Arms Control Options for Delivery Vehicles

Lora Lumpe

Physics and Society, Vol 24, 2 January 1995.

During the past decade, the issue of "ballistic missile proliferation" has become high politics. With the end of the Cold War, American defense and foreign policy officials now routinely identify the spread of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles as a, if not the, primary threat to U.S. national security. The usual reasons cited for this focus are: the inability to defend against missiles and to call them off once they are released in an attack; the terroristic and indiscriminate nature of missile attacks; and the historical pairing of nuclear and chemical payloads with missiles. However, to date ballistic missiles have only been used to deliver conventional payloads, even when chemical warheads were available (in Iraq); most developing countries are no more able to defend against advanced fighter-bombers than against ballistic missiles; and, as bombing raids from World War II to recent Israeli strikes in south Lebanon have shown, aircraft also indiscriminately kill and wound non- combatants and destroy civilian property.

While policymakers have fixated on limiting the spread of ballistic missiles, they are at the same time liberally selling combat aircraft and munitions. The preoccupation with ballistic missiles appears to have much to do with psychological factors: President Reagan--during whose administration the missile focus was initiated in earnest--had a visceral dislike of ballistic missiles. And many in his and later administrations deplored the idea of the U.S. being deterred by Third World missiles from taking military actions believed necessary.

But accepting that the "threat" of ballistic missiles is as grave as purported, I believe the present approach to limiting their spread--a technology denial regime in combination with costly efforts to develop weapons and doctrine to counter them--is not adequate. I survey here several arms control/disarmament alternatives to inhibit both horizontal and vertical missile proliferation.

Missile Technology Control Regime

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is the current approach to limiting the spread of ballistic missiles and associated technologies. Initiated in 1987 with seven members, the MTCR has grown to 25, mostly European countries. The addition of Hungary and Argentina in 1993 marked the entry of developing countries. Several others--including Russia, Israel and Brazil--"ad- here" to the regime but have not been invited or do not seek to become full members.

MTCR members and adherents pledge to abide by common guide- lines on exports of dual-use missile-relevant technologies and missiles themselves. The original threshold for control was ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of delivering at least a 500 kg payload to a range of at least 300 km. In early 1993, this threshold was lowered to include any missile believed to be intended to deliver an unconventional (nuclear, chemical, or biological) pay- load. Adherents to the MTCR are to attach a "strong presumption to deny" such exports, but the guidelines permit transfers of the technologies if adequate end-use assurances are obtained. Transfer of production capabilities for these items, however, is expressly prohibited.

The MTCR has been extremely successful in establishing a norm against missile sales. Prior to the initiation of the regime, sales of ballistic missiles were routine and considered fair game. But by 1992, former CIA Director Bob Gates testified that North Korea was the only remaining exporter of ballistic missiles (although in 1993 China apparently exported missile components). The MTCR has also succeeded in dissuading some countries from pursuing indigenous missile development, but this success only extends to primarily economically-driven programs (i.e., countries that were hoping to become missile exporters). Argentina, Brazil, South Africa fall into this category. The MTCR has not and is not likely to succeed in countries with security-driven missile development programs, such as Israel, North Korea (driven by both economic and security interests), India, and Pakistan.

The MTCR is ultimately limited by the fact that it is a discriminatory export control regime, rather than an even-handed arms control/disarmament regime. For developing countries to become for- mal members of the MTCR, they are required, among other things, to renounce possession of ballistic missiles. The developed-country members of the regime are not required to do so. From most developing countries' perspectives, the MTCR does nothing to delegitimize or create a norm against possession by them of ballistic missiles. In fact, the continued hyping of the Third World missile threat on the one hand, and continued possession of ICBMs/SLBMs by the great military powers on the other, only serves to fuel perceptions of the political if not military utility of ballistic missiles by developing countries.

