Third World Ballistic Missiles:

Are the Facts Lost in the Numbers?

Lora Lumpe
Research Analyst
Federation of American Scientists

Lisbeth Gronlund
Senior Visiting Scholar
Center for International Security Studies
University of Maryland, College Park

David C. Wright
Senior Research Analyst
Federation of American Scientists

September 10, 1991


No developing countries other than China have missiles with ranges adequate to strike the US. Recent press and government reports have stated that as many as 15-25 nations may possess ballistic missiles by the year 2000, but an examination of these countries and their capabilities shows that ballistic missiles in the developing world will pose no threat to US territory for the foreseeable future. Fears of Third World missiles do not justify spending billions of dollars on missile defenses to protect the US, as mandated by the Nunn-Warner Defense Act.


The Nunn-Warner Missile Defense Act recently adopted by the Senate mandates deployment of an ABM system by 1996 for the purpose of defending US territory against limited ballistic missile attacks of two types: (1) accidental or unauthorized launches of Soviet ballistic missiles and (2) deliberate ballistic missile attacks or threats by developing countries. This report addresses the second threat.

Recent estimates of the number of prospective ballistic missile states(1)--ranging from 15 to 25 by the year 2000--have been used by advocates of missile defenses to win support for their position. The spread of ballistic missiles and other advanced weapons is an extremely important problem facing the international community, and the US should take strong steps to stem such proliferation. However, an examination of this list of current and potential ballistic missile states and their capabilities, taking into account (1) whether they are hostile to the US, (2) their current missile deployments, (3) their indigenous technical capabilities, and (4) their ability to purchase hardware and/or expertise, shows that ballistic missiles in the developing world pose no threat to US territory currently or in the foreseeable future. As a result, fears of Third World missiles do not justify spending billions of dollars on missile defenses to protect the US.

Moreover, the US would not be caught by surprise if any country attempted to develop a ballistic missile. Developing a missile capability takes years and requires a series of flight tests,(2) which are intrinsically observable events, and become more so as the range of the missiles increases. The same US satellites that tracked the Scud launches during the Gulf War would detect missile flight tests, giving unambiguous warning of missile development by any country in the world, which would provide adequate time to devise an appropriate response. Further, since long range missiles using less than state-of-the-art technology would be too large to be mobile, their deployment locations would be known from satellite surveillance.

For those countries that do not have the indigenous capability to develop missiles, buying a missile from another country might be possible and, in fact, missile sales and transfers account for most of the missiles in the developing world. However, the missiles that have been sold to developing countries have ranges much less than those required to strike the US from those countries. The US is roughly 8,000 to 11,000 km from countries in the Middle East; in contrast the Scud missile, transferred by the Soviet Union to a number of countries in the region, has a range of 300 km. The longest range missile sold to a developing country (by China to Saudi Arabia) has a range of 2,800 km.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) represents a realistic approach to forestalling the acquisition of long-range missiles by countries with limited indigenous technology bases. The MTCR, established in 1987, prohibits exports of technologies that could be used in missile systems with ranges greater than 300 km for a payload of 500 kg. Sixteen countries are formal members (including the seven leading economic powers: the US, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, Germany), with four other nations--including the Soviet Union--pledging to adhere to its export control guidelines. Even China has pledged--and has thus far stuck to that pledge--not to sell missiles to the Middle East that would violate the MTCR guidelines.(3) The normative standard against selling long-range ballistic missiles appears to have been strengthened since 1988, when China's sale of the 2,800 km range CSS-2 missile to Saudi Arabia caused an international uproar.

A Closer Look at the "15-25 Countries"

The simple enumerations of potential ballistic missile states obscure the important issue of who is on the list and what their capabilities are (see Table 1). A closer look must take into account the following:

1. Developed and developing countries: Many of the lists do not refer to developing countries exclusively, but include the five nuclear powers (the US, USSR, Britain, France, and China) and probably Japan, which has a space-launch program.

2. Friend or foe: None of the countries on these lists with an advanced technical base are hostile to the US.

3. Missile capabilities: Not all missiles are created equal. With few exceptions, those missiles possessed by developing countries are very short range, and extremely inaccurate. For example, the Scud missile, which was widely distributed by the Soviet Union and provides the missile capability of most of the missile states in the Third World, has a range of only about 300 km. Even Iraq's longest-range missile (the al Abbas) had a range of only 800 km--short compared to the 10,000 km distance between Iraq and the US.

