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Air-breathing missile

Definition An air-breathing missile is a type of missile that relies on an air-breathing engine, such as a jet or ramjet engine, for propulsion instead of using an internal oxidizer like a rocket engine. These missiles are typically cruise missiles or anti-ship missiles that operate at a sustained speed and require constant intake of atmospheric […]


An air-breathing missile is a type of missile that relies on an air-breathing engine, such as a jet or ramjet engine, for propulsion instead of using an internal oxidizer like a rocket engine. These missiles are typically cruise missiles or anti-ship missiles that operate at a sustained speed and require constant intake of atmospheric oxygen to maintain combustion. Their ability to use ambient air as an oxidizer makes them lighter and allows them to have longer range and endurance compared to rocket-powered missiles.

Key Takeaways

  1. Air-breathing missile refers to a missile that uses an air-breathing jet engine, such as a turbojet, turbofan, or ramjet, to provide propulsion. This engine requires an oxidizer from the atmosphere, as opposed to a rocket-powered missile that carries its own oxidizer.
  2. These missiles are typically faster and have longer range compared to their rocket-powered counterparts. Air-breathing missile systems can also be more fuel efficient, as they utilize oxygen from the environment instead of a heavy oxidizer supply.
  3. Air-breathing missiles can be used for various military purposes, including air-to-air combat, air-to-ground attacks, and anti-ship operations. Examples of such missiles include the United States’ AGM-158 JASSM and Russia’s PJ-10 Brahmos.


The term “air-breathing missile” is important in military operations because it refers to a specific class of strategically significant weapons that use an air-breathing engine, such as a ramjet, turbojet, or turbofan, to propel themselves through the atmosphere.

Unlike rocket-powered missiles, air-breathing missiles take in oxygen from the surrounding air to ignite their fuel, enabling them to have a longer range, faster speeds, and increased maneuverability.

These attributes make air-breathing missiles a potentially formidable threat in modern warfare, as they can be used to efficiently engage various targets, including enemy aircraft, ships, and ground installations while presenting a challenging obstacle for defense systems to counteract.

The development and deployment of air-breathing missiles have therefore become a key aspect of military strategy and technological advancement in contemporary armed forces worldwide.


Air-breathing missiles serve as vital components of modern military strategy and warfare, providing nations with the capability to engage targets at extended ranges with precision and flexibility. These missiles derive their propulsion from air-breathing engines, such as ramjets or turbojets, which allow them to attain high speeds while efficiently utilizing the oxygen present in the atmosphere for combustion.

This characteristic, in contrast with traditional rocket-powered systems, offers advantages of longer flight duration and increased range, making them suitable for various military operations, including air-to-air, air-to-surface, and surface-to-surface scenarios. The versatility of air-breathing missiles stems from their capacity to carry different types of payloads, such as conventional or nuclear warheads, and their incorporation with advanced guidance systems to ensure accuracy in striking designated targets.

As a strategic weapon, air-breathing missiles significantly enhance a nation’s ability to project power and deter potential adversaries. They can be employed to eliminate high-value enemy assets such as radar installations, command-and-control centers, surface combatants, and aircraft, crippling an opponent’s ability to maintain air superiority and establish dominance.

Additionally, their low-altitude and high-speed flight profiles often reduce the likelihood of detection and interception by enemy air defenses, thereby increasing their survivability and effectiveness during critical missions. The incorporation of air-breathing missiles into a diverse array of platforms, including aircraft, ships, and ground-based launchers, ensures that military forces can rapidly respond to emerging threats in complex, evolving battle environments.

Examples of Air-breathing missile

Air-breathing missiles are a type of military weapon that utilizes an air-breathing jet engine to propel themselves towards their target instead of a rocket engine. They are designed for various purposes, such as anti-ship, land-attack, or air-to-air missions. Here are three real-world examples:

AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM): The AGM-158 is a long-range, precision-guided, land attack cruise missile developed by Lockheed Martin for the United States Armed Forces. It is powered by a Teledyne CAE J402 turbojet engine and has a range of approximately 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

BrahMos: BrahMos is a supersonic cruise missile developed by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyeniya. It is powered by a Ramjet engine and can be launched from various platforms, including ships, aircraft, submarines, or land-based vehicle launchers. With a range of approximately 290 miles (450 kilometers), the BrahMos is designed for anti-ship and land-attack missions.

Meteor: The Meteor is a beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) developed by the European defense consortium MBDA for various European countries’ air forces. It is powered by a solid-fueled Ramjet engine, which allows it to maintain high speeds and excellent maneuverability throughout its flight. The Meteor’s range is estimated to be over 62 miles (100 kilometers), making it one of the most advanced air-to-air missiles in the world.

Frequently Asked Questions about Air-breathing Missiles

1. What is an air-breathing missile?

An air-breathing missile is a type of missile that uses an air-breathing jet engine, such as a ramjet or turbojet, to propel itself. This engine relies on the oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere for combustion, eliminating the need for carrying its own oxidizer like traditional rocket-powered missiles.

2. What are the advantages of air-breathing missiles over traditional rocket-powered missiles?

Air-breathing missiles offer several advantages, such as increased range, higher efficiency, and faster speeds. They can cover longer distances without running out of energy while maintaining high speeds, which makes them harder to intercept and providing more accurate targeting. Also, their smaller size allows for a greater payload on the launching platform.

3. What are some examples of air-breathing missiles?

Some notable examples of air-breathing missiles include the BrahMos missile, a supersonic cruise missile jointly developed by India and Russia, the Meteor, an active radar-guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile employed by the European defense industry, and the American AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM).

4. How do air-breathing engines work?

Air-breathing engines, like ramjets or turbojets, work by taking in air from the atmosphere, compressing it, and then mixing it with fuel. This mixture is then ignited, resulting in a high-pressure and high-velocity combustion gas that produces the thrust needed to propel the missile. Unlike rocket engines, air-breathing engines do not need to carry an onboard oxidizer, which reduces the overall weight and complexity of the missile.

5. Can air-breathing missiles be intercepted?

While air-breathing missiles are more challenging to intercept due to their high speeds, it is still possible. Advanced air defense systems, like the long-range surface-to-air missile systems and interceptor aircraft with sophisticated sensors and radar-guided missiles, are capable of detecting and intercepting air-breathing missiles. However, the interception’s success depends on various factors, such as the missile’s speed, altitude, trajectory, and evasive maneuvers employed.

Related Military Operation Terms

  • Guided Missile Technology
  • Cruise Missiles
  • Turbojet Propulsion
  • Missile Guidance Systems
  • Air-to-Surface Missiles

Sources for More Information

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