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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 54, February 2001

The MTCR and the Future of Ballistic Missile Non-Proliferation

By Mark Smith


At the Russian-US summit in June 2000, Presidents Clinton and Putin agreed "that the international community faces a dangerous and growing threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, including missiles and missile technologies" and stressed "their desire to reverse that process, including through existing and possible new international legal mechanisms". By equating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missiles as key concerns, the two leaders acknowledged one of the most significant developments in international military security over the last five years or so, and seemed newly interested in using arms control as a means of addressing it.

Efforts to find new ways to tackle the problem have been driven by a threefold crisis in strategies for coping with ballistic missile proliferation. First, the proliferation of such missiles was perceived to increase.1 Second, the existing international regime to promote the non-proliferation of ballid urgency to the search for durable diplomatic solutions. Over the course of the last year, these three factors combined to compel the MTCR to formulate a Draft Code of Conduct on Ballistic Missile Proliferation, a CBM-based initiative designed to establish the basis for a non-proliferation regime on missile activities.

The Problems of the MTCR

The MTCR is clearly declining in effectiveness. The evidence is, or seems to be, all around. The US Defense Department recently released its assessment of the horizontal and vertical proliferation of missile technology, the opening sentence of which set the tone of the report: "In virtually every corner of the globe, the United States and its allies face a growing threat from the proliferation and possible use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and their delivery systems".3 The proliferation of delivery systems is supplied by indigenous development, imports from outside the MTCR, and allegedly by transfers from some MTCR members or adherents. The CIA Director, George Tenet, testified to the Senate recently that the "three major suppliers of missile or WMD-related technologies continue to be Russia, China and North Korea".4 Tenet's remarks are representative of official thinking in Washington, as was evinced by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's recent public remark that "Russia is an active proliferator. They are part of the problem. They are selling and assisting countries like Iran and North Korea".5

However, missile proliferation is less a problem of ineffectiveness in the MTCR arrangements than a symptom of the incompleteness of the global missile non-proliferation regime. Unlike other regimes, missile non-proliferation is currently based solely on supply-side constraints; there is no missile equivalent to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Thus, in practical terms, the MTCR is not a norm-setting organisation: it can only be effective whilst key technology remains solely in the hands of member states. This is no longer the case, and has not been for some time.6 Moreover, the emerging missile-capable states, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria, may follow the DPRK (North Korea) to become suppliers as well as consumers.7 These states are unlikely to want to join the MTCR, and thus the engine of missile proliferation could soon lie outside the parameters of the regime. This is likely to be compounded by a danger inherent in supply-side strategies: in the absence of demand-side regimes, incentives for others to enter the suppliers market increase. Supply-side strategies alone may therefore help to create the conditions for their own failure.

The MTCR also suffers from a serious image problem: whilst it may be founded on the principle of non-proliferation, in practice it is a cartel to prevent non-members gaining access to technology possessed in abundance by some members. The effect of this on the possibility of a non-proliferation norm on ballistic missiles should not be under-estimated, since it both perpetuates and reinforces the perception that non-proliferation is more about preserving the advantages of the powerful than creating the basis for cooperative security.

Thus the problems facing the MTCR are essentially twofold: it was not designed to deal with the patterns and dynamics of contemporary missile proliferation, and it is, in Trevor Taylor's phrase, "arms control for them".8 It is, however, important to stress that, from the days of the MTCR's inception, supply-side restrictions were seen as partial measures, and therefore a wasting asset. The MTCR was never intended to halt missile proliferation, but to slow it down until a more complete regime could be constructed.9

If non-proliferation norms on missiles are to be promoted, there is clearly a need for a set of demand-side controls - bilateral, regional or global. Yet there are a number of operational difficulties inherent in such an aim. For example, the space launch industry is now big business: the Rumsfeld Commission estimated that 1,697 satellites would be launched over the period 1998-2008, with a total value of $120bn.10 This means that a demand-side regime would need to find some way to separate the peaceful commercial exploitation of space from the unpeaceful pursuit of long-range missiles. This is a formidable problem: the great bulk of space launch vehicle (SLV) technology is interchangeable with that of ballistic missiles, and therefore even the most peaceable SLV unavoidably has dual use potential.

