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Graham T. Allison explains in Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis:

First, consider the brute facts. For a combination of technical and budgetary reasons, the Soviet government found itself in 1962 with only 20 ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges of more than 5,000 miles) capable of launching nuclear warheads that could reach American territory from bases inside the Soviet Union. About these missiles' technical reliability and accuracy, they had well-founded doubts.

...

Over several years, the Soviet Union could right the nuclear imbalance by deploying new ICBMs on its own soil. But to meet the threat it faced in 1962, 1963, and 1964, it had few options. Moving existing nuclear weapons to locations from which they could reach American targets was one.

That motivated the stationing of MRBMs / IRBMs (medium- / intermediate-range ballistic missiles) on Cuba, as we all know.

But today, with all the progress in military technology, do those shorter range missiles (MRBMs, IRBMs) still have such a fundamental advantage over ICBMs?

I don't mean ordinary advantages like that they're cheaper and easier to field. But a difference that is of political significance. Like that for a country, being in the range of those missiles is a dramatically higher level of threat compared to only being reachable by ICBMs?

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    Voting to close - Ignorant propaganda in the Q. (The real reason that Russia decided to place missiles in Cuba was because the US decided to place first-strike Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, and the Russians wanted them removed. And that's what finally happened - the Americans secretly agreed to remove their nuclear missiles from Turkey while the Soviet Union agreed to not place Russian missiles in Cuba. This is common knowledge today as even Wikipedia mentions this - Cuban Missile Crisis). Please improve your Q with facts.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jan 3 at 4:30
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    @sfxedit The reasons you state why the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba isn't really relevant to the question though the reliability of these missile types isn't really on topic here either.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 3 at 14:57
  • @sfxedit somehow we have to explain why the US felt so threatened by the missiles stationed in Cuba. If ICBMs reached them just as well, and were just a bit more expensive for the Soviets, this wouldn't explain the "crisis" in Cuban Missile Crisis. I assumed there must have been a major difference, and Wikipedia explained (with reliable sources, as far as I can verify) that the state of ICBMs in the Soviet Union was quite bad.
    – viuser
    Commented Jan 3 at 19:38
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    "...do those shorter range missiles (MRBMs, IRBMs) still have such a fundamental advantage over ICBMs..." Good question but more of a technical nature and less of a political one. Commented Jan 3 at 20:19
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    @JoeW There are factual propaganda (based on truth) and there are bullshit propaganda based on complete lies. Why we should allow the latter, in any Q or A? Declassified US records tell that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened because US gave WMD to Turkey and Italy. The Russians then created a "crisis" to force the Americans to back down. And they did. If you feel those facts don't matter, then why mention it? After all, as per historical facts one can also claim that the US needed to place their missile nearer to USSR as they had doubts about the missiles "technical reliability and accuracy".
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jan 4 at 16:03

2 Answers 2

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The big advantage of ICBMs is that they are intercontinental. With that comes a relatively high speed, which complicates intercepts, and long early warning time (for a missile) if the other side has sats watching the missile launch area.

If IRBMs can reach relevant targets, IRBMs have the advantages of a reduced flight time, higher mobility and concealability because of a lower missile and launcher weight, and larger numbers because of lower costs per unit. Larger numbers may allow a saturation attack.

You might look at how various analysts describe North Korea's arsenal. And on the effort spent on Scud Hunts in the 1991 Gulf War.

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  • In particular, in the Ukraine War, IRBMs have been important because they allow someone with them to destroy artillery batteries and helicopter bases with conventional warheads from beyond the range of prompt counterattacks.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 2 at 17:21
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    @ohwilleke, for that a SRBM would be sufficient. I'm not sure if anyone used actual IRBM in that conflict, unless you count the Kinzhal.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 2 at 17:33
  • @ohwilleke: HIMARS GMLRS and even ATACMS are SRBMs. IIRC the US only gave Ukraine the shortest range ATACMS they have (165km < 1,000km the typical limit range for a SRBM.) There's been some talk of GLSDB (150km range) sent to Ukraine, but I'm not sure if any were used. (The most useful longer-range weapon Ukraine used was the Storm Shadow, but that's a cruise missile.) Commented Jan 3 at 23:35
  • Now that I am more clear on the definitions being used (which honestly is on the OP), the big current U.S. military interest in using them (now that they aren't banned by treaty) is in the Pacific, as a way for light island hopping Marines and naval ships to respond to Chinese military forces while they are beyond the range of shorter range missiles and lots of kinds of helicopters and fighter aircraft deployed from the mainland (and against Chinese aircraft carriers before their fighters are within range).
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 5 at 1:54
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This is a technical answer and a largely technical question, but since we don't have military.stackexchange, I'll answer.

ICBM, IRBM and MRBM have different flight profiles and different interception opportunities. Systems designed to shoot down ICBM at high altitude in space, including nuclear-based ones, are not as capable against lower-flying IRBM.

This above chart isn't the prettiest, but it shows where a missile can and can't be intercepted. Anywhere without blue or black is no ability to intercept. As you can see, one of the systems, GMD, is useless against IRBM. Other systems have limited phases. The defense system also has to be in the area.

enter image description here

These are theoretical, best-case interception envelopes. In real life, missile defense systems have often failed unexpectedly against low-tech, short-range threats, such as SCUDs.

For a non-nuclear power, it's not a game-changer whether a nuclear strike against it takes 5 minutes or 25 minutes. You can never intercept all of them, and just a few MIRV-equipped nuclear missiles are enough to take a small country out.

For a nuclear power, these minutes are time to confirm the attack is real and launch its own missiles. The targets that matter for a rapid strike are own missiles, not cities, since it's missiles that prevent attacks in the first place. Under the (rather callous) game theory accompanying MAD, if one of the powers is able to take out the opponent's missiles before they can fire, they can "win" by striking first.

With their shorter flight time, reduced launch visibility, and reduced vulnerability to interception, particularly by global systems, properly placed MRBM and IRBM come the closest to giving such a capability - to take out enemy ICBM before they can hit you back.

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  • "it doesn't matter much which kind of missiles it's reachable with, since you can never intercept them all, and even a few missiles are devastating." Tell that to people installing missile defense systems in Ukraine or Israel against the possibility. Stopping 85% or so of income missiles (which is the current state of the art) reduces casualties from conventional missiles proportionately, and increase the cost of a successful strike by 6-fold when these missiles are scarce as they are for Russia/Iran, etc. who don't have an effectively unlimited supply of missiles in the short to medium term.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 5 at 2:00
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    @ohwilleke I didn't mean to say BMD is useless. Rather, it's that ICBM or SRBM with equal TNT-equivalent are of roughly equal danger to a non-nuclear power. Against a nuclear power, short flight time can enable a first strike without response.
    – Therac
    Commented Jan 5 at 6:03

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