What are the different categories of missiles and bombs and when do you use them?


I see words like “surface to air” and “hellfire” and “cruise missile” and “smart bombs”.

What are the different categories here, what do they do, when do you want to use them?

In: 4

Surface to air: ground to air, so a ground-based missile that targets aircraft.

Related: air to ground (aircraft that hits ground targets), air to air (aircraft that hits other aircraft), anti-tank (good against tanks), and anti-ship (good against ships)

Hellfire: the name of a specific design of US missile

Cruise missile: a long range, surface-to-surface missile

Smart bomb: a bomb that has guidance capabilities, either from GPS targeting or laser-designated targeting from a nearby ground force. Contrast to “dumb bombs” which have no guidance and simply fall wherever the gravity and the wind takes them.

“Surface to air” is any missile that is shot from the ground to the air, usually to shoot down a plane/helicopter. “Air to air” is a missile shot from one plane/helicopter at another. “Air to ground” is a missile shot from a plane/helicopter at a target on the ground.

A hellfire is a specific kind of “air to ground” missile originally designed to be used to take out enemy tanks, but different variants of it exist now so it isn’t solely anti-tank.

A cruise missile is a missile that instead of just getting launched through the air super fast by a rocket, it actually flies like a plane and can be much more accurate due to that extra control.
There’s a video example of one flying overhead.

And then “smart bomb” is more of a marketing/PR term. There isn’t an exact definition of what makes something a “smart bomb”, but in general a “smart bomb” is something that you can still control/guide as it’s falling.

Unlike a bomb that you just drop out of a plane and hope it hits what you’re aiming at, smart bombs can do things like be laser guided or gps guided to where they hit their specific intended target (most of the time).

Missiles are propelled. Bombs just fall. Shells are fired from cannons.

Plenty of kinds of missiles exist. Broadly, there’s surface to surface, surface to air, air to ground, and air to air.

SAMS are for taking out aircraft, air to ground is used for all sorts of things, such as taking out tanks or bunkers.

Air to air is used by aircraft for shooting down other aircraft.

Ground to ground has the most diversity. Cruise missiles, ICBM’s, anti tank missiles, you name it. Cruise missiles travel low and far. ICBM’s travel in high arcs and travel VERY VERY FAR. ICBM’s usually carry nukes, while cruise missiles carry conventional warheads.

Smart bombs are aerial bombs that are guided to a target. Just more accurate that way.

[Surface to air missiles](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surface-to-air_missile) are missile that are launched from the surface and target air targets, generally as part of an air defense system. Missiles are often described as surface-to-air (SAM, GTAM, or SAGW), surface-to-surface (SSM or GGM), air-to-air (AAM), and air-to-surface (ASM or AGM) as where they are launched from and what they can target are very important.

[Cruise missiles](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruise_missile) are a type of missile that are powered throughout their flight. They are often designed for medium ranges, but some have been designed from short (on the order of 100km) to intercontinental (8,000km or more; 20,000km can hit anywhere in the world). An alternative type of missile is the [ballistic missiles](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballistic_missile), which are only powered for a short time after launch. Ballistic missiles can similarly be designed for any range.

[Smart or guided bombs](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guided_bomb) are bombs that have built-in guidance systems and thus are very likely to hit their target. This guidance is very limited compared to missiles, and typically limited to just fins. The primary comparison are [dumb or unguided bombs](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unguided_bomb), which were heavily used in WW2, and just dumped out of the plane while roughly over the target.

[Hellfire](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AGM-114_Hellfire) (its complete name is AGM-114 Hellfire) is a specific model of missile developed by the US as an air to ground weapon. The [AIM-9 Sidewinder](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIM-9_Sidewinder) is a similarly well-known air to air missile.

A few related definitions:

* Missile – a self-propelled weapon that flies through the air.
* Shell – a weapon fired from a canon. Note that both guns and artillery pieces meet the definition of canon here.
* Bomb – a weapon dropped from another system, often a plane, but possibly separating from a missile.
* Torpedo – a self-propelled weapon that swims through water, for attacking ships and submarines at or below the waterline.

I am going to focus on the changing meaning of bomb.

The word bomb originates from “bombe” which is the sound a large projectile makes when crashing into something. Roughly equivalent to the word “boom”. The word emerged around the time when most large projectiles were things like boulders launched by catapults.

The projectiles became known as “bombs” and the process of firing at something from a long distance became known as “bombardment” (and the verb “bombard”).

Over time, long range launching of projectiles switched from catapults to gunpowder based mortars. And the projectile switched from inert projectiles to fused, explosive projectiles. These were called bombardment mortars: same idea, large projectile, long distance, but also explosive. These are the “bombs bursting in air” mentioned in the U.S. National Anthem.

But before bombardment mortars, the word bomb was also starting to change to mean any explosive, with the long distance “bombardment” implication being dropped. Explosives could also create a loud boom without being tossed long range like inert boulders, so they also inherited the bombe name.

So: bomb now means any explosive device (suicide bombers, smart bombs) that generally are not self propelled. However, artillery and mortars are now generally not called bombs anymore even though they once were.