Another operational difficulty is the plethora of rationales behind ballistic missile programmes. They can be driven by, in varying degrees, export drives, regional security threats, and the long-range deterrence of intervention by extra-regional states. These differing motives make demand-side control markedly difficult, because the political prerequisites of common political motivations and strategic perceptions do not really exist. This generates the single most formidable problem facing a central regime in this area: there is simply no commonly-agreed set of norms in relation to ballistic missiles. In view of the fact that missiles are delivery systems, rather than weapons in themselves, the most workable norms are likely to be based on strategic criteria (such as those underpinning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty) rather than their inherent nature (such as those underpinning the CWC).11

Missile proliferation also tends to be opaque. The absence of commonly-accepted norms is compounded by a shortage of hard, voluntarily-offered information. This opacity means that events such as the 1998 North Korean Taepodong test have substantial political impact, since they are unexpected. Even more seriously, it means that changes in relative military capabilities can take place with little or no warning. This is particularly worrisome in the case of ballistic missiles, which seem to exert peculiarly destabilising effects as a consequence of their range, speed and links with WMD. If ballistic missile arms control is to succeed, it will be necessary to establish objective information on what capabilities exist and their stage of development (research, testing, deployment).

The difficulties created by this range of deficiencies - of accepted standards on missiles and stability, of reliable information on capabilities, of confidence in the strategic intentions of other states - are indeed formidable, but do give an indication of the requirements of a control regime on missiles: common norms, transparency, information, and confidence-building measures (CBMs).

The Context of the Code of Conduct

Over the last 3-4 years, the MTCR has shown clear signs of moving towards a new approach to complement export controls. The press release for the 1997 Plenary Meeting in Tokyo stated that "partners agreed to engage non-members in their efforts to impede missile proliferation and encourage them to observe the MTCR Guidelines", but implicitly acknowledged that many non-member states would be reluctant to engage directly with the regime: "they recognized the usefulness of contacting non-members through regional security fora and institutions". The Tokyo Plenary also took the unusual step of issuing a Joint Appeal for the support of the MTCR's non-proliferation aims, together with an Information Paper describing the role of the regime. As the Press Release had recognised the need for contacts outside the MTCR, the Information Paper addressed another increasingly sensitive issue: "MTCR controls are not intended to impede peaceful aerospace programs or international co-operation in such programmes, as long as such co-operation could not be used for the delivery of WMD".

A year later, at the Budapest Plenary, members again pledged "increased efforts by the Chairman, in consultation with the Partners to engage in dialogue with non-Partner governments", and implicitly acknowledged the MTCR's elitist image: "Partners agreed that their goal should be to make [the MTCR] more transparent and more known to the outside world. As the MTCR is not sufficiently familiar in some quarters, there may be erroneous perceptions about its objectives". The 1999 Plenary, at Noordwijk, made similar pledges to continue outreach activities, but differed in being much clearer about what this would entail and what the result would be. It favoured roundtables and seminars with non-members, and it was anticipated that the Chairman of the MTCR would formulate "recommendations for further action" in time for the 2000 Plenary in Helsinki.

It was therefore evident that the Helsinki Plenary would result in some form of decision. Outside the MTCR, 2000 saw a number of other initiatives with similar objectives. These initiatives give some indication of the growing international momentum behind the search for acceptable norms and controls on ballistic missiles. Moreover, the fact that they were initiated outside the MTCR framework is further evidence of the way the MTCR was perceived outside its boundaries.

Non-MTCR Initiatives

(i) UN Debates.

UN Resolution 54/54 F of December 1999 instructed the Secretary General to seek the views of member states on "the issue of missiles in all its aspects". By August 2000, only seven states, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Japan, Jordan, Qatar, and the UK, had responded, but their replies are revealing.

