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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 31, October 1998

Step-By-Step Control Over Ballistic and Cruise Missiles
By Jonathan Dean


In the new global security situation which has emerged after the end of the East-West nuclear confrontation, the possibility of attack by ballistic or cruise missiles armed with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons has been causing increasing concern.

The spring and summer of 1998 brought dramatic missile tests in Asia. Indian and Pakistani ballistic missile tests preceded their May 1998 nuclear weapon tests. In July 1998, Iran tested an intermediate-range missile, and in August, North Korea launched a three-stage missile, crossing over Japan. These events have increased international worries over missile proliferation and its possible consequences. They have also increased pressures in the United States to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty that limits defenses against ballistic missiles in the United States and Russia and to deploy nationwide missile defenses. In the same time period, United States use of cruise missiles to retaliate in Afghanistan and Sudan against Osama bin Laden's terrorist activities has drawn attention to the growing importance of cruise missiles for US armed forces - and for armed forces elsewhere.

These developments have underlined the fact that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), as a supplier regime, places limits only on the transfer of missiles and missile components and not on their possession or production by MTCR member States; that important missile-producing countries remain outside the Missile Technology Control Regime; and, more important, that there are no globally effective agreements or treaties that limit production or possession of missiles for military purposes.

Since missiles have mainly been targeted against urban centers, these developments increasingly threaten the civilian populations of larger cities in the Near East, South Asia and Northeast Asia, as well as the United States and Western Europe. In addition, policies of the United States and Russia adopted to meet their own concerns over missile proliferation have vitiated their security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon States in connection with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in connection with treaties establishing nuclear-free zones. Equally damaging, these developments are undermining the possibility of further deep cuts in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, the possibility of including China in a nuclear disarmament regime, and long-term prospects for complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Given these negative effects of missile proliferation, the United States should develop a step-by-step global system of controls on production, transfer and possession of missiles for military purposes and lead the way to its international adoption. Such a course will be very difficult, but failure to act will lead to increasingly dangerous missile anarchy and, possibly, to the collapse of the non-proliferation regime.

The Problem

While there are global treaties designed to cope with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there is no commensurate multilateral treaty to limit missiles. The main reason for this gap is a practical one. It lies in the fact that the United States, otherwise an active leader in the effort to control proliferation, continues to adhere to a strategy of nuclear deterrence based on large-scale deployment and possible use of long-range ballistic missiles. Another part of the answer, as the United States demonstrated in its August 1998 retaliatory cruise missile attack on installations connected with Osama bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan, is that the US is the world's main proliferant in cruise as well as long-range ballistic missiles. For the future, accurate, long-range cruise missiles with stepped-up conventional explosive charges are the main weapon in the Defense Department's "Revolution in Military Affairs" concept, which ties cruise missiles into a complex of observation satellites linked with ground computers. (1)

As a result, although the United States has cut back its level of deployed intercontinental range missiles (ICBMs) through implementing the START (Strategic Arms Reduction) I Treaty, it continues to actively develop missile technology while conducting a subordinate effort to control dissemination of the same technology. Russia, Britain, France and China, also dependent on missiles for their nuclear deterrents, seem content to follow this example.

But this is a short-sighted approach: Very high speed, nearly unstoppable long-range ballistic missiles remain the crucial component of surprise nuclear attack and of the continuing danger of launch on warning of nuclear armed missiles. Beyond this, the growth of ballistic and cruise missile capability throughout the world is in fact creating new dangers of missile use to deliver chemical or biological weapons, exemplified by Iraq's weaponization of chemical and biological missile warheads. Even if their potential scope of these dangers is sometimes exaggerated, the dangers are real and something has to be done about them.

Because ballistic missiles are an effective weapon against satellites, the spread of ballistic missile capability is a growing threat to the space-orbiting observation and communications satellites on which the international community is increasingly dependent. Moreover, missile proliferation is fueling pressures both for expensive missile defenses and new deterrent roles for nuclear weapons against possible missile-delivered attack. In both ways, it is creating increasingly serious obstacles to the most urgent arms control task of our time - better control over nuclear weapons.

Mounting Dangers

In his Senate confirmation hearing in January 1997, US Secretary of Defense William Cohen said proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, combined with missile capability, is the greatest threat that Americans will face in coming years.

There is some exaggeration in Secretary Cohen's statement, but not much. Weapons of mass destruction can be delivered by aircraft and also on the ground by terrorists, most of whom will in any event find it easier to use conventional firearms and explosives. However, given the favorable security situation of the United States, protected by two oceans and with only two geographic neighbors with much smaller military forces, the only means of serious, large-scale military attack on the United States for the foreseeable future is by long-range ballistic or cruise missiles.

