A ballistic missile is used to hit a predetermined target —launched such that it burns most of its fuel to attain the desired velocity in the first phase, also called the boost phase. Such a missile can only be guided during the powered phase of flight. Easy to detect, but it's almost impossible to intercept it.

A cruise missile, on the other hand, is a small pilotless craft that carries an explosive warhead. It has wings and an engine, but is built more economically. It is steered by inertial navigation system (INS), that's also used by airplanes. A cruise missile can be made so accurate that it can be aimed at any specific place like a door or a window. Its flight can be guided for a longer period.

India's Agni and Prithvi are ballistic missile systems while BrahMos is a cruise missile system. Overall 31 countries have operational ballistic missile systems. China has the highest number of different systems, while the US has four.

What are strategic and tactical missiles?

Ballistic missiles are categorised according to their range, which is the maximum distance along the surface of the earth from the point of launch to the point of impact of its payload. Until recently, Russia, US, China, the UK, France and Israel were the only countries with operational ICBM technology. With Hwasong-15, North Korea's joined this club. With over 5,000-km range, India's Agni-V also qualifies for this club.

Which countries have the longest range of operational ballistic missiles?

Russia, US and China have many missile systems that qualify for the ICBM range.

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