India, a non-member and long-standing critic of the MTCR, responded that: "To date, security challenges relating to missile proliferation have been met with selective and discriminatory approaches consisting mainly of technology denial regimes...There is today a need for a global, inclusive, non-discriminatory and genuinely multilateral arrangement". The Indian response did not mention the MTCR at all, and insisted that any transparency measures "should strengthen the norm against proliferation while ensuring that civilian space applications are not adversely affected". Contrast this with the Japanese response: "Japan attaches a high degree of interest to strengthening the international efforts for the prevention of missile proliferation. The Missile Technology Control Regime plays a key role in this respect".12 The British response to UN Resolution 54/54 F also stressed the role of the MTCR, but went further: "Making development of SLVs more transparent would be a first step towards addressing more contentious issues. It would aim at providing the highest possible level of confidence that states engaged in legitimate space activity are doing just that, and not legitimising covert ballistic missile programmes. States should also examine how to promote restraint and roll-back of military ballistic missile programmes".13

The Iranian response emphasised the lack of multilateral agreements on missile programmes and the dual use nature of the technology, but went a step further in proposing an immediate course of action. It called not only for further enquires by the Secretary General, along the lines of Resolution 54/54 F, but also the establishment of a panel of governmental experts to study the options for a global approach to missile proliferation. It was this proposal that led to the First Committee's resolution to set up a UN Study Group to examine the drivers of ballistic missile proliferation, and potential control measures.14 That such an exercise was deemed necessary is evidence of the dearth of reliable information and accepted norms surrounding missiles. It was also striking that the study group was proposed by Iran, a leading "state of concern" in the eyes of the US, and whose Shahab ballistic missile programme seemed to bear all the hallmarks of secondary proliferation. This, and the lack of a link with the MTCR, probably explains why the only MTCR members to vote in favour of the resolution were Russia and South Africa. The other members abstained, although all spoke of the need to develop new ways to tackle missile proliferation.15

The contributions by non-MTCR members in the First Committee debate on the resolution tended to stress the need for "non-discriminatory" measures, for which read 'non-MTCR measures'. Pakistan's response was possibly the most forthright: "states which reserved the right to deploy thousands of missiles were now seeking to prevent developing countries from developing missiles for legitimate self-defence. The international community must resolutely resist that discriminatory trend. The need to promote the peaceful uses of missile technology was not adequately covered in the draft resolution. Pakistan hoped the resolution would allow the evolution of greater equity in the field of missiles".16

This view of the MTCR appears to be widespread: India and Pakistan spoke for many in saying what they did. To change its discriminatory image was thus a key challenge for the MTCR, as was the need to be equitable: members could not be seen to be advocating commitments that they were not prepared to take on themselves. A second challenge was to somehow separate SLVs from ballistic missiles. Russia, virtually alone of the MTCR members, seemed to want to work more vigorously outside the Regime, and in fact had come up with a set of public proposals of its own: the Global Control System.

(ii) The Global Control System.17

The Russian proposal for a Global Control System (GCS) on ballistic missile activities is a package of proposals, ranging from the modest to the (over)ambitious, some of which already have considerable support within the MTCR. It aims to establish an international transparency regime on missile programmes, operating through verified launch notification schemes and managed by an international data exchange centre. This idea has wide support within the MTCR and the US was quick to pronounce itself "completely convinced" that this was the essential first step in global control of ballistic missiles. More controversial was the schedule of incentives that were included. The GCS made an attempt to move beyond simple transparency measures and put together a package of incentives for states that agreed to renounce ballistic missiles. These ranged from access to satellite launch facilities to security guarantees against missile-born WMD attack. The US was just as quick to pronounce these proposals as "infeasible", although the potential benefits of incentives were recognised.18

(iii)The Joint Data Exchange Centre.