Given the failure of the supplier-oriented export control approach to deal fully with the spread of this type of delivery vehicle, a fundamentally new approach to the problem may be necessary. With the global political changes of the past several years, a cooperative arms control approach--involving the developed and developing world--would likely provide better results and might now be possible.

Multilateralize the INF Meaty

In 1987 the U.S. and USSR signed the INF Treaty, eliminating the two sides' intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The U.S. and Russia could introduce a draft multilateral treaty at the 39-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) to ban INF-range missiles globally. Such a treaty would be non-discriminatory in the narrow sense that everyone would give up missiles of this class.

Nearly all of the systems currently deployed by developing countries, however, would fall below the 500-5500 km range prohibition of the Treaty. The ubiquitous Scud-B, for example, would not be included. In the Third World, only the Israeli Jericho, the Saudi CSS-2, the Indian Agni (under development) and North Korean ex- tended-range Scud missiles (under development) would be covered. A regime that left their adversaries' missiles in place would likely be unacceptable to the Israelis and Saudis. And without Israeli participation, Arab countries' acceptance of such a regime is doubtful. If the former Warsaw Pact and NATO countries agreed to eliminate their short-range (110-500 km) missiles, the U.S. and Russia could PHYSICS AND SOCIETY, Vol. 24, No. I present a draft treaty banning short and intermediate range missiles to the CD.

Several problems remain with this proposal, however. Internationalizing the INF would delegitimize only missiles of a certain range. Retention by the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council of longer-range missiles makes such a regime less compelling; it would still be viewed as discriminatory. And, although it would be difficult to achieve without first developing IRBMs, the INF would leave open the possibility that countries could develop ICBMs above the 5000 km INF ceiling, which could pose a real threat to the continental U.S. Also, a few developing-country ballistic missile programs are related in part to arms races or tension with ICBM-possessing countries (e.g., India's concern with China).

A costly verification mechanism would have to be devised to implement and verify this treaty. Such an expenditure would be better justified in the case of a total ban, which would result in greater global benefits. Verifying a partial ban would also be more complicated than verifying a total ban on ballistic missiles.

Regional Missile Free Zones

It may soon be feasible for the major actors in many regions to negotiate ballistic missile-free zones. In the Middle East--where such a ban is the most difficult to envision--Arab and Israeli cooperation in the Gulf War and in the on-going Middle East peace process make such a possibility at least conceivable.

In May 1991, President Bush called for a missile ban, beginning with a halt to further acquisition, production, and testing of ballistic missiles of any range by states in the region, and leading to "the ultimate elimination of such missiles from their arsenals." And in January 1993 Israel proposed that "all countries of the region...construct a mutually verifiable zone, free of surface-to-surface missiles and of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons." Egypt, which has long supported a similar goal through the "Mubarak Plan" for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, reportedly sought to discuss bilaterally the Israeli proposal.

Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Saudi, and Yemeni civilians, have all come under indiscriminate missile attack in the past decade, thus likely increasing public support for such a ban. Further improving prospects for a ban is the fact that Iraq and Libya--two of the most worrisome ballistic missile states from the U.S. perspective--are currently under UN arms embargoes, and therefore unable to pur- chase missiles or related technologies.

In South Asia, the security community in Delhi has recently discussed proposals for a regional ballistic missile ban, and Pakistan's foreign ministry has stated its intention to introduce a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for the creation of a missile-free zone.

Many other regions of the world--including South and Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, and Antarctica--currently remain free of deployed ballistic missiles and apparently free of intentions to deploy them. Missile free zones could easily be established in these regions.

Unlike the MTCR, a regional approach would directly and actively involve Third World states in the preclusion of further ballistic missile deployments in their respective regions. Politically, this is a more stable basis for arresting missile proliferation than the present cartel approach. But in many cases these regional missile races are interconnected with superpower military holdings.

Zero Ballistic Missiles

A global zero ballistic missile (ZBM) regime, establishing a world-wide prohibition on stockpiling and deployment of ballistic missiles down to a very minimal range, of say 100 km, would effectively deal with inter-locking missile races.