The United States and Russia have unnecessarily continued their dangerous Cold War practice of mass deployment of launch-ready nuclear weapons as the main method of deterring nuclear attack by each other, thus continuing the risk of launch on warning by the ramshackle Russian nuclear force. Problems arose in Russia with a false alert in 1995, while in September 1998 a demented Russian conscript acting on his own succeeded in temporarily gaining control of a Russian nuclear-powered submarine. Erroneous, accidental or unauthorized launch on either side could trigger a massive nuclear exchange, with serious consequences for the entire Northern Hemisphere. To a lesser degree, similar dangers arise from the Chinese, French and British nuclear arsenals. De-alerting measures, or agreements like START to place sizable portions of the operational force in storage, or more far-reaching negotiated force reductions, could reduce or eliminate this anachronistic mutual threat, but the two governments seem still captives of Cold War inertia.

Beyond the problem of mass nuclear attack, worries about proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and of missile capability have also brought with them the specter of smaller but still crippling missile attacks using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. A frequent nightmare scenario of American defense planners is a threat of missile attack against a large American city unless the US administration acts in some indicated way. Dennis Gormley has pointed out that a new missile threat is arising from the development of cheap cruise missiles, many adapted from existing, numerous ship-to-ship missiles, and using the Global Positioning System made available by the United States. (2) For example, this development makes possible nearly anonymous attack from freighters off the Atlantic or Pacific coasts of the United States.

Although US officials understandably focus on the dangers of long-range missile attack against their own territory and population, other countries and areas are exposed to far more pressing dangers from missiles. Indian tests of the Prithvi (range 250 km) and Agni missiles (range 1,500 km) were one factor leading to Pakistan's test in April 1998 of the 1,100-km Ghauri missile, which brought most Indian cities within range - and to the subsequent Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, opening the possibility of all-out nuclear war between the two countries. Iran's test of the Shahab-3 intermediate-range missile in July 1998 recalled the heavy exchange of missiles in the Iran-Iraq "War of the Cities" of 1988 and brought Israel and most of the Mideast in range.

Both the Ghauri and the Shahab probably used North Korean, Chinese and Russian components. Indeed, North Korea is now engaging in "second generation" proliferation - export of missile production equipment. As a result, Iran has emerged as an independent missile producer, and others like Pakistan will follow. North Korea defiantly announced in June 1998 that it intends to continue selling missiles and missile components. This was followed by the test in late August 1998 of a North Korean Taepo Dong missile of which the final stage achieved a range of about 1,800 km, overflying the main Japanese Island of Honshu and eliciting a sharp Japanese reaction. This missile was apparently a three-stage missile, with the last stage using solid fuel, possible evidence that North Korea may have overcome an important hurdle of difficulty in missile production. (3) In September 1998, North Korea agreed to resume talks on missile proliferation with the United States. In interrupted talks a year earlier, North Korea had agreed to consider possible restrictions on missile exports but had never indicated what type of restriction it was prepared to consider. (4)

A report on missile proliferation issued in July 1998 by a commission of US experts headed by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld further stepped up concerns about missile proliferation and increased pressure for deployment of nationwide missile defenses in the United States. The report concluded that an earlier Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) evaluation of missile proliferation was too optimistic and that missile proliferation is both more advanced and less observable than the intelligence agencies had concluded. Among other problems, the report said, the possibility of missile production in concealed sites is greater than earlier feared. (5) Promptly, the press reported construction of a vast underground site in North Korea.

Missile Defense and Its Consequences

The increasing missile threat has motivated mounting pressure from the Republican Congressional majority on the Clinton administration to withdraw from the US-Russia ABM Treaty restricting defenses against ballistic missiles and instead to deploy nationwide missile defenses. A resolution sponsored by Senate Republicans calling for US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and deployment of nationwide missile defenses as soon as the administration is ready to do so (the administration is legally committed to have a rudimentary nationwide defense system ready for deployment by the year 2003), failed by only one vote in May 1998 just after the Indian nuclear tests and again by a few votes in September 1998. Following the Indian and Pakistani tests, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott came out for nationwide missile defense (6) as did former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. (7) Although neither India nor Pakistan have missiles capable of reaching the US, most of the supporters of missile defense in the Senate vote justified their position by referring to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, presumably on the grounds that since the existing non-proliferation regime could not prevent these tests, the US needs missile defenses. If the November 1998 mid-term elections bring sufficient additional seats in the Senate, the majority may be able to compel United States missile deployment within a few years.

