A4 – First Operational Ballistic Missile

V2 rocket

A4 (“Aggregat 4”) was the world’s first operational long-range guided ballistic missile. It carried a 910-kg HE warhead to the distance of 320 km (both roughly the same as the V-1 cruise missile) and was by far the most revolutionary weapon developed and deployed during WW2 in Europe.

A4 ushered in the space age by becoming the first man-made object to travel into space by crossing the Kármán line (which lies at an altitude of 100 km above Earth’s sea level and commonly represents the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space) on June 20th, 1944.

It became the first in a line of rockets and missiles that ultimately put first artificial satellites into orbit, sent a human into space and to the Moon and sent the unmanned probes to the planets of the Solar system and beyond.

Together with a nuclear bomb (subsequently transformed into a thermonuclear missile warhead), descendants of the A4 ultimately created an insurmountable deterrent that made a world war a mutually assured destruction thus guaranteeing the end to world wars (actually, to just about any large-scale wars).

The missile was developed during the Second World War in Germany as a “vengeance weapon” (thus officially labeled V-2) and was intended to attack Allied cities as retaliation for the Allied bombings against German cities.

Which was a really bad idea – a colossal blunder, actually – as over 3,000 V-2s launched at London, Antwerp and Liège, killed only 9,000 civilians and military personnel (Allied bombings killed the same number in an hour).

In just one 24-hour period the RAF dropped over 10,000 tons of bombs on Brunswick and Duisburg, roughly equivalent to the amount of explosives that could be delivered by 10,000 V-2 rockets (more than three times more than were actually launched).

Thus it is no surprise that V-2 had precisely no effect on a military situation and from the military perspective (the only one that makes sense during the war) the whole A4 project was a massive waste of highly valuable resources.

It is estimated that the German V-weapons (V-1 and V-2) cost the equivalent of around USD $40 billion (in 2015 dollars), which was about 50% more than the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb.

Which means that Nazi Germany should have developed instead totally different weapons – the atomic bomb, its delivery system (a Horten XVIII – type flying wing jet bomber) and the surface-to-air guided missile. The weapons that could have very well won the war for the Third Reich.

The V-2 lacked a proximity fuze, so it could not be set for air burst; it buried itself in the target area before or just as the warhead detonated, which reduced its effectiveness.

Furthermore, its early guidance systems were way too primitive to hit specific targets (it had the Circular Error Probable of about 17 km – the diameter of a circle within which half the missiles would land) and its costs were approximately equivalent to 40% of the cost of a two-engine Ju-88 bomber which was much more accurate, could carry more warheads and was reusable. On the other hand, A4 was invulnerable to the anti-aircraft defensive measures.

At the end of the war, Wernher von Braun (chief A4 designer) and over 100 key V-2 personnel surrendered to the Americans. Eventually, many of the original V-2 team ended up working at the Redstone Arsenal.

The US also captured enough V-2 hardware to build approximately 80 of the missiles. The Soviets gained possession of the V-2 manufacturing facilities after the war, re-established V-2 production, and moved it to the Soviet Union.


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