Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle

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A multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) warhead is a collection of nuclear weapons carried on a single intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Using a MIRV warhead, a single launched missile can strike several targets, or fewer targets redundantly. By contrast a unitary warhead is a single warhead on a single missile.



The military purpose of a MIRV is fourfold:

  • Provides greater target damage for a given missile payload. Radiation (including radiated heat) from a nuclear warhead diminishes as the square of the distance (called the inverse-square law), and blast pressure diminishes as the cube of the distance. For example at a distance of 4 km from ground zero, the blast pressure is only 1/64th that of 1 km. Due to these effects several small warheads cause much more target damage area than a single large one. This in turn reduces the number of missiles and launch facilities required for a given destruction level - much the same as the purpose of a conventional submunition.
  • With single warhead missiles, one missile must be launched for each target. By contrast with a MIRV warhead, the post-boost (or bus) stage can dispense the warheads against multiple targets across a broad area.
  • Reduces the impact of SALT treaty limitations. The treaty initially limited number of missiles, not number of warheads. Adding multiple warheads per missile provided more target destruction for a given number of missiles.
  • Reduces the effectiveness of an anti-ballistic missile system that relies on intercepting individual warheads. While a MIRVed attacking missile can have multiple (3–12 on United States missiles and 3-10 on Russians) warheads, interceptors can only have one warhead per missile. Thus, in both a military and economic sense, MIRVs render ABM systems less effective, as the costs of maintaining a workable defense against MIRVs would greatly increase, requiring multiple defensive missiles for each offensive one. Decoy reentry vehicles can be used alongside actual warheads to minimize the chances of the actual warheads being intercepted before they reach their targets. A system that destroys the missile earlier in its trajectory (before MIRV separation) is not affected by this but is more difficult, and thus more expensive to implement.

MIRVed land-based ICBMs were considered destabilizing because they tended to put a premium on striking first. MIRVs threatened to rapidly increase the US's deployable nuclear arsenal and thus the possibility that it would have enough bombs to destroy virtually all of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons and negate any significant retaliation. Later on the US feared the Soviet's MIRVs because Soviet missiles had a greater throw-weight and could thus put more warheads on each missile than the US could. For example the US MIRVs might have increased their warhead per missile count by a factor of 6 while the Soviets increased theirs by a factor of 10. Furthermore, the US had a much smaller proportion of its nuclear arsenal in ICBMs than the Soviets. Bombers could not be outfitted with MIRVs so their capacity would not be multiplied. Thus the US did not seem to have as much potential for MIRV usage as the Soviets. However, the US had a larger number of SLBMs, which could be outfitted with MIRVs, and helped offset the ICBM disadvantage. It is because of this that this type of weapon was banned under the START II agreement. However, START II was never ratified by the Russian Duma due to disagreements about the ABM Treaty.

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