Under a ZBM regime, the entire world would benefit by de- creasing the possibility of accidental or intentional nuclear war. Certain developing countries would benefit from reduced anxiety about U.S. and Russian ICBMs being re-targeted on them, as has been suggested recently. Finally, a ZBM regime would alleviate the perceived need for anti-missile systems, lessening global tension associated with defenses and freeing up a vast amount of re- sources to be spent on continuing to develop and deploy such systems.

This approach would encourage an interactive process of world disarmament, in which willingness by the Third World to forgo ballistic missiles would be combined synergistically with actions by the global military powers toward the ZBM goal. This proposal would reorient great-power arms control toward eliminating ballistic missiles, rather than warheads, and unlike past and cur- rent bilateral strategic cuts, it would also involve the United Kingdom, France, and China.

Continued superpower possession legitimizes missiles as symbol of military, technical, economic, and political prestige, and pro- vides psychological impetus to developing countries to acquire missiles. A ZBM regime completely delegitimizes ballistic missiles and would deny countries the cry that current missile control efforts are discriminatory.

How to get there from here? Some initial bold step by the U.S., Russia, and the other declared nuclear states to demonstrate their intention to go down to zero would be necessary. Such a move could be a 50 percent reduction in ballistic missile launchers deployed (and stockpiled). Further cuts, down to zero, would be made contingent on agreement by the other missile states to verifiably disavow ballistic missiles.

The U.S. and Russia (or the P-5) could hold an international missile conference at which the proposal would be presented to the global community; comment and concerns would be elicited; and a sounding taken of which countries would agree in principle to eliminate their ballistic missiles if all others in their region would do likewise. At such a conference or following it, a negotiation based on a draft treaty produced by the two could be opened at the CD.

A ZBM regime would permit the development of an indigenous, independent space launch capability by any ZBM adherent in good standing. This would leave open an important, non-weapons avenue for Third World countries to develop and demonstrate scientific and technical prowess. While international space cooperation may be more desirable from the point of view of avoiding waste and redundancy in global capabilities, some nations are going to want independent SLV capabilities for military, economic, and political reasons. Moreover, movement toward large-scale international space cooperation has not been forthcoming in the past two decades.

Ballistic missiles and SLVs are very similar. However, differences in trajectory, rocket size, guidance, propulsion, launch facilities, and infrastructure and payload do exist. These differences pro- vide the basis on which such a regime could be verified with sufficient confidence.

In order to ensure that ballistic missiles or key technologies are not being tested under the guise of an SLV development program, an international body analogous to the IAEA would probably have to be created. This inspectorate would verify destruction of existing missiles, verify end use of dual-use materials for SLV programs and inspect and observe space launches and flight tests.

Flight Test Ban

Limitations on testing U.S. and Soviet ballistic missiles were considered throughout most of the Cold War, and restrictions were eventually adopted in the ABM, SALT II, ELF, and START treaties. Flight testing limits (or a ban) might now prove to be a politically feasible and effective means of limiting the further proliferation of ballistic missiles.

The need for some flight testing in the development of any complete, modern missile system is indisputable. As Farooq Hussain (a test ban skeptic) concedes: "Certain problems--such a those associated with the prediction of ballistic trajectory bias, MIRV maneuvering and warhead re-entry into the atmosphere--can only be re- solved confidently by actual flight tests." The procurement route, range and sophistication, mission, and payload of the delivery vehicle all dictate varying needs for flight testing.

The U.S. Navy and Air Force put new strategic nuclear missiles through an elaborate testing sequence. For several reasons, developing country testing programs are not nearly as sophisticated or extensive as those of the U.S. A primary limiting factor is cost. A testing infrastructure is expensive, and so are the missiles expended in tests. Many developing countries' missile inventories are wholly imported, and it is increasingly difficult to find resupply because of the emerging norm against missile exports. A meaningful test pro- gram could easily deplete the limited missile supply of a developing country.

