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Under what set of circumstances do guided munitions become impractical but not impossible (i.e. moon missions are doable, but mass-produced ICBMs or anti-ship missiles are not), while conventional artillery (i.e. big guns) do not?

I'm not asking for the consequences of this, just why/under what circumstances such a thing would happen.

My current idea is to have guidance system technology be less advanced (moon rockets can be preprogramed, whereas a missile needs to seek out a target under a wide range of circumstances); however, I'm not sure how that would work either, and what the second-order consequences of that would be.

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    $\begingroup$ So you don't mind unguided rockets like big fireworks or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple_rocket_launcher you just want to eliminate guided munitions? $\endgroup$ Jul 31 at 2:33
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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that most missile technology (particularly nuclear) did not require guidance systems, and didn't have guidance systems worth mentioning until long after they were broadly deployed. If you can put someone on the moon, pre-programming an ICBM to land in Moscow is comparatively trivial. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jul 31 at 3:21
  • $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 Nope - I just want to eliminate guided munitions, or at least make them impractical. $\endgroup$
    – KEY_ABRADE
    Jul 31 at 3:56
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    $\begingroup$ Might want to edit the question to say guided missiles, "rocket artillery" refers to mostly unguided munitions, usually launched in large racks to bombard targets indiscriminately from vehicles. $\endgroup$
    – yolo man
    Jul 31 at 8:57
  • $\begingroup$ As Yolo man says I would change the title. Rockets are unguided, missiles are basically rockets but able to guide themselves in some capacity. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jul 31 at 13:59
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The Sun/Star Outputs Lots of Radiation

One way to knock out guided munitions is to make GPS tech and similar remote guidance solutions inoperable through powerful solar flares. When they impact the planet's magnetic field, they create intense geomagnetic storms which can scramble wireless communication or just blow out grids. Our star is middle aged and relatively tamed, but occasionally a large solar storm can threaten a lot of our electronic networks. If you had a far more active star, with hard to predict but very common coronal mass ejections you basically what amounts to natural jamming of remote launch controls, precision tracking stations, guided munitions, and orbital guidance platforms.

Such disruptive storms would make ICBMs, which are massively expensive as super unreliable compared to conventional ground ballistic weaponry that are less affected by magnetic disruptions and better protected by the geomagnetic field compared to airborne and low-orbital guided delivery systems. Nobody would want to spend billions of dollars on a deterrent weapon your enemy can ignore because 15 minutes ago the sun acted up and threw up another solar storm.

  • There is also a large risk factor in guidance system of ICBMs flying into global geomagnetic storms. If a live nuclear, or multi-warhead MIRV ICBM was to glitch out during flight there would be no way to send a kill code if it went the wrong way. A single malfunctioning attitude thruster could send the missile careening off course with a live payload and possibly confuse the guidance computer if it encounters inputs it wasn't programmed to handle.
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  • $\begingroup$ I don't usually upvote answers on questions I'm giving an answer to, but I was going to go this way to start, and I had another answer available. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jul 31 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ I would add that with such coronal ejections even the testing of missile technology would be heavily hampered. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Jul 31 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ Given that many nuclear guidance systems are hardened against EMP anyway, this doesn't seem like it would do much to stop their use. You're already spending a lot, spending a bit more to wrap your electronics in Faraday cages is a bagatelle next to even the cost of fuelling. (Also the idea of a "kill code" for an ICBM after launch is a fallacy - lots of people have proposed destruct-after-launch mechanisms, but no fielded ICBMs include them.) $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Aug 1 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ You can construct ICBMs that purely rely on inertial navigation. Things like laser gyros can be extremely accurate over the timescales over which a missile flies. Lack of GPS by itself is not much of a showstopper. $\endgroup$
    – user4574
    Aug 1 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg I'm not sure what you're getting at. If you mean that I don't usually up/downvote answers when I've answered until an answer has been accepted, that's me trying to maintain impartiality and not let my voting be swayed by personal interest. If you mean something else, I fail to get your point. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 1 at 13:31
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This won't solve ICBMs, because Saturn V was effectively just a scaled-up ICBM main body, but...