The US-Russian concurrence on the benefits of transparency was shown by their establishment of a Joint Data Exchange Centre (JDEC), agreed as part of the Strategic Stability Co-operation Initiative drawn up last summer. The JDEC will provide near real-time exchange of information on US and Russian launches of ballistic missiles and SLVs, using a sophisticated network of early warning radars, infra-red systems and space-based sensors. Eventually it will be used for any tests of intermediate (INF) to intercontinental (ICBM) range, and will be open to "other interested parties" as the nucleus for a multilateral system.

The stated prime purpose is to provide early warning information in order to reduce the risk of false ballistic missile attack, but also to provide political-psychological reassurance by developing predictability and working relationships. Worst-case thinking tends to flourish in the absence of reliable information, and whilst provision of such information is not in itself a panacea for insecurity, its role should not be underestimated.

The JDEC will be established between two states with a long history of cooperative arms control, but there have already been calls for it to be widened to an international early warning centre.19 As things stand, it is highly likely that an expanded JDEC will be among the first institutionalised steps taken if non-proliferation norms on missiles are successfully established. If so, this would be an encouraging step, since it will be created by the states with arguably the most extensive and sophisticated experience of such operations. It has already been indicated that "other interested states" will be invited to participate in the JDEC once it is up and running.20

The Draft Code of Conduct: Aspirations and Dilemmas

Such was the international context facing the MTCR in 1999-2000: ineffectiveness of the supply-side approach, continuing resentment at the perceived discriminatory nature of the regime over both civilian and military uses of technology, a lack of consensus over norms, and other initiatives being proposed in the UN and by Russia. In addition to these political problems was the practical hindrance of the lack of clear and reliable information about missile programmes and capabilities. It was against this troubled background that the MTCR decided to move forward.

As noted above, the MTCR's press releases (one of the few public sources of information about the regime) for the last few years had given an indication of growing concern among members to reach beyond supply-side controls. The JDEC was indicative of the support for transparency measures in the US and Russia, and other MTCR members such as Britain, France and Canada voiced public support for multilateralising such measures.21 However, it is non-members, many of whom are sharply critical of the MTCR, that are the target of these measures, and thus the regime needed to work outside of its own framework. During 2000, the regime held roundtable meetings with non-members to lay the groundwork for this outreach, and at Helsinki in October it agreed the Draft Code of Conduct on Ballistic Missile Proliferation. Currently, the draft is being circulated to governments worldwide, but the reactions to it have yet to become public.

The Draft Code of Conduct is "a set of principles, commitments, confidence-building measures and incentives" designed to create a common concept of what is termed 'responsible missile behaviour', to be implemented via a multilateral instrument open to all states.22 The definitions and principles needed to be broad enough to allow states which were not part of the MTCR or the NPT, and in "sensitive areas" such as the Middle East, to sign up.23

In operational terms, the Code would "entail a number of confidence-building measures whereby each state would, as far as confidentiality allows, explain its ballistic and space policy, including its civilian space programme. Furthermore, the countries concerned would undertake to give notice to the other participating states of any tests or firing of ballistic missiles".24

There is, then, an identifiable means-end equation in the Draft Code of Conduct. The ends are in the principles - non-proliferation of ballistic missiles and the legitimacy of peaceful SLV programmes - it seeks to promote, using the means of transparency to distinguish between the two. Thus its most immediate effect, should it be widely taken up, will be to highlight those states that decline to participate. It will also highlight participating states that agree to transparency about their own missile programmes, and herein lies its first problem. If, say, Iran agreed to sign the Code of Conduct, what would the political implications of this be? If that would implicitly confer legitimacy on Tehran's missile development programme, then the Code may well turn out to be its own worst enemy, since the aim is certainly not to legitimise missile proliferation. If it does not confer such legitimacy, however, how willing will Iran be to hand over information that will probably be used against it?