Second, given that the vast majority of developing country ballistic missile systems have been imported, flight testing is less necessary. Thirteen countries have imported the Soviet Scud-B, a simple, proven design, based originally on the V-2. It does not require tight tolerances in its manufacture and handling and, therefore, perhaps a purchasing country could deploy it with little or no testing.

But missile flight testing is essential to achieve any degree of confidence that a ballistic missile system under development will work as intended. Once the system has been tested adequately, operational reliability can be assured to some degree with methods other than 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 mea- sure 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, or even to iron out all the bugs and glitches that may cause catastrophic failure.

What a Flight Test Ban Could Accomplish

A few Third World countries are steadily developing substantive space launch vehicles and long-range ballistic missiles. India and Israel (and to a lesser stage of development, Brazil) have missile development programs, demonstrable through serial flight testing. Israel and India are not particularly politically worrisome to the U.S., but both have nuclear weapons. Eventual development and deployment of nuclear tipped (or possibly nuclear tipped) ICBMs by them would have far-reaching implications.

In addition, China continues to develop more advanced strategic nuclear weapons. In the 1990's, China is expected to deploy three new ICBMs/SLBMs, as well as its first MIRVed missiles. This eventuality would also be globally destabilizing. The perilous political fate of pro-Western politicians in Russia increases the desirability of a ballistic missile flight test ban.

A flight test ban would preclude continued movement by the U.S. and Russia toward exotic first strike weapons, such as high-accuracy usable capabilities, defenses, depressed trajectory/short time of flight weapons, maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRVs), and precision-guided RVs. Such research continues even while the two sides' missiles have reportedly been targeted on the oceans.

As part of its recent counter-proliferation initiative, the U.S. Department of Defense is reportedly considering fitting some Trident II D5 missiles with small nuclear weapons, as well as with conventional warheads. A long-range, kinetic energy penetrator is intended to destroy underground command and communication bunkers of potential (third world) adversaries. This plan appears to be driven by the search for a new mission for the D5, which was to have been targeted primarily on the hardened SS-18 silos, now scheduled to be eliminated under START II. The bunker-busting mission would require accuracy of 5-7 meters, which could not be achieved with out testing; on 18 November 1993 the Navy conducted a classified test of a D5 missile equipped with at least two conventional war- heads from a Trident submarine off the Florida coast.

This recurrent talk of converting ICBMs or SLBMs to engage Third World targets from intercontinental range will likely spur developing countries to pursue their own long range missile development. In addition, the development of ultra-high accuracy needed for conventional SLBMs could destabilize the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship and re-energize the qualitative nuclear arms race.

A global FTB would freeze existing ballistic missile developments, and gradually erode those holdings over time. In order to ensure that clandestine development of ballistic missiles was not occurring under the guise of space launcher tests, some special pro- visions would have to be made. However, an FTB would be more easily verified through satellite and aircraft reconnaissance than any other arms control agreement imaginable.


Each of the arms control regimes outlined above would entail costs to the great powers in terms of limiting their military options. The main question relevant to the feasibility of any of the above approaches is whether the U.S. and Russia (and perhaps France, the UK, and China) are sufficiently concerned about developing country missiles and each others' missiles that they would be willing to enter into a limitation regime. That is, do they really believe that countries of concern are likely to develop and deploy long-range missiles in the next several decades; do they fear that deployment of long-range missiles by undeclared nuclear powers will have a destabilizing enough effect to warrant limiting their own options?

If the dangers posed by the spread of ballistic missiles are a great as claimed, and merit the expenditure of several billions of dollars per year on anti-missile systems, the above measures ought to be worth exploring, especially given the end of the Cold War.

In addition to potentially eradicating the missile proliferation threat, near-term movement on any of these regimes would demonstrate much-needed progress on the commitment to nuclear arms reduction which the superpowers promised in the 1969 Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. In 1995, adherents to the NPT will decide whether and for how long to extend that treaty.

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