Nationwide missile defense programs are expensive - the administration has thus far spent about $70 billion on missile defense of all kinds and is now spending about $4 billion a year. Their present equipment is ineffective and could be easily circumvented with decoys and chaff. However, despite the doubts of some about their effectiveness, missile defenses can be a serious obstacle to reduction of nuclear weapons. Past Soviet complaints about the United States Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program for nationwide missile defense, President Yeltsin's complaint to President Clinton about a US test of the Miracl anti-satellite weapon in October 1997, and numerous Chinese complaints about moves toward nationwide missile defenses in the United States, as well as about possible deployment of theater missile defense in Japan, document the view that missile defense can block negotiated reduction of nuclear arsenals because of fears that lower warhead levels would no longer be an effective deterrent if a potential opponent does in fact develop an effective defensive shield. In addition to promoting increases in offensive forces in order to overcome defenses, missile defenses can also be a direct form of missile proliferation. For example, the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) theater defense missile, although ineffective in seven tests so far, could be used as a surface-to-surface missile of 1,000 km range.

Underlying the arguments over deploying nationwide missile defenses is a fundamental division of opinion over United States security policy: In most cases, proponents of nationwide missile defense for the United States also support a unilateralist, independent role for the United States in international affairs. Suspicious of international agreements and of most foreign countries, they reject the multilateral arms control approaches that are the ultimate practical solution for the missile problem in favor of a "Fortress America" approach.

In addition to motivating moves toward deployment of missile defenses, missile proliferation is an obstacle to nuclear disarmament in a further way. As deep cuts in nuclear forces are made, warheads that may have been concealed by a nuclear-weapon State become more important. If the non-compliant weapon State also has available large stocks of long-range missiles, a cache of nuclear warheads could become a substantial strategic threat. This possibility could block deep nuclear cuts. Moreover, over time, if weapon States did consider reducing their arsenals to low levels, they would become increasingly vulnerable to attack by covert nuclear proliferators, especially if these proliferators also have long-range missile capability. The actual or possible existence of such capability would act as a serious obstacle to further reductions in nuclear weapons.

Missile proliferation brings other dangers. Missiles used for satellite launch and space exploration, including those operated by the US, France, Russia and also India, Israel and Japan, can be used as long-range surface-to-surface missiles. Both space launch missiles and long-range surface-to-surface missiles can be used to threaten the increasing deployment of observation and communications satellites orbiting around the earth and providing invaluable services to military and civilians alike. Space-orbiting anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons would also be a serious threat to communications and observation satellites, but they too must be placed in orbit by ground-based missiles, which remain the cheapest and most effective ASATS. Missile defense missiles make especially effective anti-satellite weapons. (8) Missile defenses in turn are a logical stage in the development of weapons in space, a goal of some proponents of missile defense.

Missile proliferation has resulted in a further significant negative development in the post-Cold War nuclear strategy of the weapon States, especially the United States. Heightened concerns about proliferation of biological and chemical weapons and the use of long-range missiles to deliver them have brought new emphasis in the Clinton administration on the potential value of missile-delivered nuclear weapons to deter or retaliate against attack by biological or chemical weapons. Consequently, the possibility of missile-delivered chemical or biological attack is now being used in the United States and in Russia as an argument for retaining large nuclear arsenals.

Moreover, in the United States, the Clinton administration's policy of deliberate ambiguity about possible use of US missile-delivered nuclear weapons in response to attack by chemical and biological weapons, and administration claims of a right of belligerent response in this connection, are undermining the value of the commitments by the United States and other nuclear-weapon States in the treaties establishing nuclear-free zones not to use nuclear weapons against countries located in these zones. Also weakened are the "negative security assurances," the cautiously worded commitments that weapon States will not use nuclear weapons against States which do not have them, commitments that the weapon States provided non-weapon States in the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, originally in 1968 and again with extension of the Treaty in 1995. (9)

This development in US nuclear weapons policy is eliciting an angry and potentially destructive reaction. For many non-weapon States, undermining the value of weapon-State assurances undermines the value of their membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Non-weapon States, increasingly frustrated with United States' moves to downgrade the value of its assurances not to use nuclear weapons against non-weapon States, are pressing in the NPT review process for a treaty-based version of these assurances. If national missile defenses are put in place in the United States, this action could for a considerable time freeze the process of negotiated reduction of nuclear weapons and probably lead to increase in the nuclear weapons holdings of countries with smaller nuclear arsenals like China, Britain and France. Developments of this kind will lead to more disaffection with the NPT by non-weapon States, perhaps to the extent of ultimate dissolution of the treaty.

