A Flight Test Ban as a Tool for
Curbing Ballistic Missile Proliferation

Lora Lumpe

INESAP-Information Bulletin No. 4, January 1995

The United States and Soviet Union considered limitations on testing ballistic missiles throughout most of the history of the cold war. Restrictions were eventually adopted in the ABM, SALT II, INF, and START treaties.

A missile flight ban would now prove a useful tool to slow (or halt) further missile proliferation. A testing prohibition would be effective because: a) flight testing is essential to achieve any degree of confidence that a ballistic missile system under development will work as intended; and b) such a ban would be more readily verified than any other arms control agreement imaginable.

Need for Testing

The procurement route, range, sophistication, mission and payload of ballistic missiles all dictate different flight testing requirements. The U.S. Navy and Air Force put new strategic nuclear missiles through elaborate testing sequences.[1] For several reasons developing countries do not undertake such extensive testing procedures. A primary limiting factor is cost. A testing infrastructure is expensively], and so are the missiles expended in tests. Moreover, the emerging norm against missile exports makes finding resupply increasingly difficult.

Second, the vast majority of developing country ballistic missile systems were imported. Purchasing countries generally deploy them with little or no testing since the missiles were fully tested by the producer. For example, Saudi Arabia purchased an estimated 50 CSS-2s from China in 1988, and no operational flight tests this 2,400 km range missile from Saudi soil has been reported.

Finally, most developing country missiles are or short range and conventionally armed. Possessor countries have used them as deterrents, or as counter-city weapons of terror. Neither mission requires extensive testing to achieve the high degree of accuracy and reliability needed for counter-silo nuclear weapons.

Because of the lack of testing by newly ballistic-missile-capable countries, some analysts have asserted that testing restrictions would be of little utility in curbing missile proliferation. However, the third world missile development or upgrade programs of greatest concern--those aimed at achieving accurate inertial guidance, solid fuel and multi-staging--must flight test. And, in fact, those few developing countries that are pursuing long-range missile or space launch capabilities (Brazil, India and Israel) have serious, methodical flight testing programs, albeit with fewer flights and at less cost than the superpowers' programs.

As the Indian and Israeli military establishments know, zero flight testing of a missile under development will result in zero confidence that the system is functional. Moreover, achieving an acceptable degree of confidence in the reliability of a system, and characterizing its accuracy and performance under varying conditions, requires operational flight testing.

Although media reports often refer to the 'improved accuracy' of third world missiles, without a significant and highly visible testing program, such claims must be treated with skepticism. The measure of accuracy, circular error probable (CEP), cannot be determined by a single test; CEP can only be estimated by firing a substantial number of missiles at predetermined aim points. Accuracy can be compromised by subtle imperfections in machining, calibration or system engineering, and most developing countries do not have or do not produce missiles in quantities sufficient to support testing at the rates required to assess progress in the refinement of guidance systems.

The absence of testing may be considered prima facie evidence that some alleged missile capabilities are non-existent. Developing country missile programs have often been exaggerated for political reasons--both by the alleged proliferators (for reasons of deterrence or prestige) and by developed countries (to justify certain military programs and to support arms sales to allies.) A clear distinction must be made between the 'real' developing country missile programs (like those in Israel and India) and those chimeric programs which appear to lack rigorous (or in some cases apparently any) testing.

Most notable in this regard, perhaps, are exaggerated, or at least unproven, claims of North Korean ballistic missile prowess. The functionality, let alone reliability and accuracy, of North Korean-made missiles is uncertain, at best. According to one report, Scud missiles manufactured by North Korea and shipped to Iran in the early l990s were inoperable, and Iran returned the missiles.[3] The Nodong I missile appears to have been successfully flight tested once (in May 1993 to a range of 400-500 km) and unsuccessfully tested once. As it is allegedly a further modification of the Scud,[4] few tests might be needed, but more than one flight test would be expected for a serious weapons program.

Similarly, allegations of missile production by several countries in the Middle East are not supported by available information on flight tests. Whether this is because tests are not occurring, are not being observed or not being reported publicly is difficult to determine.

Alternatives to Testing

The number of flight tests needed to develop and obtain confidence in a ballistic missile is decreasing over time. This decline is due to the accumulation of knowledge and the development of improved alternative techniques for evaluating missile systems. Better instrumentation and analysis methods are applied to static firings of the rocket motors; and more sophisticated simulations of launch and flight are applied to workouts of the guidance and control systems. In addition, continually increasing computational capabilities streamline the development process by aiding design, development and evaluation.

Political considerations have also driven down the numbers and restricted the possibilities for testing. For example, over flights of the continental United States are problematic, and a static testing procedure called Simulated Electronic Launch of Minuteman was introduced to compensate partially for the lack of flight tests fired from active-duty silos.