4. Indigenous technical capability: The technical infrastructures of a number of the countries included in these counts are essentially nonexistent, and these countries could only obtain missiles by buying them. Moreover, even for countries with some technical capability who produce part or all of a missile indigenously, the task of developing and building an ICBM is a huge step beyond that of fielding a short-range missile. (Today, only the US, Soviet Union, and China deploy missiles with ranges greater than about 6000 km.) The development of fairly advanced missile systems by Israel and India, which have very strong technical infrastructures, was possible only with very substantial help from the US, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union.

5. Motivation: The motivation for most developing countries to obtain missiles results from regional tensions and the possibility of regional conflicts. Their interest is therefore in acquiring short-range missiles, not ICBMs.

6. Cost: Developing or purchasing missiles--especially long range ones--is very expensive, and few developing countries have the resources to devote to this purpose.

Table 1 lists the 25 countries that either currently possess ballistic missiles, or have been included in lists of countries that may possess missiles by the year 2000. Only a small number of countries on it are hostile to the US. While it is possible for the political atmosphere to change in the future, the third world countries that currently motivate a concern about third world missile capabilities are those countries that Senator John McCain has termed "states that threaten world peace:" Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan.(4)

Table 1 shows that these seven countries are on the low end of the technology spectrum, far away from indigenously producing a long-range ballistic missile. The current and potential ballistic missile capabilities of these countries are discussed in some detail in the Appendix, and are summarized here:

Iraq's missiles and missile-production capabilities are being dismantled under the cease-fire agreement ending the Gulf War, and it is prohibited for the indefinite future from developing or otherwise acquiring ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 150 km with no payload.

Cuba, Syria, and Afghanistan are very poor countries with minimal indigenous technology bases; they have no ability to build long-range ballistic missiles. The short-range missiles they possess were given to them by the Soviet Union.

North Korea has a more developed technology base, and has produced short range missiles indigenously, but could not develop an ICBM in the foreseeable future.

Iran is a relatively wealthy country but has a limited technology base, and has relied primarily on imports for its armaments. With China's assistance, Iran has produced very short range missiles, but has even less potential for developing an ICBM than does North Korea.

Libya is relatively wealthy and clearly desires ballistic missiles, but has a low technology base and has no indigenous missile R&D capabilities. Its short range missiles were transferred from the Soviet Union.


While the proliferation of ballistic missiles is an important problem, especially at a regional level, the issue relevant to a decision on the deployment of a US ABM system is whether ballistic missiles in the developing world pose a threat to the continental US.

A closer look at the list of 15-25 countries that may have ballistic missiles by the year 2000 reveals that only seven of these are considered hostile to the US. Of these seven, only three appear to have either the technical or economic resources to develop or acquire longer-range missiles in the foreseeable future. These three currently have only short range missiles, which pose no threat to the continental US, and developing longer-range missiles would take years. These countries can be closely monitored for indications of future missile developments, giving the US adequate time to respond.

The Third World ballistic missile threat does not provide a rationale for the near-term deployment of a US ABM system.


The authors would like to thank John Pike for helpful discussions.

Appendix: Current and Future Missile Capabilities of Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria

Afghanistan. The Soviet Union transferred hundreds of Scud missiles to the Najibullah government prior to and following its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. As a result, Afghanistan reportedly has been the site of the most intense missile warfare since the German V-2 raids on London in World War II, with a thousand missiles believed to have been fired during the civil war there.(5) (Nine hundred missiles were fired by Iran and Iraq in the Gulf War.) Afghanistan has very little industrial base and is a very poor country. The Afghan government is totally dependent on Soviet aid and weapons.

Cuba. Cuba received 50 km range Frog-4 missiles from the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s. Later, 70 km Frog-7s were transferred. The Cubans are thought to have a total of 65 launchers.(6) The short range of both systems renders them useful only for combat on the island or perhaps coastal defense. For the past 30 years Cuba has been almost completely reliant on Soviet military aid. It has no arms production base.