There are only two ways of dealing with this expanding missile threat: Either missile defenses, which are expensive, may be ineffective, and are themselves obstacles to deep cuts in nuclear forces - or some means of curbing the missiles themselves.

Missile Limits Under Existing Agreements

The START treaties call for destruction of launchers: long-range bomber aircraft, missile-equipped submarines, and missile silos. But, except for destruction of the feared Soviet-era SS-18s in START II, they do not require destruction of the missiles and rockets that actually deliver the weapons. The START I treaty does require data exchange on undeployed missiles, but imposes no limits, with the exception of stored missiles for Russian mobile launchers. However, long-range missiles can function as reloads or in some cases be fired on their own.

The MTCR Regime

Recent missile tests have raised with increasing intensity the question of the long-term effectiveness of the Missile Technology Control Regime established by the United States and six other countries in 1987. With 29 industrialized country members in 1997 (10) the MTCR is a suppliers' regime whose members agree to restrict sale of ballistic and cruise missiles or their components - the latter are often dual-use - to other countries.

Given the United States' own dependence on ballistic and cruise missiles in its military strategy and its consequent unwillingness to restrict its own missile holdings, the MTCR has been surprisingly successful in preventing some types of missile development. After US insistence in 1993 that it would veto new candidates for MTCR membership unless they were willing to relinquish possession and production of missiles for attack, recent member States like Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa have relinquished ballistic missile production. But the MTCR has not been able to control missile development or sales by countries that are not MTCR members, including India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran. China, too, is not an MTCR member. It has given a written pledge of adherence not to export what MTCR calls Category I equipment - finished missiles - but has not yet formally agreed not to export Category II equipment - shorter-range missiles and missile components. (11) There have been difficulties with Russia, an MTCR member since 1995, following an acerbic dispute with the United States over missile engine deliveries to India. In the most recent United States-Russian missile dispute (May 1998), Russia was accused of selling missile components to Iran, and the United States imposed economic sanctions on nine Russian business concerns. (12)

As we have described, missile technology is proliferating fairly rapidly and missile ranges are increasing. When all aspects are considered, producing and deploying missiles is cheaper and less complicated than establishing and maintaining a force of modern combat aircraft. Missiles are more concealable than aircraft, more effective in penetrating defenses, and, potentially at least, more accurate.

Consequently, several middle military powers have developed or are developing ballistic missile capability. Some governments are instead developing long-range cruise missiles, some both cruise and ballistic missiles. In addition to the five weapon States, the list of countries with ballistic missile capability of over 300 km range includes some familiar names: India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and possibly Taiwan. (13) As noted, a few countries, like China, North Korea, and Russia, are selling production technology. In addition to the five NPT nuclear-weapon States, India, Israel and Japan are each conducting space probes with long-range ballistic missiles that can be adapted for weapons use.

Cruise missiles with cheap and accurate guidance systems making use of the Global Positioning System can substitute for a technological watershed as yet crossed only by the declared nuclear-weapon States, the use of multistage rockets with complex guidance systems to create intercontinental-range ballistic missiles with great accuracy, although North Korea is making considerable progress in this direction. In particular, shorter-range ship- and aircraft-launched cruise missiles can avoid these complexities. (14) India, Iran, Israel, Serbia, South Africa and Syria are among those already producing cheaper and more accurate cruise missiles of 300 km range or over.

As with the NPT, the main problem of the MTCR is that this regime is not universal in membership. India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran are not members of the MTCR (neither is Iraq, but it is constrained by Security Council limits to ballistic missiles of 150 km range). It seems probable that all of these non-member countries have developed sufficient capability of their own to be able to produce and export missiles of any range up to 3,500 km and ultimately more. Moreover, the MTCR is an export control regime. With the exception of a few post-1993 MTCR member countries which have renounced "offensive" long-range missiles, there is no prohibition in the MTCR against possession or production of missiles of any type or range by member States for their own use.

It is clear from these points that, from the viewpoint of national security, the growing number of disadvantages created by long-range missiles in the hands of others are coming closer to the point where they outweigh the benefits of missile possession for an owner State. This negative calculus finally outlawed biological and chemical weapons and is exercising downward pressure on nuclear weapons arsenals. However, this calculus works slowly. The question is, What can be done now to get a better grip on long-range missiles? Are there measures which could be taken now to reduce the danger from unrestrained missile proliferation? Clearly, the MTCR should be continued. But, can the MTCR be supplemented by some broader international action?