The transfer of knowledge from non-military space activities to military missiles may also reduce flight testing requirements. Farooq Hussain states that, "The development of very reliable launchers, for both satellites and manned spacecraft, with a minimum number of flight tests has always been the philosophy of NASA. The United States' aerospace industry has now learned the methods by which very high reliability can be attained essentially without a flight-test requirement or with only a nominal one."[5]

The trick, according to Hussain, is to "introduce a large amount of redundancy in back-up systems." However, this "very high reliability" is purchased only at a cost that would be prohibitive for most military systems. Redundancy means dead weight, and a multiplication of system cost and complexity. A typical commercial launch is carried out only under the best weather conditions, and only after the rocket has been examined by an army of technicians. Moreover, the continuing series of unmanned launches, using rockets with long histories such as Atlas, Titan and Delta, is itself a de- facto testing program from which information is obtained to improve the rockets and their operational use. Even so, major upgrades of these systems have been accompanied by an expensive and embarrassing series of failures.

Robert Sherman notes that "The history of missile development is replete with examples of new missiles and new technologies which per- formed well in computer simulation and ground testing, but which revealed unpredicted - and probably unpredictable - fatal defects in flight testing."[6] Of the eight new strategic missiles first tested in the 1980s (MX, Trident II, Pershing II, SS-24, SS-25, SS-N-20, SS-N-23 and an SS-18 follow-on), all but two failed their first flight tests. The MX missile's inertial guidance system per- formed "brilliantly" in early development tests, but its accuracy fell off when the production team took over production of the missiles from the development team, according to Sherman. Without flight testing, every new weapon or component risks catastrophic failure with a high probability.


A comprehensive flight test ban (FTB) would be far easier to verify than existing arms control undertakings. As then CIA Director William Webster acknowledged in May 1989, "The status of track than nuclear weapons development. New missile systems must be tested thoroughly and in the open...." [7] US early warning satellites can reliably determine whether missiles are or are not being flight tested.

In the past few years the US military has diverted increasing intelligence assets to cover developing countries and regions considered dangerous. US Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites equipped with infrared sensors reportedly detected all Iraqi Scud launches during the 1991 Gulf War. In addition, Airborne reconnaissance aircraft and the E-8A Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) detected missile activity during the war. The US Air Force is now creating a data base on radar measurements of the exhaust plume of various missiles, and Los Alamos National Lab is developing a transportable light detection and ranging (LIDAR) system which can rapidly and accurately identify missile exhaust plumes.

Although little discussed, restrictions on static testing of rockets could also be used as a verifiable measure of compliance with a pledge to forgo missile development. Static tests of rocket motors, which generate vast clouds of hot exhaust gases, are usually conducted in the open. Both infrared and chemical signatures, as well as direct observation of test stand facilities, would make possible their detection. Hiding or camouflaging such test would not be impossible, but would require costly facilities that would be themselves vulnerable to detection by reconnaissance or human intelligence. Implementation of such restrictions in combination with flight test ban could provide a useful confidence-building measure.

The use of possible ballistic missile components in space launch vehicles to circumvent a flight test ban would complicate such a regime. However, even if some component testing could not be prevented, the lack of complete system tests would result in w confidence in missile reliability.

Moreover, during flight tests missiles transmit a stream electronic data on the missile's performance monitors on the ground. Interception of this telemetry could expose military-related upgrades on ostensible space launcher flights. Non-encryption of telemetry should be a staple of any FTB regime. Violation of this principle might provide early indication of intention to break out of a missile A comprehensive t 1 B would involve tradeoffs between arms control effectiveness and non- interference with space activities. In order to build the strongest possible wall between ballistic missile tests and space flights, Robert Sherman and others have suggested guideposts at each stage of flight (see box at end).[8]**

Benefits of a Flight Test Ban

Agreement to a comprehensive military missile flight test ban in the near term would be one demonstration of the commitment to nuclear arms reduction which the superpowers pledged in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The entire world would benefit by decreasing the chance of accidental or intentional nuclear war through continued development of strategic missiles. A flight test ban should also alleviate the perceived need for anti- missile systems, lessening global tensions and freeing up resources that would be spent to develop and deploy such systems.

Developing countries would gain some palpable security benefits through a flight test ban. Missiles have been used extensively in the Middle East, mainly as weapons of terror and attrition against cities. Assuming non-transfer of further missiles, a testing ban would halt costly, destabilizing and deadly regional missile races.

Certain developing countries would also be relieved of anxiety about the United States and Russia re-targeting ICBMs on them. As part of its recent 'counter-proliferation' initiative, the US Department of Defense is reportedly considering fitting some Trident II D5 missiles with small nuclear weapons, as well as with conventional warheads. Talk of converting ICBMs or SLBMs to engage third world targets from intercontinental range will likely motivate some developing countries to pursue their own long range missile development as a deterrent. In addition, the development of ultra- high accuracy needed for conventional SLBMs could destabilize the US-Russian nuclear relation- ship and re-energize the qualitative nuclear arms race. A test ban would preclude these developments and would also preclude China from developing new ICBMs and SLBMs and from achieving improved guidance and a MIRV capability.