Iran. Iran, an oil exporting country, is relatively wealthy but has a very limited technical and industrial base. For armaments, it has relied primarily on a policy of importation. The extent of Iranian arms production includes a small arms and ammunition plant at Parchin, which has been in operation for over 50 years, and some aircraft and air-to-air missile service and repair facilities established during the Shah's rein through his arms supply relationship with the United States. Since the Revolution, Iran has reportedly reverse-engineered Soviet artillery rockets and surface-to-air missiles,(7) although very little solid information is available about the post-Revolutionary Iranian arms industry.

At a military exhibition in Tehran in October 1988, a number of short range Iranian surface-to-surface rockets were displayed. The Oghab, a Chinese designed 25 mile tactical rocket, is one such system that Iran appears to be mass-producing.(8) Beijing is also assisting Iran with the technology to produce an 80 mile surface-to-surface missile (SSM) called the Iran-130. This is described as a solid fuel system with simple inertial guidance.(9)

Over the past few years, progress on indigenous missile production has often been reported by Iran--apparently falsely on occasion--to demonstrate that Iran is keeping pace with Iraq. For example, in April 1989, an Iranian official announced the production of a 200 km missile by the defense industries organization. He also mentioned the manufacture of the Shahin-1 and the Shahin-2, of which nothing else has been seen or reported.(10) There have also been unconfirmed reports that China and/or possibly North Korea are helping Iran develop its own Scud-B-like missile. The Iranian construction minister announced in September 1988 that the Center for War Research of the Reconstruction Jihad had "completed testing the largest and longest-range domestically manufactured missiles," perhaps in reference to this system.(11) This report is unconfirmed, as well, and might merely have been propaganda to keep Iraq from breaking the cease-fire that had just been enacted.

Iraq. UN Security Council Resolution 687, the cease-fire agreement ending the Kuwait war, has effectively quashed whatever remained of the Iraqi ballistic missile capability after its depletion by use and by extensive bombing during the war. Under the terms of the cease-fire, all missiles with a range greater than 150 km with no payload, as well as all R&D, support and manufacturing facilities for such missiles, are to be dismantled, and Iraq is prohibited from using, developing, constructing or otherwise acquiring such missiles for the indefinite future. In early July, the 61 missiles that Iraq had acknowledged remained in its arsenal were destroyed; the head of the UN mission in charge of the task said that the United Nations had no evidence indicating that the Iraqis possess any other missiles.(12) However, to alleviate any lingering doubts, the Secretary-General is mandated by Res. 687 to develop a long-term plan for ongoing monitoring and verification to ensure Iraqi compliance with its terms. Submitted in early August, this plan permits the UN Special Committee overseeing implementation of the resolution a continued intrusive presence in Iraq--including anywhere, anytime inspections of any facility--as well as aerial overflight rights.

Libya. Libya's maximum current missile capability is provided by the highly inaccurate 200 mile range Scud-B missiles obtained from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. This oil-rich country has a very low level of industrialization overall and no discernable domestic arms industry.

Reports of an indigenous missile production program in Libya are persistent but highly doubtful, based mainly on the work of the West German firm OTRAG in Libya in the late 1970s to early 1980s. OTRAG apparently had one or two rather unsuccessful tests of a 300 km range missile there in 1981(13), before leaving Libya under pressure from the Bonn government.(14) According to the London Sunday Correspondent though, the head of OTRAG, Lutz Kayser, remained in Libya, working for the government until the mid-1980s.(15) The London report further claimed that about 100 German engineers were then (October 1989) working on a 300-450 mile missile system, code-named "Ittisalt," in a desert camp about 60 miles from Sebha,(16) the site of the earlier OTRAG work.

Whatever its current status, clearly Qadaffi is interested in indigenous missile development. In a speech to university students in June 1990 he said, "We must work day and night and step up our efforts to conquer space.... The United States puts satellites over our heads and tries to prevent Libya from reaching space and getting to the skies over America or England or occupied Palestine. Let's not lose any time. We are facing very dangerous challenges."(17) Equally clearly, though, any such development will depend on Western technical aid and equipment and an ICBM would be a long way off.

