Anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) are modern long-range weapons of naval combat, designed specifically to target ships. Due to their stealth, accuracy, and low-cost, ASCMs have become weapon of choice for militaries around the world. ASCMs were used in over half of attacks on merchant shipping by Iran and Iraq during the Tanker War.[i]

5 - ASCM - Exocet being shot from land


Caption: An Exocet missile fired from a land-based launcher

Iran reportedly has acquired hundreds of ASCMs that they could likely use to try to disrupt oil flows through the Strait.

  • How ASCMs Work 
  • Relevant Historical Use of ASCMs 
  • Iran & ASCMs 

How ASCMs Work

In order for an ASCM to function properly, it must perform the following sequence correctly:

1) Locate Target with Scanning Radar or Spotters

Some ASCMs locate their targets using radar. This technique requires the launcher to have a line of sight to the target, limiting the range of the missile to the radar horizon and preventing the missile from seeing a target that is hidden by any terrain obstacles. Furthermore, simple scanning radars cannot determine the difference between cargo, container, and oil tanker ships, all of which can be of similar size.

Missiles that locate their targets using scanning radars also emit radio waves, revealing their position. This limits the utility of these missiles in asymmetric warfare: once the launcher reveals its location, it is vulnerable to attack by the adversary's conventional forces.

During the Cold War, the superpowers developed another targeting method, "over-the-horizon targeting," mostly in an effort to expand the range of their missiles. In this technique, a launch technician either programs a missile's flight path or a set of target coordinates, and the missile simply flies to the target area. Over-the-horizon targeting requires a spotter to relay the target coordinates to the shooter, but the shooter need not actually be able to see the target himself. This targeting method has become considerably easier to use in recent years due to the ubiquity of GPS navigation devices.

2) The Missile Must Launch Properly

A booster kit propels the missile from the launch platform to an adequate speed and altitude to enable the missile to transition to the cruise flight mode.

Each type of ASCM uses its own propellant. There are two main types of propellants: 1. liquid; 2. solid. Liquid propellants require complicated piping and pumping equipment to feed their engines and more time to prepare to launch, but they provide greater thrust and an in-flight throttle (although it takes time to build the thrust when first ignited). Solid propellants, on the other hand, do not require complicated engines, but they rely on complicated chemistry during production and on strong casings to withstand the intense pressures that they generate during flight. Solid propellant missiles can fire much faster and accelerate more quickly at liftoff, but they cannot be throttled in flight.

Most modern ASCMs use solid-propellant boosters. The burning rate of the propellant can be affected by temperature, and temperatures higher than 100° F can lead to unsatisfactory performance.[ii] As such high temperatures are commonplace in Iran, this certainly could lead to missile launch problems in an attempt to disrupt traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.

For the cruise phase, ASCMs tend to use ramjet or turbojet engines. Ramjet engines contain no moving parts and compress intake air using the forward speed of the air vehicle. Turbojet engines use a turbine-driven compressor. Both then ignite a mixture of the compressed air and fuel, producing a high-velocity jet in the exhaust plume. The momentum of the exhaust stream then propels the missile forward.[iii]

3) Guide Accurately

Some (especially older) ASCMs use radar to track the position of the target throughout the missile's flight.[iv] This guidance mechanism requires the missile or the launcher to maintain a continuous radar lock on the target, revealing its position and limiting its maneuverability. Losing radar lock would usually cause the missile to miss its target.

More modern missiles that simply follow an internal navigation computer are subject to various kinds of navigation errors. Inertial guidance systems "drift" during flight, which can have a significant impact on accuracy over long distances, but modern inertial navigation systems use updates from GPS receivers or other devices that greatly improve their accuracy.[v] Moreover, within the confines of the Arabian Gulf, drift is unlikely to make a substantial difference. Simple mistakes during entry of the target coordinates or the flight path are a more likely source of error when working with modern weapons.

4) Acquire the Target with the Terminal Guidance

Once an ASCM reaches the vicinity of its target, it turns on its terminal guidance system. Most ASCMs use radar or infra-red seekers, somtimes on multiple bands to circumvent the electronic counter-measures that warship targets typically deploy. The open ocean offers few radar returns or heat signatures in the vicinity of the target ship, so the missile is likely to home in on its intended target. In areas with more ship traffic or near coastlines, terminal guidance systems may choose the wrong target. Radars also sometimes pick up ocean waves or other clutter, leading the missile away from the target ship.

