The Vladivostok Summit Meeting on Arms Control

Glossary of Strategic Arms Terminology

Compiled by Ford Library intern Dan Story


Ballistic Missile – A rocket equipped with a guidance system that flies in a sub orbital flight path. It relies on momentum obtained during the initial boost phase and ballistics to reach its target. It was also seen as the primary strategic weapon of the Cold War. It could range from short distance to intercontinental range (ICBM) depending on the size of the missile.

Cruise Missile – A missile that flies in a horizontal subsonic flight path. Unlike a ballistic missile, it flies using aerodynamic lift rather than rocket propulsion. It is highly accurate. Cruise missiles were just about to come into use by the American military in 1974.

Launch on Strike – The launching of a retaliatory attack upon an actual nuclear strike.

Launch on Warning – This is when a nuclear retaliatory strike would be launched upon detection of an attack, but before the actual attack occurred. As it was vulnerable to detection mistakes, it could lead to a war beginning accidentally.

MIRV - Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicle. A modification to ballistic missiles that allows the missile to strike multiple targets upon reentry. This is accomplished by packing several smaller warheads, each with their own guidance systems, into the tip of the missile. During the reentry/terminal phase of the missile flight, the warheads would break off and head toward individual targets.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) – The theoretical state that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union whereupon neither side could initiate a nuclear attack without assuring its own destruction. This was seen, by the United States, as the best way to preserve the balance of power and prevent nuclear war. However, it was thought that it would only work if both sides remained vulnerable; effective missile defense or civil defense would greatly weaken its deterrence capability.

SALT - Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

SLBM – Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile. The SLBM can be fired from underwater. The United States based most of its missiles upon submarines as it had the advantage of being difficult to track.

Strategic bomber – a bomb delivering airplane that can fly to intercontinental range without refueling. It also can serve as a launch platform for both cruise and ballistic missiles.

First Strike – Having the capability to attack another nuclear power first and to destroy enough of their arsenal to prevent effective retaliation.

Second Strike – The ability of a nation to strike back with nuclear weapons after being attacked. A second strike capability was a nuclear stockpile large enough that even if a great deal of the weapons were destroyed in the attack, enough remained to inflict unacceptable damage on the attacker.

Throw weight - Missile payload, the amount of weight that a missile can actually propel. Prior to MIRV, useful for predicting power of single warhead.