North Korea. The Pyongyang government first received Scud missile systems from Egypt in mid-1976, in return for North Korean assistance to Egypt in the Yom Kippur War. North Korea began producing a slightly improved version Scud missile--often referred to as a "Scud-C"--indigenously in 1987 and exported an estimated 100 to Iran during the Gulf War(18) and perhaps another one hundred since.(19) In early 1991, North Korea also transferred an unknown quantity of these missiles to Syria.(20)

North Korea is working on a further refinement of the Scud, called the Scud improvement program or "Scud-PIP." This missile, which apparently has not yet been successfully flight tested(21), is reported to have a range of around 600 km and a substantially improved guidance system over the highly inaccurate Scud-B.(22)

Syria. Over the past two decades Syria has received large amounts of military aid from the Soviet Union, including Scud-Bs in the early 1970s and 75 mile range, accurate SS-21 missiles in 1983. Since 1989, this Soviet largesse has been sharply curtailed. Syria is a very poor country, with a low level of industrialization and no arms industry to speak of. There have been no reports of indigenous missile production in Syria, but allegations that Damascus might be trying to import the M-9 short-range ballistic missile from China persist. According to a high ranking State Department official, Syria did take delivery of some North-Korean produced Scud missiles early this year.(23)


1. Steven Hadley, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International and Security Policy, stated that 18 countries currently have ballistic missile capability, and that that number will rise to about 24 by the year 2000 (Joint DOD/SDIO briefing on GPALS, 12 February 1991); Thomas Brooks, Chief of Naval Operations, stated that "By the year 2000, at least 15 Third World countries are expected to have acquired TBMs" (Testimony before HASC on Intelligence Issues, 7 March 1991); William Webster, Director of Central Intelligence, stated that by the year 2000 "as many as 15 countries could be producing their own ballistic missiles" (Speech at Amherst Association of New York, 22 May 1991). Webster's speech writer later clarified that the 15 countries are worldwide, and not just in the Third World (private communication).

2. Current US missiles typically require 20-30 flight tests and three or more years of development after the first flight test until they are operational, even though the US has a sophisticated technology base and extensive experience building missiles (Steven Flank and John Pike, private communication). India has been working for over a decade to develop their space-launch vehicle, which is still not operational, even with considerable help from the US, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union (G. Milhollin, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (August 1989), pg. 31).

3. All of the rhetoric aside, China's recent sale of short range, 140 km missiles to Pakistan would not violate the MTCR and does not run counter to this pledge.

4. Congressional Record, 31 Jan 91, p. S1371ff. McCain also includes Vietnam, which is not considered to be a potential ballistic missile state.

5. David B. Ottaway, "Kabul forces gain combat edge," Washington Post, 27 June 89, p. A11.

6. The Military Balance 1989-90, IISS, p. 190.

7. A.T. Schulz, "Iran: an enclave arms industry," in Brzoska and Ohlson eds., Arms Production in the Third World, SIPRI, 1986 pp. 147-161.

8. Joseph Bermudez and Seth Carus, "Show throws light on Iran's arms industry," Jane's Defence Weekly, 19 Nov 88, pp. 1252-53.

9. Robert D. Shuey et al., Missile Proliferation: Survey of Emerging Missile Forces, CRS Report for Congress, 3 October 1988, p. 48.

10. IRNA, 17 Apr 89, FBIS-NES 18 Apr 89, p. 52.

11. Tehran domestic service, 24 Sept 88, FBIS-NES 26 Sept 88.

12. INA 7 July 91 in FBIS-NES 8 July 91, p. 22.

13. Judith Miller, "US reported concerned over uses of commercially produced rockets," New York Times, 12 September 1981.

14. Aaron Karp, "The frantic Third World quest for ballistic missiles," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 88, p. 19.

15. The Sunday Correspondent (London), 8 Oct 89, FBIS-WEU 10 Oct 89, p. 12.

16. Ibid., p. 11

17. Bill Gertz, "2nd chemical arms plant spied in Libya," Washington Times, 18 June 90, pp. A1, 6.

18. Kugbanggwa Kisul, No. 127 (Sept 89), FBIS-EAS 29 Nov 89.

19. Bill Gertz, "US: Iran fired ballistic missile," Washington Times, 24 May 1991, p. A5.

20. Testimony of Reginald Bartholomew, Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs, before a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, 25 July 1991.

21. Bill Gertz, "North Korean Missile Apparently Blows Up," Washington Times, 5 July 1990.

22. Aaron Karp, "Ballistic Missile Proliferation," SIPRI Yearbook 1991, p. 319; Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., "New Developments in North Korean Missile Program," Jane's Soviet Intelligence Review, August 1990, p. 343.

23. Bartholomew testimony, 25 July 1991.

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