The developed world has an absolute mania about the proliferation of ballistic missile technology. Iraq's shoddily manufactured Scuds were viewed as a principal threat against both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration uses the spread of nascent missile technology as one of the primary justifications for spending billions of dollars on ballistic missile defenses in the post-cold war period. This report will illustrate, however, that the spread of sophisticated attack aircraft poses a far greater threat to the security of the United States and its allies than ballistic missiles.

In marked contrast to ballistic missiles, combat aircraft with equivalent capabilities are widely distributed across the globe. There are only a few hundred, certainly fewer than 1000, ballistic missiles with ranges beyond the 300 kilometer MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) limit in the hands of Third World states.(1) But the MTCR standard of a 300 kilometer range with a 500 kilogram payload covers the entire range of military combat aircraft, down to the smallest jet trainers. Of the over 40,000 military aircraft operational in the world today with range and payload capabilities in excess of those of the MTCR threshold, over 8000 of these are deployed in Third World countries. And most of these aircraft can carry warloads significantly greater than 500 Kg over ranges greatly in excess of 300 Km.

The presumed ascendancy of stealth aircraft and ballistic missiles is predicated on extreme estimates of the effectiveness of air defenses. But combat experience suggests that per-sortie attrition rate may be rather low, typically on the order of only a few percent. The probability of an attack aircraft not reaching its target due to air defenses is of the same order as the probability of a missile not reaching its target due to mechanical failure, since at least 10% of missiles launched fail in flight. Air defense systems such as the Patriot surface-to-air missile will increasingly be capable of intercepting medium range missiles such as the Scud.

Missiles do not seem to offer significant advantages for surprise attack or delivery of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, for the delivery of conventional munitions, aircraft can offer distinct advantages. This offensive potential of counter-airfield operations by attack aircraft may pose greater threats of crisis instability than missiles. And dual-role combat aircraft certainly offer greater operational flexibility than single-mission missiles. But the military potential of combat aircraft is much more highly dependent on the number and quality of support personnel and pilots.

This broad range of capabilities is matched by equally diverse means of acquiring combat aircraft. A growing number of countries have indigenous design and production capabilities. A range of first-rate aircraft are for sale in the international market-place. A secondary market exists for used or refurbished aircraft, and some entrepreneurs are offering their skills for hire.

Despite the marked military effectiveness, de-stabilizing potential and rampant proliferation of attack aircraft, the Bush administration has largely ignored this problem. The Arms Export Control Act, which regulates US arms transfers, specifically prohibits only the transfer of missile and missile related technology. US policy is to allow, or even to promote, all non-missile arms exports that are perceived to increase US or allied security.

While the United States is actively discouraging missile proliferation through its membership in the MTCR, the only international arms transfer control organization is CoCom, the members of which are not bound by treaty. Since this organization's raison d'etre is to prohibit exports to Communist countries, CoCom is something of a Cold War relic, and is not focussed on most of the developing countries that present the greatest proliferation and stability risks.

Representatives of the "Big 5" arms exporters -- US, USSR, PRC, France, and UK -- agreed on 18 October 1991 to inform each other of transfers of certain conventional arms to the Middle East, as a means of increasing transparency in the region and decreasing tension. While the Big 5 recognized that aircraft were among the technologies that merited closer attention, they did not give it a priority commensurate with its potential for destruction and de-stabilization. In order of priority, tanks, armored combat vehicles and artillery were all deemed more important than aircraft. Only naval vessels and certain missile systems were deemed less important.(2)

All in all, US perceptions of, and policies toward, attack aircraft versus ballistic missile proliferation require a thorough re-orientation.


1. Karp, Aaron, "Ballistic Missile Proliferation," Chapter 9 in SIPRI Yearbook 1990, (Oxford University Press, London, 1990).

2. World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1990, The US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, (Washington, DC, 11 November 1992, p.24.)