Unstable Propellants

The reason why rack-mount missiles work is because chemical monopropellants are stable until ignited. If you change that, making compounds like HMX so unstable that they'll cook off even if left to their own devices, then you're left with liquid fuelled or cryogenic propellants. These are fine for static launch sites (missile silos and rocket pads) but wouldn't be reliable enough for air-to-air combat or ship-launched weapons.

That said, in so doing you're potentially destabilizing a bunch of very useful explosives, which might have its own knock-on effects in combat and industry, but it does meet the goal you're after (less ICBMs, because you can't have moon missions and no ICBMs, sorry).

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    $\begingroup$ If you have some added environmental factor (like propellant-eating bacteria or aggressive nanites) causing this, then it wouldn't even need to violate physics. An early bacterium doing this could hinder the development of these technologies, but might also interfere with artillery development. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jul 31 at 13:06
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Atmospheric Hazards:

Your world is filled with photosynthetic lighter-than-air hydrogen-filled organisms. They crowd the air, moving to and fro in clouds and clusters. The basis of the ecology depends on these organisms, so simply eliminating them would be environmentally disastrous. If you combined them with yolo man's (+1) answer, these organisms might even be part of the shielding of the surface from radiation. Great flocks of birds and/or insects follow these organisms around, feeding from them. As a result, your skies are extremely crowded.

Missiles fired through this soup inevitably get gummed up, and the density of material makes non-GPS navigation almost impossible. Even air travel by fast aircraft would be almost impossible (I used a similar answer for a question about airships).

In an EMP-rich environment from a high-output star, you also answer the ICBM question at least in part. Non-electronic gyroscopic guidance systems could still be made to work even in the worst of conditions. You can make a big enough rocket to get through the atmosphere for a moon shot, or wait for a thinning of the clouds to launch, but you usually want weapons to be reliable at the time you need to use them. If you have a space program, you would likely still need to deal with nuclear weapons (even if they ended up being space-based) but these platforms would be less desirable due to the radiation.

Artillery, on the other hand, would be relatively unaffected. The accuracy of shells might go down due to interference, but bombardment would simply increase the volume of fire to compensate. Ground weapons would be competing with dirigible airship weapons, and I'm guessing long-term the ground weapons would win out.

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  • $\begingroup$ Dense atmospheric life is something I never thought about but is an inspired idea. (+1) As an added bonus, having an atmosphere dense in flying organisms is bound to block or confound radar and thermal imaging systems. If the organism swarms are dense enough, they can even disrupt ground based IR designator painted targets from a guided missile's view causing it to lose lock. If such creatures also happen to be poisonous, the act of clearing the skies for a missile launch or bulling through the clouds of organisms may just poison your own lands, rainclouds, and air much like fallout. $\endgroup$
    – yolo man
    Jul 31 at 22:40
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Minovski Particle. Weeb Alert right here. https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MinovskyPhysics

So some scientist developed a super advanced engine/energy production technique. However, the unavoidable byproduct of this new technology is the production of a field, or particle that can scramble electromagnetic wave--if this field strength or the particle density is very high, even visible light would be effected. Thus, radar-guiding munition would be useless. That engine/energy production technique may also be super-efficient, thus any combat machine with these new tech installed would have less heat output to be tracked by heat-seeking missiles. ICBM have almost the same component as rockets (their stage separations are controlled by altimeter, and their landing point can be set by computer/mechanic guided vector thrust) If a moonshot can work, then ICBM could work in your world. (we have V2 rocket long before Saturn V--they are all designed by the same guy). The last major guidence method is laser. Your story could have opponents being too far away for a simple laser designation pod and the value of the target being too small for a more massive laser designation pod (cost-and-effect).

Remember, somebody had put pigeons--or worse, a person--inside a rocket to guide them. So if there is a need to precisely destroy something, then there will be a guided munition regardless of the world setting.

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