Military Wiki

Katyusha rocket launcher, one of the earliest modern rocket artillery weapons

A rocket is a self-propelled, unguided weapon system powered by a rocket motor.


In military parlance, powered munitions are broadly categorised as follows:

  • A powered munition that expends all fuel upon launch is known as a rocket.[1]
  • A powered munition that holds two rocket motors (one for launch, and one to maintain trajectory) is known as a missile (or guided missile.)
  • Powered munitions that travel through water are called torpedoes.

However, the distinction can become somewhat blurred, especially where a weapon begins as an unguided rocket and is then fitted with a guidance system - e.g. the GMLRS system is still referred to as rocket artillery,[2] despite employing guided munitions.

Early development

The use of rockets as some form of artillery dates back to medieval China where devices such as fire arrows were used (albeit mostly as a psychological weapon), and gradually spread to Europe and the Middle East. Rockets became a significant weapon during the 20th Century, when precise manufacturing processes made relatively accurate rockets possible.

Basic roles



Rockets are widely used as an artillery weapon, due to their simplicity and the ability of a launch platform to fire multiple rockets in a very short space of time – unlike gun-based artillery, which typically carries a single, heavy barrel and must be reloaded for each shot, multiple rocket launchers can typically fire their entire ammunition supply in a matter of seconds. This rate of fire is very useful as it allows little time for the target to take cover or get away, and allows the artillery unit to shoot-and-scoot, avoiding enemy counter-battery fire.


German Army Panzerfaust 3

With the invention of the tank, the infantry required a weapon to counter the threat. Tank armour soon developed beyond the point at which an anti-tank rifle could practically be carried by an infantryman, and by the Second World War rocket weapons such as the US bazooka and German Panzerschreck were in service. Development continued after the war, with weapons such as the RPG-7, although a need to increase range lead to the development of guided weapons to fulfill the anti-tank role. Most modern armies now use guided missiles for long-range engagements and rockets for close-range or emergency use; disposable weapons such as the RPG-26 are popular for this.

The use of anti-tank weapons to attack buildings and other targets has led to the development of weapons and ammunition designed specifically to attack non-tank targets, such as the one-shot LASM and the larger SMAW.


AH-64 carrying rocket pods

Unguided rockets have been launched from aircraft since the early 20th century, to attack land, sea and air targets. Even after the development of guided missiles, rockets remain useful for short-range attacks – typically for close air support missions.


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