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Throw-weight is a measure of the effective weight of ballistic missile payloads. It is measured in kilogram or tonnes. Throw-weight equals the total weight of a missile's warheads, reentry vehicles, self-contained dispensing mechanisms, penetration aids, and missile guidance systems--generally all components except for the launch rocket booster and launch fuel. While throw-weight may refer to any type of warhead, in normal usage it almost exclusively refers to nuclear or thermonuclear payloads.

Throw-weight was used as a criterion in classifying different types of missiles during Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the Soviet Union and the United States.[1] The term became politically controversial during debates over the arms-control accord, as critics of the treaty alleged that Soviet missiles were able to carry larger payloads and therefore enabled the Soviets to maintain higher throw-weight than an American force with a roughly comparable number of lower-payload missiles.[2]

Culturally, being able to discuss throw-weight was often used as shorthand to suggest that a politician was capable of understanding a serious and high-profile but arcane and supposedly mathematically complex public policy issue.[3]

Depressed trajectory

Throw-weight is normally calculated using an optimal ballistic trajectory from one point on the surface of the Earth to another. An optimal trajectory maximizes the total payload (throw-weight) using the available impulse of the missile. By reducing the payload weight, different trajectories can be selected which either extends the nominal range, or decreases the total time in flight. A depressed trajectory is a non-optimal, lower and flatter trajectory which takes less time between launch and impact, but with a lower throw-weight. The primary reasons to choose a depressed trajectory are either to evade anti-ballistic missile systems by reducing the time available to shoot down the attacking vehicle (especially during the vulnerable burn-phase against space-based ABM systems), or in a nuclear first-strike scenario.[4] An alternate, non-military, purpose for a depressed trajectory is in conjunction with the space plane concept with use of air-breathing engines, which requires the ballistic missile to remain sufficiently low inside the atmosphere for air-breathing engines to function.

See also


  1. James John Tritten, Throw-Weight and Arms Control, Air University Review, Nov-Dec 1982.
  2. New York Times, What Is Throw-Weight?, July 15, 1991.
  3. CNN[1], Madeleine Albright: The Voice of America, December 16, 1996.
  4. Science & Global Security, 1992, Volume 3, pp.101-159 Depressed Trajectory SLBMs: A Technical Evaluation and Arms Control Possibilities [2]