A Step-By-Step Program to Control Missiles

In 1986, President Reagan proposed at Reykjavik that all long-range US and Soviet ballistic missiles be eliminated. In 1987 the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty provided for elimination of all US and Soviet ballistic missiles of 500-5,500 kilometer range. But nothing came of President Reagan's proposal to eliminate ICBMs, although it has been revived from time to time by defense critics like Jeremy Stone and Alton Frye. (15) The concept of an outright ban on long-range missiles remains attractive, but it seems unlikely that the five declared nuclear-weapon States would agree to forego all their ballistic missiles in a single action, eliminating their nuclear deterrent in its current form, especially since other States which refused to sign an agreement might retain their own missile capability and long-range cruise missiles would also be available. Instead, we should probably think in terms of a step-by-step program to reduce the dangers from missiles.

As a first step, in order to accustom world opinion to this possibility, the United States and Russia could begin to talk publicly about long-term prospects of a global treaty to limit production and deployment of long-range missiles for military purposes.

Second, in the mutual security interest of both countries, transparency and full data exchange on production and holdings of missiles should be added to the exchange of information on warhead numbers and amounts of fissile material which the US and Russia have agreed should be part of START III negotiations. The START treaties already provide for some exchange of data on deployed and non-deployed ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles, though not on production of missiles. Therefore, comprehensive data exchange, although useful, would not be a major step. If the US and Russia exchange data on missile production and holdings, this information exchange might later be extended to the other three weapon States - Britain, France, and China - in the context of information exchanges about their nuclear forces.

Third, the US and Russia could add to START III or later agreements an overall limit on their holdings of longer-range ballistic missiles and also on a verified basis restrict their own missile production to replacement of missiles for military purposes on a one-for-one basis and to missiles for satellite launch and space exploration. New missile models suitable for single warheads would be permitted as substitutes for already-deployed missiles, but not missiles suitable for multiple warheads. A mutual ban on test launches of surface-to-surface missiles might be added.

These restrictions could be applied to all five weapon States as reduction agreements are negotiated among them. Transparency and production restrictions undertaken by the US and Russia - and later by all five weapon States - would considerably increase the international standing and authority of the Missile Technology Control Regime.

Air-launched nuclear-armed cruise missiles (ALCM's) are counted under START ceilings. The informal Bush-Gorbachev agreement of 1991 banned nuclear-armed cruise missiles from surface naval vessels, but cruise missiles are stored by the US for possible deployment on submarines (and there is also a Russian model). Russia is worried about US capability in this field. At the Clinton-Yeltsin summit of March 1997, Russia secured US agreement to explore the possibility of restrictions on nuclear- and conventionally-armed cruise missiles. If data exchange among the five weapon States on their holdings of ballistic missiles becomes possible, it should be extended to long-range cruise missiles. It would be desirable to seek to extend coverage to India, Pakistan and Israel and then to notify missile production and holdings of both ballistic and cruise missiles to the UN Arms Register - after all, the main producers would already have exchanged such information.

For their part, non-nuclear-weapon States could seek to raise the issue of action to restrict production and deployment of long-range missiles in the review process for the Non-Proliferation Treaty.


De-alerting - the use of agreed measures to delay launch of nuclear-armed missiles - would be a further step in missile control. De-alerting is a potentially valuable way of reducing the continuing dangers arising from mass deployment of US and Russian missiles, dangers that include unauthorized launch, launch by error or accidental launch culminating in large-scale launch on warning. (16) The reports of the Canberra Commission and the National Academy of Sciences (17) both urgently recommend de-alerting as a first step for reducing the dangers of nuclear arsenals. This possibility is being discussed by the US and Russian governments, but as yet without specific outcome.

If there is comprehensive de-alerting of Russian and US nuclear forces, it should ultimately be extended step-by-step to Britain, France and China, and to the three de facto nuclear weapon States - Israel, India, and Pakistan. A simplified, stripped-down form of de-alerting would comprise data exchange, with spot-check verification, with a commitment not to change the number or location of ground-based nuclear-capable delivery systems - and not to arm these delivery systems with nuclear warheads. Monitoring would verify that the delivery systems are not equipped with nuclear warheads and that they remain at deployment sites; warhead information exchange and monitoring, and negotiated reduction, could be left to a later stage. A large number of submarines could remain in port with warheads separated, and the number of submarine patrols would be reduced. Submarines on patrol would be confined in their patrols to distant zones far from targets, reporting their position at periodic intervals, or when on patrol be required to store their guidance systems separately in sealed containers which would broadcast periodic reports that their seals were intact.

If monitoring of delivery systems can be achieved, logical next steps would be a global no increase agreement on these deployments and the step-by-step establishment of missile-free zones. (18) This step would in turn establish the basis for a global agreement to ban testing of surface-to-surface missiles and then, also step-by-step, for a possible global treaty to restrict production and deployment of long-range missiles for military purposes. The possibility is discussed further below.

