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Theater ballistic missile

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A theater ballistic missile (TBM) is a short- to medium- or intermediate-range surface-to-surface missile intended for use within a region rather than between continents. While it uses Second World War technology, the SS-1 SCUD missile well-remembered from the Gulf War exists in the inventory of many nations. It is not as fast as an intercontinental ballistic missile and, while not simple to defend against, presents a less difficult problem of interception.

TBMs are the greatest threats when equipped with nuclear warheads, but, especially when precision guided, can make use of high-explosive, or even inert warheads that can be devastating from the immense kinetic energy of a mass of concrete or steel at extremely high speed.

TBMs complement cruise missiles, giving different offensive capabilities and complicating the defense problem when both are used.

Offensive missiles

Essentially, worldwide TBMs divide into two categories:

  • SCUD derivatives, which themselves are derivatives of the WWII German V-2
  • High-performance TBMs with much more accuracy and penetration aids, especially Chinese

Defense systems

Defense against TBMs is the highest air, artillery and missile defense priority for many nations, since, in major warfare, one side usually obtains air superiority and attacks air bases, preventing conventional fighters and bombers from even being launched. Another high priority is counter-rocket, artillery and mortar defense on the battlefield against short-range threats, possibly from guerrillas.

TBM defense (TBMD) often involves multiple radars and interceptors operating at various altitudes. For example, the current U.S. ground model, which first focused on the relatively low altitude MIM-104 Patriot, now includes the high-altitude THAAD, with the Patriots intended to be the second-level defense for those TBMs not intercepted by the THAAD. The Arrow (missile), co-developed by Israel and the U.S., is an additional layer that is optimized for targets below THAAD and above Patriot range.

Another system is the sea-based, long-range RIM-161 Standard SM-3 missile with capability against TBMs and satellites. Japan has acquired the SM-3 as its long-range system in the Sea of Japan, coupled with Patriots on land. Israel is exploring modifying the SM-3 for land-based use