This is a reflection of a deeper problem for the Code of Conduct, or of any missile non-proliferation regime, a problem that lies in setting long-term aims. What are the criteria for success? If the goals of the Code in the long-term are nothing more than the spread of multilateral transparency, then it is hard to see how it will develop a non-proliferation culture for this peculiarly destabilising technology. Transparency, to be sure, may highlight the problem areas, but it can do little about tackling the problem in itself. Moreover, transparency programmes that lack a clear strategic aim and context run a real danger of becoming legitimising devices, by implying that agreeing to exchange of information confers endorsement on behalf of the international community. If transparency is the only clear goal of a non-proliferation regime, then it is hard to avoid the implication that a state can cease to become an object of proliferation concern simply by signing up. Transparency may also generate strategic problems: a state that has achieved its missile goals can afford to be transparent about its future plans, especially if other states with less-advanced programmes make similar commitments.

On the other hand, if the aim is non-proliferation in the sense of curtailment or reduction of missile programmes, then that would mean global or regional missile bans, or at the very least abridgement of some existing programmes. A global ban on ballistic missiles would almost certainly run up against the NPT problem: any commitments by the P-5 states to eventually eliminate their missile capabilities would, to put it mildly, lack credibility. Missile-free zones would entail some states, for example India and Pakistan, giving up their missiles whilst others did not. This would be an inequitable arrangement in any circumstances, but particularly so in the case of long-range ballistic missiles, which have inter-regional reach. Pakistan's response to the UN Secretary General, cited above, is one instance of a widely-held suspicion: that the powerful few are, in fact, only interested in depriving other states of weapons which they possess in large numbers.

Thus, at this stage, global missile bans will lack credibility, whilst regional ones would be politically unsellable, especially to those states that are the focus of proliferation concern. It is not easy to see how this problem can be resolved: a Code of Conduct that does not offer the prospect of changes in missile proliferation will be of little use, but a Code that is explicitly linked to change risks being counterproductive. Placing too little weight on transparency and CBMs in international proliferation policy tends to lead to worst-case forecasting, but placing too much upon them could generate both unrealistic hopes and suspicion about motives.

There will therefore be two major challenges confronting the Draft Code. The first is how to construct a regime based upon transparency and perhaps incentives that does not risk legitimising and rewarding missile proliferation. The second, related to this, will be to avoid weakening the Code from the start by hitching it to goals that would currently be unrealistic or unacceptable. Failing to take account of the latter challenge would present target states with a fait accompli that they would almost certainly reject, whilst doing so with the former would present a similar fait accompli to states such as Japan who are highly concerned not to risk legitimising missiles such as the Taepodong. However, this is not to imply that a Code of Conduct should not have any goals. As things stand, opaqueness and unilateralism in missile proliferation are the principal barriers to a non-proliferation regime. It may be that the best criteria for success in the Code of Conduct is not the reduction or limitation of numbers, nor simply the creation of transparency, but the degree to which it helps to create the possibility of change by generating dialogue on the principles on which non-proliferation can be based.

Notes and References

1. The pace of missile proliferation is disputed. Joseph Cirincione, for example, has criticised the official US assessment, and argued that the ballistic missile threat to the United States is "confined, limited, and changing very slowly". See 'Missile Proliferation: An Intelligent Assessment', Proliferation Brief Vol. 3 (2), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 10, 2000: http://www.ceip.org/files/publications/proliferationbrief302.asp.

2. The MTCR currently has 32 member states, all of which possess either ballistic missiles or advanced ballistic missile-related technological capacities: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States.

3. Proliferation: Threat and Response, Office of the Secretary of Defense, January 2001.

4. 'CIA Director George Tenet Raises Proliferation Concerns', Arms Control Statements from the US Department of State, 8 February 2001.

5. 'Rumsfeld Deems Missile Shield System Feasible', Arms Control Statements from the US Department of State, February 15, 2001.

