Nuclear Missile Testing Galore

(Updated January 3, 2007)

North Korea may have gotten all the attention, but all the nuclear weapon states were busy flight-testing ballistic missiles for their nuclear weapons during 2006. According to a preliminary count, eight countries launched more than 28 ballistic missiles of 23 types in 26 different events.

Unlike the failed North Korean Taepo Dong 2 launch, most other ballistic missile tests were successful. Russia and India also experienced missile failures, but the United States demonstrated a very reliable capability including the 117th consecutive successful launch of the Trident II D5 sea-launched ballistic missile.

The busy ballistic missile flight testing represents yet another double standard in international security, and suggests that initiatives are needed to limit not only proliferating countries from developing ballistic missiles but also find ways to curtail the programs of the existing nuclear powers.

The ballistic missile flight tests involved weapons ranging from 10-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles down to single-warhead short-range ballistic missiles. Most of the flight tests, however, involved long-range ballistic missiles and the United States, Russia and France also launched sea-launched ballistic missiles (see table below).

Ballistic Missile Tests

Date Missile Remarks
5 Sep 1 DF-31
From Wuzhai, impact in Takla Makan Desert.
9 Nov 1 M51 SLBM From
Biscarosse (CELM facility), impact in South Atlantic.
13 Jun 1 Prithvi
Chandipur, impact in Indian Ocean.
9 Jul 1 Agni III
Chandipur. Failed.
20 Nov 1 Prithvi
Chandipur, impact in Indian Ocean.
23 May 1 Shahab
3 Nov 1 Shahab 3
MRBM, as well as "dozens" of Shahab 2, Scud B and other SRBMs
Part of
the Great Prophet 2 exercise.
North Korea***  
4 Jul 1 Taepo
Dong 2 ICBM and 6 Scud C and Rodong SRBMs
Musudan-ri near Kalmo. ICBM failed.
16 Nov 1 Ghauri
From Tilla?
29 Nov 1 Hatf-4 (Shaheen-I)
Part of
Strategic Missile Group exercise.
9 Dec 1 Haft-3 (Ghaznavi)
Part of
Strategic Missile Group exercise.
28 Jul 1 SS-18 ICBM Attempt to launch satellite, but technically an SS-18 flight test (see comments below).
3 Aug 1 Topol
(SS-25) ICBM
Plesetsk, impact on Kura range.
7 Sep 1 Bulava
Dmitry Donskoy (Typhoon) in White Sea. Failed.
9 Sep 1 SS-N-23
From K-84
(Delta IV) at North Pole, impact on Kizha range.
10 Sep 1 SS-N-18
From Delta
III in Pacific, impact on Kizha range.
25 Oct 1 Bulava
Dmitry Donskoy (Typhoon) in White Sea. Failed.
9 Nov 1 SS-19
From Silo
in Baykonur, impact on Kura range.
21 Dec 1 SS-18
Orenburg, impact on Kura range.
24 Dec 1 Bulava
White Sea. Third stage failed.
United States  
16 Feb 1
Minuteman III ICBM
Vandenberg AFB, impact Kwajalein. Final W87/Mk-21 SERV test flight.
Mar/Apr 2 Trident
From SSBN.
4 Apr 1
Minuteman III ICBM
Vandenberg AFB, impact near Guam. Extended-range, single-warhead
flight test.
14 Jun 1
Minuteman III ICBM
Vandenberg AFB, impact Kwajalein. Three-warhead payload.
20 Jul 1
Minuteman III ICBM
Vandenberg AFB, impact Kwajalein. Three-warhead flight test.
Launched by E-6B TACAMO airborne command post.
21 Nov 2 Trident
From USS
Maryland (SSBN-738) off Florida, impact in South Atlantic.
* Unreported events may add to the list.
** Iran
does not have nuclear weapons but is suspected of pursuing nuclear
weapons capability.
*** It is unknown if North Korea has developed a nuclear reentry
vehicle for its ballistic missiles.

The Putin government’s reaffirmation of the importance of strategic nuclear forces to Russian national security was tainted by the failure of three consecutive launches of the new Bulava missile, but tests of five other missile types shows that Russia still has effective missile forces.