However, there are strong political interests in the United States committed to continuing ballistic the aerospace industry; the quest to develop missile defenses; and the perceived need to maintain superiority over others' strategic nuclear forces. Similar pressures-especially pressures to maintain missile industry jobs-are at play in Russia.

Undoubtedly, flight testing restrictions would hamper and even make impossible the spread of long range missile capability. The main question relevant to the feasibility of a global flight test ban regime is whether the United States and the other strategic missile states are truly concerned enough about ballistic missile proliferation to rein in their own military activities.


[1] A detailed analysis of US and Soviet missile testing programs and the impact of missile test bans is given by U. Schelb, Raketenzielgenauigkeit und Raketenteststopp (Missile Accuracy and Missile Test Ban), Marburg: 1988.

[2] For a thorough description of the testing infrastructure required by a developing country see: Short-Range Ballistic Missile Infrastructure Requirements for Third World Countries, prepared by the Arnold Engineering Development Center, Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee, Air Force Systems Command, United States Air Force (no. AEDC- 1040S-04-91), September 1991.

[3] AFP in Chicago Sun-Times, 20 April 1993, p. 46.

[4] See D.C. Wright and T. Kadyshev, An Analysis of the North Korean Nodong Missile, Science & Global Security, Vol. 4(1994),pp. 129ff.

[5] F. Hussain, The Future of Arms Control: Part IV--The Impact of Test Restrictions, Adelphi Papers, No. 165 (1981).

[6] R. Sherman, Deterrence Through a Ballistic Missile Flight Test Ban, Arms Control Today, December 1987, p. 8.

[7] Prepared testimony of William Webster before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, 18 May 1989.

[8] See Sherman, Arms Control Today, pp. 9-10; P. Zimmerman, Verification of Ballistic Missile Activities: Problems and Possible Solutions, Working Paper 18, Berkeley, CA: Nautilus Pacific, September 1993; J. Scheffran, Verification of Missile Bans and Monitoring of Space Launches, in: W. Liebert, J. Scheffran (eds.), Against Proliferation--Towards General Disarmament, Proceedings of the First INESAP Conference, Muenster: Agenda--Verlag, 1994; O. Wilkes et al., Chasing Gravity's Rainbow: Kwajalein and US Ballistic Missile Testing (Canberra: Australian National University, 1991); V. Thomas, Monitoring Solid-Fueled Missile Production for Arms Control, Physics and Society, Vol.17 No. I (January 1988), pp.8-10; R. Howes, Monitoring the Capabilities of Third World Ballistic Missiles, in: G. Neuneck, O. Ischebeck (Eds.), Missile Proliferation, Missile Defense and Arms Control, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1993, pp. 101-113.

Measures to Distinguish Between Ballistic Missile Tests and Space Flights.

Reentry: Ballistic missile reentry vehicles approach or impact the earth at many times the speed of sound; accuracy would diminish if they were slower and spent more time in the atmosphere. High-speed reentry is not used in space programs. A test ban regime could prohibit high- speed reentry, radar-emitting reentry vehicles and terminal maneuvers. In addition, legally permissible re-entry angles could be defined to distinguish between legitimate space booster rockets and ballistic missiles and between satellite/shuttle/spacecraft re-entries and weapons payload re- entry vehicles.

Warhead separation phase: The weights and profiles of existing reentry vehicles could be catalogued, and the release of objects sharing the weight and velocity change of missile reentry vehicles could then be banned.

Boost stage: Each party to the FTB would list the length, diameter and total impulse of every missile boost stage it deploys; flights of these devices could be prohibited. Where boosters are identical to space launch vehicles, the space boosters must be displayed for inspection, counting and tagging. Tagged boosters would be granted an exemption from the test ban, provided they were not flown on a missile trajectory. When the tagged boosters were expended, all new boosters would have to be verifiably different.

All US ICBMs and the more modern of the Soviet ICBMs use solid-fuel rocket engines. Solid propellants are more stable and storable than are liquid fuels, making them more militarily useful. Through such a cataloguing and tagging system as Sherman proposes, new space launch vehicles could be required to utilize non-storable liquid fuel engines. This could be verified during flight by infrared sensors, which can determine the chemical composition of rocket propellant by its thermal signature. In addition, it may be possible to verify through national technical means the non-production of solid-fueled rockets.

Guidance-systems: Ensuring that guidance being tested on a space shuttle or space launch vehicle is not intended for an ICBM is the most formidable challenge. To deal with this, Sherman recommends internal inspection of missiles and snare vehicles.

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