India and Pakistan

The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of May 1998 and associated missile tests make it highly desirable to extend some form of de-alerting to these countries soon, and not to wait for prior agreement on de-alerting among the weapon States. Signature and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by both these governments and their constructive participation in negotiation of a cut-off treaty for fissile material are essential, but getting there will be time consuming. Although it too would require some negotiation, some form of de-alerting may be the most rapid approach to coping with the problems of false warning, unauthorized launch or preemptive attack by either Indian or Pakistani nuclear forces, problems which will increase if these forces grow in future.

The simplest form of such a measure would be agreement by India and Pakistan to freeze the number and location of their aircraft and missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. This agreement, which could be verified by US and Russian satellite imagery, or on the ground by mixed teams of Indians and Pakistanis, plus personnel from neutral States or major powers, would also prevent warhead deployment. As part of the agreement, the security of the two countries could be guaranteed by the US, Russia and, if feasible, by China.

This approach, if agreed and implemented, would neutralize the Indian and Pakistani arsenals, eliminate the risk of surprise attack by either India or Pakistan, and create favorable conditions for ensuing negotiations.

Missile Warning System

Bruce Blair and others have pointed to the dangers of launch on warning that in particular accompany the deterioration of the former Soviet missile warning system, many components of which are located in former Soviet republics outside Russia. In a well known incident in January 1995, the Russian nuclear system moved into alert after the launch of an American-made Norwegian weather research rocket. In reaction to this incident, at a Moscow summit meeting in early September 1998, the US and Russia agreed in Moscow to provide each other with continuous information about short-range ballistic and cruise missile launch and suggested that other countries could participate.

The warning system may entail cooperation between the US North American Aerospace Command (NORAD) and its counterpart. US and Russian experts have indicated their hopes that this beginning would lead to a joint US-Russian monitoring center and later on to a voluntary international clearinghouse where all countries provide advance notice of their ballistic missile launches. (19) This highly desirable form of cooperation has been discussed many times by both governments. It is unclear whether and when the present agreement will materialize.

In theory, a worldwide missile warning system giving information on missile launches including tests would be valuable. It could be linked with exchange of information on possession and production of missiles and could focus attention on especially threatening developments. Clearly, it could also assist both defensive and offensive action against missile proliferators. Many of the concerns associated with national missile defense would be eliminated if there were a genuinely multilateral worldwide defensive system that individual countries could buy into.

Moving Toward a Worldwide Ban on Production and Deployment of Missiles for Military Purposes

The INF Treaty provides for verified destruction of all intermediate range US and Soviet ballistic missiles and for ending their production. In 1995, John Holum, the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), made a strenuous effort to move toward negotiating a worldwide INF Treaty, but was unsuccessful in gaining administration support for this concept. Most officials of the Clinton administration then preferred to rely on the MTCR. They believed an attempted missile ban would weaken the MTCR, and also doubted that the idea of a worldwide treaty would attract much support if the United States and other weapon States were at the same time to retain their own strategic range missiles. And that is where matters stand today, when the only action program designed to cope with missile proliferation is the MTCR.

In considering the possibility of missile threats from so-called rogue States like Iraq and North Korea, many experts suggest that direct attack by US or allied military forces against the missiles themselves would be the most effective defense (and therefore that missile defenses could be relinquished). However, there is an obvious problem of legality with this approach unless the missile proliferator clearly threatens the US or its allies and thus justifies action in self-defense. Otherwise, there would be no internationally accepted political or legal grounds for offensive action against the missiles and the proliferator.

In the event of some dramatic missile development, it is theoretically possible to imagine a Security Council resolution to the effect that unrestricted production or possession of ballistic and cruise missiles for military purposes represents a threat to international peace justifying military action against non-complying States. But for this approach to have any chance of international acceptance, the countries which possess most of the world's missiles - the US, Russia, Britain, France and China - would have to demonstrate its advantages for other non-missile States. They would also have to describe exculpatory actions which an accused missile proliferator could take in order to avoid punitive attack.

