What Are Saturation Missile Attacks?


Recently, the tensions with Russia, China, and North Korea have led to an increase in the use of the phrase, “saturation missile attacks” or just “saturation attacks.” What are saturation missile attacks? Turns out they are nothing new, but the media isn’t going to tell you this because scary sounding words sell more papers. Today, I will break down the meaning behind saturation attacks and explain to you what they are.

What are Saturation Missile Attacks?

Saturation attacks evolved from the constant struggle between offensive weapon and defensive system.

Let’s say an anti-ship missile is capable of destroying a target 100% of the time. However, an weapon is developed to counter the attacking missile and can successfully intercept 50% of all missiles. Now instead of spending the money to develop an entirely new missile system to defeat the defensive measure, it is actually cheaper to simply build and use a larger number of missiles. A single missile might only have a 50% chance of hitting the target. However, firing missiles in groups increases their ability to penetrate the defenses. A two missile salvo has a 75% chance of striking the target. A three missile salvo has a 87.5% chance of striking the target and so on and so forth. The barrage of missiles saturate the defenses and eventually make it to the target.

Examples of Saturation Attacks

The Soviet Union was the most prolific developer of saturation attacks. Not having the money to fund more advanced weapons like NATO countries, they sought to a quantity over quality approach.

what are saturation missile attacks

An excellent example of Soviet saturation tactics would be the P-15 styx Missile. The Soviet Union was well aware that they could not afford to counter the might of the American Navy by building a conventional navy of their own.  They instead sought to overwhelm US ships through massed missile attacks. It was calculated that a single NATO destroyer would require 10 to 12 P-15 missiles to ensure destruction. The Soviets then began developing cheap ships to deliver these weapons. The Komar missile boat was one such development of saturation attacks.

what are saturation missile attacks
A Komar missile boat launches a P-15 Styx missile. Each Komar was equipped with two missiles. The ships would operate in large groups to overwhelm NATO ships.

Countering Saturation Attacks

Just as the Soviet Union began to develop saturation attacks, NATO countries began developing tactics to counter them. It became apparent that the only way to effectively counter saturation attacks was to destroy the missile carriers before they could launch their deadly cargo. Countering Soviet Missile Boats was easy enough as carrier aircraft became more advanced. However, the Soviets countered by launching saturation attacks from standoff ranges through the use of heavy bombers.

what are saturation missile attacks
A Tu-22M bomber. These aircraft would have carried up to 10 anti-ship missiles to launch at US warships.

Once again, the NATO forces had to develop countermeasures to aircraft launched saturation attacks. The first response was to develop longer ranged fighters that could intercept the Russian bombers before they got into range to launch their missiles. A later response was to develop missiles that could simultaneously track and destroy multiple bombers. This led directly to the introduction of the F-14 and its advanced AIM-54 missiles.

what are saturation missile attacks
An F-14 carrying six AIM-54 missiles. With these missiles, an F-14 could track and engage over 4 bombers at the same time.

Since the cold war, saturation attacks have become less likely. More advanced missile defense systems have drastically reduced the effectiveness of massed missile attacks. More advanced missiles have had to be developed to evade these missile systems. Their increased costs make launching saturation attacks less attractive and defeats the purpose of cost effectiveness.

However, nations like China and North Korea both continue to develop saturation tactics. So tactics to counter these attacks continues.

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Chris Knupp

A student of military history, I am working to make history more interesting and accessible for everyone.


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