During the Iran-Iraq War, radars incorrectly identified targets as tankers multiple times. For example, Iranians defended tankers loading at their oil terminals by constructing decoys out of ship wreckage and outfitting buoys with radar reflectors. One decoy buoy near Kharg Island was hit approximately 20 times.[vi]

5) Explode

Once a missile hits its target, its warhead must explode to do serious damage, and it turns out that the explosion should not be taken for granted. For example, Exocet missiles frequent failed to explode during the Tanker War and also during the Falklands War (more than 20% of the time). But even if a warhead fails to detonate, the ASCM can still do damage: any remaining fuel in the missile can explode and burn, which could by itself cause significant damage and even a ship loss. During the Falklands War, the HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile that did not detonate, but the missile's liquid fuel set the destroyer on fire.

The damage caused by the missile will depend on its warhead size. Simply put, larger warheads have more destructive capacity. ASCM warheads range drastically in size, from small 220-pound models to massive 2,200-pound warheads. Although each type of ASCM has its own detailed specifications, missiles produced in eastern states such as Russia and China tend to have larger warheads than western ones.

Relevant Historical Use of ASCMs

7 - ASCM - Mirage launching Exocet during Tanker War


Caption: A Mirage aircraft firing an Exocet missile

The maritime threat of ASCMs is serious: ASCMs cause severe damage and are difficult to combat. Historically, ASCMs have played a critical role in warfare.

  • The Germans in WWII were the first to use ASCMs. 
  • In 1967, Egypt sunk the Israeli destroyer Eilat with four Styx ASCMs. Egypt fired the missiles from missile boats supplied by the Soviet Union.[vii] 
  • During the Falklands War (1982), four Argentine Navy Super Etendard fighters sunk a British Type 42 destroyer and a support ship, the Atlantic Conveyor, with Exocet missiles. A land-based Exocet missile also struck the Royal Navy's HMS Glamorgan, but maneuvers made by the Glamorgan minimized damage to the ship.[viii] 
  • During the Tanker War, Iran and Iraq used anti-ship missiles in more than half of all attacks on shipping. Iraq used missiles in approximately 80 percent of their attacks on commercial ships. 
  • The U.S. Navy used Harpoon missiles to sink an Iranian patrol boat, Joshan, during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988. 
  • In Operation Desert Storm, Iraqis fired a Silkworm missile in the Gulf. The Silkworm was intercepted and destroyed by a Sea Dart missile launched by HMS Gloucester. 
  • In 2006, Hezbollah fired a radar-guided[ix] C-802 at the Hanit, an Israeli corvette. Four Israeli sailors were killed and the Hanit sustained significant damage. An additional C-802 missile fired at the corvette missed, striking a nearby Cambodian-flagged merchant ship.[x] 

Iran & ASCMs

Iran currently does not possess any reliable western ASCM. They have either used up these missiles (i.e., Harpoons purchased by the Shah) in Iran-Iraq War, or their Western-supplied systems are so extremely unreliable that they cannot be considered operational (e.g., their Sea Killers).[xi] However, Iran has acquired a number of Chinese ASCM models " perhaps 100 Seersuckers,[xii] 125 Sardines[xiii] and 75 Saccades, and perhaps more.[xiv] There are also reports that Iran acquired the Russian SS-N-22 Moskit, also known as the Sunburn[xv], though the reliability of these reports is disputed.[xvi]

8 - ASCM - Sardine missile


Caption: Sardine / CS 801 missile fired from a naval warship

  • Sardine/CS 801: This missile is roughly equivalent to the French Exocet, the ASCM most frequently fired by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War. Once fired, the missile boosts to 164 feet, cruises between 65 feet and 98 feet, and then descends to 15-20 feet before hitting its target. The missile uses a solid rocket booster, and itssemi-armor-piercing warhead weighs 363 pounds. [xvii] 
  • Saccade/ CS 802: The CS 802 is an upgraded CS 801, and most characteristics are similar.[xviii] One main difference is the Saccade has a turbojet propulsion system after its rocket-assisted boost phase. The Saccade also has a range of 70 to 75 miles and a 363-pound semi-armor-piercing warhead.[xix] 
  • Seersucker: The Seersucker is an older missile system. It uses a Russian "˜Square Tie' fire control radar and a radio altimeter guidance system. The Seersucker cruises at 98 feet above the sea and descends to 26 feet during the terminal phase.[xx] The Seersucker warhead is quite large at 1,130 pounds. Iran fired at least eight Seersuckers against Kuwait during the Iran-Iraq War, only three of which hit their targets. [xxi] 

