A ballistic missile is a missile, usually with no wings or fins, with a prescribed course that cannot be altered after the missile has burned its fuel, whereafter its course is governed by the laws of ballistics. In order to cover large distances ballistic missiles must be launched very high into the air and often to low earth orbit altitudes. Ballistic missiles are generally designed to deliver nuclear warheads because their payload is too limited for conventionally-armed ballistic missiles to be efficient, and because the extreme heat of re-entry would damage chemical or biological payloads.
Many advanced ballistic missiles have several rocket stages and their course can be slightly adjusted from one stage to the next.
Ballistic missiles can vary widely in range and use, and are often divided into categories based on range. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are long range (greater than 5500 km) missiles. Medium to short range missiles are often called theatre ballistic missiles (TBM).
Specific types of ballistic missiles include:
Specific types of ballistic missile submarines include: