How do missiles locate their target? How do they identify that they got the correct target?


How do missiles locate their target? How do they identify that they got the correct target?

In: Technology

There are a number of techniques. They might be given specific coordinates, they might be given a course and heading to follow, or they can even follow a target beam that’s shining on the desired target (painting the target).

As for identifying that they got the correct one? That will be done by spotters or by reviewing footage from the weapon that was sent back to the senders of the missile.

Not all missiles have targeting computers, but the general idea is to a calculation of trajectory based on current flight path and adjust accordingly until the plotted trajectory matches the location of the target.

Even then, there’s a level of acceptable error.

Varies a bit from technology to technology. Heat-seeking and optical missiles see a high-contrast picture and try to maneuver so the object they are tasked to follow stays where they plan to hit it (they can think ahead to intercept objects).
Radar missiles emit high-frequency radar pulses that are echoed by the object the are tasked to track. This way they know where their target is and then they can act the same way as heat-seekers or optical missiles.

All of these technologies can be fooled, though. If a plane crosses exactly in front of the plane they are tracking (and its path isn’t too dissimilar from their target’s) they can sometimes switch to the other plane.

Generally the target is found first by a much fancier system and then the missile goes where its told

Missiles can be sent to a specific location via GPS guidance, or they’ll use inertial navigation to know how far and what direction they need to go from their launch points

Others will track a specific thing like a radar return, or laser beam, or heat source, but generally some person first found the target and then selected it as “this is where you should go little zoomer” and the missile uses its onboard sensors to pick up the same target, confirms that it got the right one with the launcher, then goes for it

Very very rarely do missiles get sent in and try to pick up the target on the way. Missiles don’t have much computing power in them so they are far easier to trick into going to a wrong target than the full electronics suite of a reusable plane or drone.

It depends.

Heat/IR-seeking – there’s a device that tracks a thermal source – can be confused by a stronger thermal source like a flare. Very early versions could be confused by the sun.

Wild Weasel – Targets strong EM sources like radar and microwave transmissions – typically used to take out radar and communication systems

GPS/Satnav – there is no guidance other than the ability to take input of the target coordinate, and a nav system to fly by the gps system. Fairly accurate up to a few feet. Requires a GPS or like receiver.

Programmed Course – If you know where you are, and know where the target is, and know the variables of the missile such as fuel, weight, and external variables such as weather and orbital rotation you can program in a course that puts the missile in motion to reach its target. Very much like rockets and artillery.

Networked with a target device like a range-finder – More convoluted. Requires at least communication between the targeting device and missile, the ability to know its location(gps) in regards to where its launched from and where the targeting device is.

Visual/camera – Found in a lot of fly by wire. If there’s an onboard computer/AI it can identify a target but this relies on pre-programmed libraries or advanced identification techniques which can be fooled and are only as good as they’re programmed.


As for identifying if it struck correctly or not, that’s up to the people who fired the missile. Missiles are rarely anything other than a single use item. In a dogfight, the pilot would have to make the call whether or not a second missile is needed and this happens in a split second. Other missile use is typically followed up minutes or hours later for observation depending on the importance or ability to find out. Methods of follow up could be aerial recon by a second plane, sat observation, soldiers or inspectors on the ground, and drone flyovers.