6. Brad Roberts, "From Non-proliferation to Antiproliferation", International Security 18 (Summer 1993), p. 143. On the same point, see Frank Barnaby, The Role and Control of Weapons in the 1990s (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 28-30. Deborah Ozga commented in 1994 that "the sweeping political changes witnessed over the last three years demand a re-examination of the regime's focus, strengths, weaknesses and ability to combat missile proliferation". Deborah Ozga, "A Chronology of the Missile Technology Control Regime", Non-proliferation Review (Winter 1994) p. 66.

7. Yuri Nazarkin, 'Implementation of Multilateral Arms Control Agreements: Questions of Compliance - The Case of the Missile Technology Control Regime', Geneva Centre for Security Policy Paper 1999-2000, p. 6.

8. Trevor Taylor, "The Arms Control Process: The International Context", in Jeffrey A. Larsen & Gregory J. Rattray, eds, Arms Control Towards the 21st Century (London: Lynne Rienner, 1996), pp. 43-4.

9. Nazarkin, p. 6.

10. Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, Appendix III: Unclassified Working Papers. At http://www.fas.org/irp/threat/missile/rumsfeld/pt3_siegert2.htm.

11. See Mark Smith, 'Missile Proliferation, Missile Defences and Arms Control', in Joint MCIS-Monterey Occasional Paper on Ballistic Missile Proliferation and Defences (Monterey Institute for International Studies, March 2001).

12. Report of the Secretary General, 'General and Complete Disarmament: Missiles', July 6, 2000, UNGA A/55/116.

13. Report of the Secretary General, 'General and Complete Disarmament: Missiles', July 6, 2000, UNGA A/55/116.

14. Report of the Secretary General, 'General and Complete Disarmament: Missiles', Addendum August 11, 2000, UN A/55/116/Add.1.

15. The resolution, 55/33A, was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 2000, by 97 votes to 0 with 65 abstentions, having been endorsed by the First Committee (L.1/Rev.1) on October 31 by 90 votes to 0 with 60 abstentions. For an analysis of the debate and vote in the UNGA, see Jenni Rissanen and Rebecca Johnson, 'First Committee Report', Disarmament Diplomacy No. 52, November 2000.

16. 'Promotion of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Status of Southern Hemisphere Called For in Draft Resolution Approved by First Committee', UN Press Release GA/DIS/3192, 31 October 2000.

17. For details of the GCS scheme see the translation of the GCS expert's meeting in Moscow last year: http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/mtcr/news/GSC_content.htm. For ongoing discussions, see Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, 'On the Outcome of the Second Global Control System Experts' International Working Meeting', Foreign Ministry Document 250-15-02-2001, February 15, 2001. See also Matthew Rice, 'Russia Proposes Global Regime on Missile Proliferation', Arms Control Today May 2000.

18. 'Response to Russian Proposal on Development of a Global Monitoring System and Expansion of Cooperation in Other areas to Track Missile and Missile Technology Proliferation'; full text available from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2000/mj00/treaty_doc.html

19. Ben Sheppard, 'The Risk Factor', in Jane's Defence Weekly, February 21, 2001, pp. 23-7.

20. Statement on Missile Launch Notifications Agreement, delivered by US Ambassador to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), February 15, 2001.

21. On the British view, see UNGA A/55/116, Report of the Secretary General, 'General and Complete Disarmament: Missiles', July 6, 2000. France, speaking on behalf of the EU, stated that transparency in the Code of Conduct would play an important role on global missile non-proliferation. Canada advocated "exploring what more could be done to increase transparency and creating global norms and codes of conduct about responsible behaviour with regard to missile development". See Press Conference by Canada, UN Press Briefing, May 2, 2000.

22. Report on Options for Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBMs), Verification, Non-Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament, NATO Ministerials December 2000, NATO Press Release M-NAC-2(2000)121.

23. 'Transatlantic Co-operation on Anti-Missile Defence', Western European Union (WEU) Assembly Report, November 15, 2000.

24. WEU Assembly Report, November 15, 2000.

Dr. Mark Smith is a Research Fellow at the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics, University of Southampton, UK.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.