What Makes an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile the Deadliest Weapon in Existence

Intercontinental ballistic missiles have the potential to end all life on Earth in an instant.
One shot. One kill JFCC IMD SMDC support anti ICBM test Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

Today having intercontinental ballistic missiles is a strategic advantage for any country in the world. Although these missiles have never been used in a real war situation, their deterrent power can definitely prevent future conflicts because no government wouldn’t want to risk a full-blown nuclear war.

These missiles reach hypersonic speeds and distances over 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles), carrying a nuclear warhead with yields equivalent up to 37.4 megatons of TNT… and that’s why they are the most deadly weapon in existence today – they can reach almost any country from anywhere on the planet.

What’s an intercontinental ballistic missile?

example of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile
Intercontinental ballistic missile by Patrick Harrower, Public Domain.

An intercontinental ballistic missile is a long-range guided rocket that travels at least 5,500 kilometers (approximately 3,418 miles), carrying an explosive charge with a very long operating range.  


They are by far the missiles with the longest range and absolutely devastating effects. Fortunately, they have never been used in any war due to fear of an all-out nuclear war leading to “mutual assured destruction (MAD).”

Intercontinental ballistic missiles: Their main characteristics

Missile display at F.E. Warren AFB
Missile display at F.E. Warren AFB by R.J. Oriez, Public Domain.

What differentiates ICBMs from other kinds of missiles are their high payload capacity, the great distance they can travel, and their speed. But, it is also important to note that:

  • Their engineering is very similar to the rockets launched into space; they remain outside the atmosphere for a good part of their trajectory.
  • They are designed to carry highly explosive charges.
  • Their trajectory is divided into three phases or stages: launch (primary stage), exit from the atmosphere, and re-entry into the atmosphere, and subsequent detonation.
  • They are much faster and have a longer range than other types of ballistic missiles, including medium- and short-range missiles and tactical ballistic missiles.
  • They can also be launched in different ways: from an underground missile silo, from submarines, from vehicles, or from mobile platforms.

How do ballistic missiles work?

FTG 15 Flight Test
FTG-15 Flight Test by Senior Airman Ian Dudley, Public Domain.

They are intended to carry explosive payloads, including nuclear warheads, at very long distances and at heights most defensive systems can’t reach, typically from 150 to 400 km (93 to 249 miles). Then, they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere above their target at speeds of around 22,000–29,000 km/h; 13,000–18,000 mph. For example, if Russia decides to launch a nuclear strike, their ICBMs would reach the United States in approximately half an hour.


Which countries have intercontinental ballistic missiles?

Only 8 countries have intercontinental ballistic missiles: the United States, China, Russia, North Korea, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan… and today’s most feared intercontinental ballistic missiles are:

  • R-7 Semyorka

Semyorka Rocket R7
Semyorka Rocket R7 by Sergei Arssenev. Licensed under CC by 4.0

A Soviet missile developed during the Cold War and was the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile. The R-7 made 28 test launches but was never actually employed.

The R-7 was 34 meters (112 feet) long, it weighed 280 tons, and it was capable of delivering its payload up to 8800 kilometers (5500 miles), with an accuracy of about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).


  • Trident II D5

Trident II missile image
Trident II missile image by Unknown author, Public Domain.

The Trident II D5 or UGM-133 Trident II is a submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear warheads. They currently comprise a fundamental part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force.

The Trident II (D5) has a distance capability of more than 6835 miles (11000 kilometers), a length of 44 feet 6.6 inches (13.579 meters), a maximum speed of approximately 18,030 mph (29,020 km/h), and a cost per unit of $30.9 million.

  • Iskander

Army2016demo by Vitaly V. Kuzmin. Licensed under CC by 4.0

The Iskander system stands out for its high mobility, low radar detection, and launch speed, and it can also carry nuclear weapons.


The Iskander can travel at a hypersonic speed of Mach 5.9 (almost six times the speed of sound) and can fly 400-500 km (250-310 miles).

While its distance is not that great, its speed is a nightmare for any missile defense system. Indeed, the speed is so impressive that there’s still no defensive system that can stop a weapon of this capability.

  • RS-28 Sarmat

New heavy ICBM Sarmat undergoes test at Plesetsk Cosmodrome
New heavy ICBM Sarmat by Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. Licensed under CC by 4.0

Russia unveiled the world’s most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile with a destructive capacity of 40 megatons, or 2,000 times the Hiroshima bomb.


The Sarmat can be equipped with ten nuclear warheads or MIR  (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle) and disperse over large territories after traveling 18,000 kilometers (11,000 miles) at Mach 20, or 25,560 km/h (15,880 mph).

Intercontinental ballistic missiles are one of the most feared weapons

Having intercontinental ballistic missiles in the arsenal is one of the most important deterrents in modern warfare. That’s why the great military powers of the world have such missiles ready to be used at any time… And although they have never been used, they are always prepared for any emergency.

Feature image credit: Support anti-ICBM test by Carrie. Public Domain.