6 - ASCM - Moskit missile


Caption: Picture of a Moskit (or Sunburn) missile

  • M-80E Moskit (SS-N-22 Sunburn): The Russian-made M-80E Moskit employs a 661-pound, semi-armor piercing warhead. The Moskit uses a liquid ramjet engine and four solid boosters to reach a speed of Mach 2.1 with a cruising trajectory between seven and ten meters above the water's surface.[xxii] It is fueled by a kerosene-type fuel but also has a solid-propellant booster. Its maximum range is 108 nautical miles. By approaching the target more than twice as fast as other cruise missiles,Moskit is designed to reduce the target's time to employ self-defense weapons. [xxiii] However, since tankers do not have defensive capabilities, Moskits offer little advantage (other than their larger warhead) over Iran's Chinese missiles for attempts to stop tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. 

[i] S. Navias and E.R. Hooton, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping During the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 1996), pp. 87-88.

[ii], SMS GUIDED MISSILES, AERODYNAMICS, AND FLIGHT PRINCIPLES. Online. Available: Accessed: April 9, 2008.

[iii], Glossary for Cruise Missiles. Online. Available: Accessed: April 9, 2008

[iv], SMS GUIDED MISSILES, AERODYNAMICS, AND FLIGHT PRINCIPLES. Online. Available: Accessed: April 9, 2008.

[v] David J Nicholls, "Cruise Missiles and Modern War," Occasional Paper No. 13 Center for Strategy and Technology Air War College (May 2000), p. 6.

[vi] Martin S. Navias and E.R. Hooton, Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping During the Iran-Iraq Crisis, 1980-1988 (New York: I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, 1996), p. XX.

[vii] Carlo Kopp, "Warship Vulnerability," Air Power Australia (July 2005). Online. Available: Accessed: October 4, 2007

[viii] Carlo Kopp, "Warship Vulnerability," Air Power Australia (July 2005). Online. Available: Accessed: October 4, 2007.

[ix] Christian Lowe ed., "Hezbollah's Surprise Weapons," Online. Available: Accessed: October 4, 2007.

[x] Matt Hilburn, "Asymmetric Strategy: Growing Iranian Navy Relies on "˜Unbalanced Warfare' Tactics,"Navy League of the United States, (December 2006). Online. Available: Accessed: October 4, 2007.

[xi] Anthony Cordesman, Iran's Military Forces in Transition (Westport, Connecticut 1999).

[xii] "C-201 / HY-2 / SY-1 CSS-N-2 / CSS-C-3 / SEERSUCKER," FAS Military Analysis Network. Online. Available: Accessed: April 9, 2008.

[xiii] E.R. Hooton, ed., Jane's Naval Weapon Systems(Alexandria: Jane's Information Group Inc., 2004), p. 298-300.

[xiv], C-802 / YJ-2 / Ying Ji-802 / CSS-C-8 / SACCADEC-8xx / YJ-22 / YJ-82. Online. Available: Accessed: April 9, 2008.

[xv] Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., James Phillips, and Wouldiam L. T. Schiran, "Countering Iran's Oil Weapon," Heritage Foundation, (2006).

[xvi], Iran. Online. Available: Accessed: April 29, 2008.

[xvii] E.R. Hooton, ed., Jane's Naval Weapon Systems (Alexandria: Jane's Information Group Inc., 2004), pp. 298-300.

[xviii] Anthony Cordesman, Iran's Military Forces in Transition (Westport, Connecticut 1999).

[xix] E.R. Hooton, ed., Jane's Naval Weapon Systems (Alexandria: Jane's Information Group Inc., 2004), pp. 298-300.

[xx] E.R. Hooton, ed., Jane's Naval Weapon Systems (Alexandria: Jane's Information Group Inc., 2004), pp. 295-297.

[xxi] Anthony Cordesman, Iran's Military Forces in Transition (Westport, Connecticut 1999).

[xxii] Thomas G. Mahnken, "The Cruise Missile Challenge," Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, (March 2005).

[xxiii], Moskit SS-N-22 Sunburn. Online. Available: Accessed: April 9, 2008.

This page last modified in August 2008