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What's the Difference Between a Rocket and a Missile?

Rockets and missiles are both projectiles designed to carry explosives towards a target. But what is the difference between the two?

The main difference between a rocket and a missile is that a rocket is unguided while a missile is guided. Specifically, a missile is a guided rocket, whereas a rocket is a projectile propelled by a rocket engine.

In this article, we will discuss the difference between a rocket and a missile in a military context.

What is a Rocket?

A soldier firing an RPG-7 Rocket

A rocket is an unguided projectile propelled by a rocket engine. In general, the firing of a rocket is aimed by the person shooting the rocket, but no guidance system is involved once the rocket is fired.

It is believed that the first rockets in history were used by the Chinese around the 13th century during the Mongol invasions. Over the years, rockets have continued to evolve into well-known weapons such as the Bazooka or the RPG-7.

Rockets can be fired with a simple rocket launcher, but they are also mounted on launchers equipped by most combat helicopters and fighter planes.

What is a Missile?

A soldier firing a Javelin Missile

A missile is a guided projectile propelled by a rocket engine containing explosives for the purpose of destroying a distant and/or moving target.

The first operational guided missile in history was developed and used by the Nazis during World War II. The first victim was the HMS Egret, a Royal Navy ship, in 1943.

There are four main types of missiles:

  • Tactical missiles: short-range missiles used on the battlefield to destroy specific targets such as armored vehicles, helicopters, or aircraft.
  • Ballistic missiles: long-range missiles with a ballistic trajectory whose range varies from a few dozen kilometers to more than 10,000 kilometers. They are very fast but leave the atmosphere, making them easily detectable. Armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead, they can be used for various missions.
  • Cruise missiles: long-range missiles that do not leave the atmosphere, unlike ballistic missiles, which allow them to fly at low altitudes and be less easily detected. Nevertheless, it is less rapid and has a shorter range (a few hundred to a few thousand kilometers).
  • Hypersonic missiles: very fast missiles that can travel at up to 5 times the speed of sound, flying at a lower altitude than cruise missiles, making them difficult to detect.

Differences Between a Rocket and a Missile

An AH-64 Apache helicopter with 19 Hydra-70 Rockets on the left and 4 AGM-114 Hellfire Missiles on the right.

Utilization

Missiles are controlled by wireless remote controls and are used to destroy a target that is unreachable by a simple rocket that cannot be controlled after it is fired. 

Using a rocket is simple; you just need to point the rocket launcher at the target and fire the rocket.

However, the use of a missile is different. Before firing the missile, you must first lock its target so that the missile can then track and find it autonomously (unless it is an operator-controlled missile). This locking is done in different ways depending on the type of guidance used.

Guidance

Unlike a rocket, a missile has a guidance system that allows it to adjust its direction after firing in order to hit its target very precisely. This allows it to hit moving targets such as an airplane, helicopter, or a very distant target.

Missiles are guided, whereas rockets are simply aimed.

In the case of the AH-64 Apache seen above, its Hellfire missiles are guided by a laser beam, meaning that once fired, the missile adapts its trajectory itself to hit the target with precision, detecting and following the reflected laser energy that is diffused on the target.

Unlike missiles, Hydra-70 rockets are directed by the pilot who steers the entire helicopter. When fired, they are propelled but not guided and go where they were aimed at the time of firing.

Targeting

Rockets are primarily used to destroy stationary targets at short and medium ranges or targets with low mobility at short ranges. Because it cannot be guided after firing, it is very difficult for a rocket to hit a moving target.

Having a guidance system, the missile allows reaching much more complex targets, such as airplanes, helicopters, or even a very distant strategic target.

Practical distance

Missiles generally have a much longer range than rockets. They can go much further and more precisely thanks to their guidance system.

The practical range of a rocket is about 300m depending on the model, but beyond that, it is very difficult to have an accurate shot.

An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) can go up to 10,000km; this type of missile is generally designed to carry nuclear warheads.

Overall, the range of missiles varies enormously depending on their use and objective: their range can be from a few hundred meters to several thousand kilometers.

Cost

Missiles, unlike rockets, are very expensive, especially because of their complexity. They embody a whole set of technology that allows them to be self-guiding. A Hellfire missile, for example, costs $115,000 per unit.

This cost is largely worth it when it comes to destroying a strategic enemy target, such as an armored vehicle, aircraft, helicopter, or building, but it should not be used for every purpose.

In comparison, an RPG-7 rocket costs between $100 and $500 per unit.

Comparison Table: Rocket Vs Missile

ParametersRocketMissile
UtilizationTarget aimedTarget locked
GuidanceUnguidedGuided
TargetingShort and medium-range fixed target
Short-range mobile target
Distant and/or mobile target
Strategic target
Practical distanceShort, around 300 metersLong, a few hundred meters to several thousand kilometers
CostCheapExpensive

Similitudes Between a Rocket and a Missile

Missiles and rockets are two projectiles propelled by a rocket engine; they are complementary weapons often used together. Remember that a missile is a rocket with a guidance system.

Both are used by all armies worldwide for various operational purposes, and many aircraft, helicopters, and armored vehicles are equipped with both weapons.

FAQ

How does a missile find its target?

Guided missiles track the location of their target in space by certain methods (such as using radar or following its heat signature), then following it and finally hitting it with precision. Various missile guidance systems exist that satisfy different operational needs and objectives.

Can an RPG-7 rocket shoot down a helicopter?

Yes. Although the RPG was designed to destroy tanks and other combat vehicles, it has been used to shoot down a certain number of helicopters.

It is easier to hit a stationary helicopter on the ground with an RPG rocket. Still, under the right conditions and with proper training, it is not impossible to shoot down a helicopter in mid-air, although it would be a very lucky shot.

How are nuclear missiles launched?

If a nuclear weapon were to be used today, it would reach its target via the use of a missile. A nuclear missile can be launched in three different ways:

- from the ground:
medium-range and intercontinental missiles can be launched from missile launch pads.

- from the air: nuclear missiles can be launched from strategic bomber aircraft, which take off from the ground or from an aircraft carrier.

- from the sea: nuclear weapons can also be launched from nuclear submarines. These submarines can be positioned anywhere in the oceans and are completely undetectable. Their particularity is that this can create the possibility of an unclaimed nuclear attack: the targeted country would not know where the missile comes from.

Conclusion

To conclude, it is important to remember the essential point: a missile is guided, whereas a rocket is not. We can say that missiles have a brain, whereas rockets do not.

The type of rocket or missile used will not be the same depending on the mission and the objective; the field of application is very wide given the variety and quantity of existing missiles.

If you want to learn more, don't hesitate to learn about the different types of missile guidance: laser, radio, topographic, optical...

References

Feel free to comment and discuss about the article in the comment space below if you have any information or remarks to add. If you think we made a mistake, you can also report it there.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
All Posts Written By Nicolas Seignette

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