But a Security Council resolution would be an emergency measure. This approach would have better chances if it were presented in the form of a treaty. An international treaty might have wider acceptance if the five weapon States suggested that it contain the following elements:

  • Reduction by the weapon States to a low agreed equal limit - below 1,000 - of deployed surface-to-surface ballistic missiles of any range. A low equal limit would probably be necessary to achieve Chinese agreement.
  • New missile production would be limited to one-for-one replacement or strictly verified missiles for space exploration or satellite launch.
  • Verification would be by a multilateral agency to include representatives of non-missile countries.
  • The missile States would operate a worldwide missile warning system to whose output all States would have access.
  • The missile States would provide other countries verified low-cost launch for satellite and space probes with their surplus missiles. On a verified basis, other countries could construct missiles for space exploration or satellite launch.
  • The missile States would provide advice and assistance for short-range missile defense.
  • The missile States would commit themselves to act jointly if the Security Council declares a threat to peace through missile proliferation.

Missile Control as Part of Deep Nuclear Cuts

The proposed treaty would not preclude verified production of missiles for non-military uses - satellite launch and space exploration - by States other than the five weapon States, but these non-weapon States would have to agree to use both existing missiles and new production only for space exploration and satellite launch and to place production, storage and launch of missiles under international monitoring.

Long range ballistic missiles are large and, if accuracy is desired, have to be tested in a highly visible way detectable by satellite imagery. Verification of a treaty restricting production of long-range ballistic missiles would mean continuous portal-perimeter monitoring at the facilities at which first-stage motors for ICBM, Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) and space-launch motors are made. At present, this monitoring is the most costly part of the INF Treaty verification arrangements. Remote monitoring of the portals and perimeters and tagging of the first stages during visits, when a certain number of first stages were ready to be delivered, might be less costly. Testing of new types of surface to surface missiles would be forbidden. Reliability testing for missile engines would be on stationary stands and field tests of permitted surface to surface missiles would be without reentry vehicles. Missiles produced for space exploration and satellite launch would be limited in number and production, storage sites and actual launches would be checked.

Because the nuclear-weapon States would each retain up to 1000 ballistic missiles under this approach and other countries would not be permitted long-range missiles for military purposes, the proposed treaty, like the NPT, would contain an element of inequity. However, the degree of inequity in the proposed missile treaty would be far smaller than in the NPT, where there is no global limit on the number of nuclear warheads the weapon States may deploy and where the non-weapon States do not participate in monitoring a control regime for weapon State warheads, as is proposed here for weapon State missiles. Moreover, the US and Russia would be making deep cuts in their missile holdings under this program and the other inducements described here would be important. The weapon States might also propose to eliminate all of their ballistic missiles in a later stage if the reduction scheme worked satisfactorily.

It may be possible to solve the problems of adherence to such a missile treaty by Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Israel, India, and Pakistan, all with nuclear capacity, might resist participation, especially as regards the requirement to restrict future production of long-range missiles to space and satellite launch. Nonetheless, it would be legitimate to ask these countries to follow the example of the declared weapon States in foregoing production of additional new missiles for military purposes except for replacements, and to place their existing missiles and aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons in monitored sites. If the five declared weapon States had already acted to do this and mobilized world opinion behind this approach, it would be hard for the three de facto weapon States to refuse to reciprocate.

It would be highly desirable to ban long-range cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles and this possibility should be seriously explored. However, because they are seen as alternatives to piloted fighter-bombers for conventional missions, resistance to a cruise missile ban by the United States and other countries already equipped with cruise missiles would probably be considerably greater than their resistance to restrictions on production of long-range ballistic missiles. Moreover, because it is easy to increase the range of cruise missiles by decreasing the weight of the payload or adding fuel capacity, verification of a 100-mile range limit for cruise missiles would be difficult. In the light of these difficulties, it is suggested that, in the first stage of a worldwide missile treaty, the level of operational deployment of cruise missiles be frozen and that negotiation of elimination be left to a second stage.

An alternative approach to basing the proposed treaty on prior missile cuts by the United States and Russia would be to seek to use the MTCR as the kernel of a worldwide agreement to be launched now - without waiting for the weapon States to make deep cuts in their deployed missiles. If this course is to be attempted, the weapons States would at a minimum be expected to declare a freeze on their own production and deployment of long-range missiles for military purposes and to provide other benefits described above.

Benefits and Drawbacks

If a worldwide treaty restricting production, possession and deployment of long-range missiles for military purposes can be negotiated and implemented, it would have many benefits. These include:

  1. Especially for larger countries like Russia, the United States and China, in combination with the de-alerting approach described above, a missile treaty would nearly end the possibility of large-scale surprise attack by nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. It would greatly increase the security of countries like Israel. Attack by bomber aircraft using gravity bombs would remain possible, but would be easier to defend against;
  2. The treaty would sharply reduce the possibility of long-range attack by covert proliferants;
  3. It would remove an important obstacle to deep cuts in nuclear weapon arsenals and to their ultimate elimination;
  4. It would partially solve the problem of protecting observation and communication satellites from attack;
  5. It would enable countries throughout the world to save large sums of money for defense against ballistic and cruise missiles;
  6. It would permit nuclear-weapon States to give more forthright negative security assurances to non-nuclear States.
Nonetheless, a worldwide treaty as described would also have several shortcomings:
  1. It would leave attack aircraft without limits and might well promote their increase.
  2. With the important exception of de-alerting, the chance is slim that the United States and other weapon States would be willing to sharply cut back their missile holdings independent of prior agreement on nuclear cuts. However, a dramatic missile incident could improve these prospects.
  3. Although it would be to their security advantage, the proposed treaty to limit production of missiles for military purposes would probably not be attractive to many current missile producers like India, North Korea and Iran; considerable pressure might be needed to gain their agreement.
  4. Cruise missiles are a particular negotiating and verification problem because they can be quite small and easily concealed, and in many cases do not need to be flight-tested.
  5. Satellite launch is an expanding business. Verification of missile production and use for satellite launch and space exploration would be quite possible but would add complexity to the missile control scheme.


Weighing these advantages and disadvantages, the benefits of controlling long-range missiles seem so large that they justify continued serious search for effective ways of controlling these weapons. As suggested earlier in this paper, the US and Russia could lead the way to a series of individual missile control steps beginning in a START III agreement and launch a worldwide discussion of a possible treaty to control missiles and support for it. A worldwide de-alerting program would provide a possibility of freezing the deployment of nuclear-tipped missiles and could lead to data exchange and later negotiated reduction of these weapons. If the weapon States were prepared to go so far, they could seek to convert this effort to a worldwide program of de-alerting all ballistic and cruise missiles of over 100-mile range, including those used with conventional warheads.

Other possible controls on long-range missiles should be studied. The main requirement is to stop considering the existence of these weapons as a given and unchangeable aspect of international security and to seek to do something more effective about the many problems that they cause.

Notes and References

1. The concept and its implications are reviewed in Lawrence Freedman, "The Revolution in Strategic Affairs", Adelphi Paper 318, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1998.

2. Dennis M. Gormley, "Hedging Against the Cruise-Missile Threat," Survival, vol. .40, no. 1, Spring, 1998.

3. Bradley Graham, "North Korean Missile Threat is Reassessed," Washington Post, September 25, 1998.

4. Thomas Lippman, " US Sets Accords with North Korea, Aiming to Defuse Tensions," Washington Post, September 11, 1998.

5. Executive Summary of the Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, July 15, 1998, Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States.

6. Statement, Office of Senator Trent Lott, May 29, 1998.

7. Op-ed, "India and Pakistan: After the Explosions," Washington Post, June 9, 1998, p. A15.

8. Fred Iklé, "Can Nuclear Deterrence Last Out the Century," Foreign Affairs, January, 1973, Vol. 51, Issue 2.

9. "Expanding Nuclear Options: Is the US Negating Its Non-Use Pledges?", George Bunn, Arms Control Today, May/June 1996; "Moving Toward 'Legally Binding' Negative Security Assurances," Letter to the Editor, George Bunn, Arms Control Today, March 1998.

10. The 29 MTCR members are: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States.

11. See the useful article on the MTCR in "Tracking Nuclear Proliferation", Rodney Jones et al., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1998.

12. "US Imposes Curbs on 9 Russian Concerns," New York Times, July 16, 1998.

13. IISS Force Balance 1995-96, p. 281; Proliferation: Threat and Response, US Department of Defense, November, 1997.

14. Gormley, op. cit.

15. Jeremy Stone, "Revisiting Zero Ballistic Missiles - Reagan's Forgotten Dream," F.A.S. Public Interest Report, Vol. 45, No. 3, May/June 1992; Alton Frye, "Banning Ballistic Missiles," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 6, November/December 1996.

16. Details are in Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel, "Taking Nuclear Weapons Off Hair-Trigger Alert," Scientific American, November 1997; Jonathan Dean, "De-alerting: A Move Toward Disarmament," UNIDIR NewsLetter, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva, July, 1998.

17. Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Commonwealth of Australia, August 1996; Committee on International Security and Arms Control, National Academy of Sciences, The Future of US Nuclear Weapons Policy, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1997, pp. 79-83.

18. Jeremy Stone has suggested that a worldwide missile freeze might be an appropriate response to the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998 (News Release, Federation of American Scientists, May 14, 1998). He has also proposed missile free zones.

19. Walter Pincus, "US, Russia May Swap Data on Third-Party Missiles," Washington Post, September 1, 1998.

Jonathan Dean is Adviser on International Security Issues to the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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