Along with China, Russia’s efforts continue to have an important influence on U.S. nuclear planning, and the eight Minuteman III and Trident II missiles launched in 2006 were intended to ensure a nuclear capability second to none. The first ICBM flight-test signaled the start of the deployment of the W87 warhead on the Minuteman III force.

China’s launch of the (very) long-awaited DF-31 ICBM and India’s attempts to test launch the Agni III raised new concerns because of the role the weapons likely will play in the two countries’ targeting of each other. But during a visit to India in June 2006, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, downplayed at least the Indian issue saying other countries in the region also have tested missiles. In a statement that North Korea would probably find useful to use, Gen. Pace explained that “the fact that a country is testing something like a missile is not destabilizing” as long as it is “designed for defense, and then are intended for use for defense, and they have competence in their ability to use those weapons for defense, it is a stabilizing event.”

But since all “defensive” ballistic missiles have very offensive capabilities, and since no nation plans it defense based on intentions and statements anyway but on the offensive capabilities of potential adversaries, Gen. Pace’s explanation seemed disingenuous and out of sync with the warnings about North Korean, Iranian and Chinese ballistic missile developments.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) seeks to limit the proliferation of ballistic missiles, but that vision seems undercut by the busy ballistic missile launch schedule demonstrated by the nuclear weapon states in 2006. Some MTCR member countries have launched the International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation initiative in an attempt to establish a norm against ballistic missiles, and have called on all countries to show greater restraint in their own development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction and to reduce their existing missile arsenals if possible.

All the nuclear weapons states portray their own nuclear ballistic missile developments as stabalizing and fully in compliance with their pledge under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith. But fast-flying ballistic missiles are inherently destablizing because of their vulnerability to attack may trigger use early on in a conflict. And the busy missile testing in 2006 suggests that the “good faith” is wearing a little thin.

2 thoughts on “Nuclear Missile Testing Galore

  1. DW: I’m interested to know if Israel has ever tested a MRBM delivery system for use with its purported nuclear stockpile, or do you think they plan to use aircraft as delivery systems in their planned retaliatory scenarios?

    Also, I cannot help but wonder if the failed attempt of North Korea to test their Taepo Dong-II ICBM involved in any way an early “field test” of the U.S. airborne LASER launch phase ballistic missile defense system with a modified Boeing 747 as the platform. Since the test reportedly failed 20 to 40 seconds after tower clearance, that would seem to be just about right for a directed energy weapon intercept from an aircraft orbiting in friendly airspace monitoring the launch. The items raising such a prospect in my mind were the wealth of media reports about congressional concern at the time, and various action plans suggested – even to the extent of supporting some type of pre-launch interdiction strike on launch facilities by a former Secretary of Defense. Denial of test data from a succesful launch was proposed at the time as a worthy national defense concern.

    Reply: Israel’s is thought to have about 50 Jericho II medium-range ballistic missile with nuclear capability. The two-stage missile was test launched in May 1987, September 1988, and in 1989, before becoming operational. It is now thought to have replaced its predecessor, the short-range single-stage Jericho I, which was first test launched in 1968.

    Israel has also developed the Shavit space launch vehicle, which the US intelligence community believes could deliver a nuclear warhead 4,000-5,000 km, if used in a surface-to-surface mode.

    I haven’t seen information that suggests the Taepo Dong 2 was shot down. – MK

  2. WK: I find the failure rate among the other countries illustrated in the article to be some what astounding. In no way am I saying building and successfully launching a missle is easy, but 2 failures of nine for russia. one of one for NK…what are the failures? Are they due to knowledge, or more the the applied physics of pulling off the launch? My point being is that it’s hard for me to look at a weapon as a deterrent if it doesn’t work. Sure, some may argue that it only takes one, but with out consistency, it would be too easy to stop the program.

    Reply: Yes building a reliable long-range ballistic missile is not as easy as the proliferation debate sometimes makes it sound like. It is rocket science, after all. And reliability is an important factor of both deterrence and threat estimates. After two Taepo Dong 2 failures and a not so impressive nuclear test, the urgency of the North Korean threat has changed. HK

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