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Missile Proliferation

Updated: Iran’s Overdue ICBM

Updated on February 2, 2015 Iran’s launch of a Fajr (Dawn) observation satellite into orbit on February 2 will undoubtedly confuse the debate over whether or not Iran will soon have an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). It should not; this was not an ICBM-related event. The space launch vehicle (SLV) used in this launch appears to have been a modified Safir, which is based on the Shahab 3 medium-range ballistic missile with an operational range of around 2,000 kilometers. The Simorgh SLV mockup displayed five years ago would, if built, be able to carry a payload 2-3 times heavier than...

India Tests Ballistic Missile for Subs

Kelsey Davenport

India successfully tested a new, longer-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on March 24, Indian news outlets reported last month.

The test of the missile, known as the K-4, took place off the southeastern coast in the Bay of Bengal using a submerged pontoon. The two-stage, nuclear-capable missile traveled approximately 3,000 kilometers, the news accounts said.

India did not immediately publicize the missile test. But The Hindu on May 8 quoted officials who were present at the test as calling it “excellent” and saying that they would conduct “many more missions” like it to increase the reliability of the missile.

The K-4 eventually is to be deployed on Indian submarines, the first of which is currently undergoing testing.

Avinash Chander, director-general of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), said May 13 that India would be conducting a test launch of the K-4 from the INS Arihant “within the next few months.”

The DRDO is the main Indian government entity responsible for developing new, advanced military technologies.

India announced the successful development of a shorter-range SLBM, the K-15, in July 2012 and indicated at that time that the longer-range K-4 was under development. (See ACT, September 2012.)

According to the DRDO, the K-15 has a maximum range of 700 kilometers for a 700-kilogram payload.

Only four other countries—China, France, Russia, and the United States—have the capability to produce SLBMs. Although the United Kingdom deploys such missiles, they are produced in the United States.

India is planning to develop four nuclear submarines in total, and the boats are designed to carry four K-4 missiles or 12 K-15 missiles. New Delhi is planning to deploy the submarines by 2023.

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Posted: December 31, 1969

Saudi Arabia Displays Missiles

In an April 29 parade, Saudi Arabia publicly displayed two ballistic missiles that it purchased from China in the 1980s.

Kelsey Davenport

In an April 29 parade, Saudi Arabia publicly displayed two ballistic missiles that it purchased from China in the 1980s.

This display is Saudi Arabia’s first public acknowledgement of the purchase of Dong Feng-3 (DF-3) missiles.

It remains unclear how many missiles were part of the sale. Estimates range from 30 to 50.

The DF-3 was developed by the Chinese in the 1960s and first deployed in 1971. Saudi Arabia is not known to have tested a DF-3.

It is a liquid-fueled, single-stage missile with a range of about 3,000 kilometers for a 1,000-kilogram payload. It can carry nuclear weapons, but the missiles sold to the Saudis have conventional warheads. China reportedly provided guarantees to the United States that the missiles were modified to prevent them from ever being used to carry nuclear warheads.

The range of the DF-3 allows Saudi Arabia to target Iran. Some experts believe that Saudi Arabia may have displayed the DF-3 as a show of strength, given the hostile relationship between the two countries and Riyadh’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program.

Saudi Arabia reportedly purchased more-modern missiles from China, including the DF-21, a medium-range ballistic missile. No DF-21 missiles were displayed in the April parade. Reports of the sale first emerged in 2010.

The DF-21 is a two-stage, solid-fueled missile with a 2,000-kilometer range. China first deployed the DF-21 in 1991. It is considered a more reliable system than the DF-3, and its solid fuel makes it more mobile.

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Posted: December 31, 1969

South Korea Extends Missile Range

South Korea and the United States reached an agreement allowing Seoul to extend the range of its ballistic missiles. Both countries say the increase is necessary to counter the threat posed by North Korea’s missile capabilities.

Kelsey Davenport

South Korea announced on Oct. 7 it had reached an agreement with the United States that will allow Seoul to extend the range of its ballistic missiles to 800 kilometers with a 500-kilogram payload, an increase the governments of both countries say is necessary to counter the growing threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missiles.

Under a 2001 agreement with the United States, South Korea was limited to developing ballistic missiles with ranges of no more than 300 kilometers with a 500-kilogram payload. (See ACT, March 2001.) That agreement increased South Korea’s ballistic missile range from the 180-kilometer restriction that the two parties had negotiated in 1979.

Under the new guidelines, South Korea will be able to target any site in North Korea from anywhere in its own territory.

In an Oct. 7 press briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney described the extension as a “prudent, proportional, and specific response” that is designed to improve South Korea’s “ability to defend” against North Korea’s ballistic missiles.

In an Oct. 12 interview, however, Leon Sigal, a Korea expert at the Social Science Research Council, said that the increased range is “exceedingly dangerous given the state of the military balance” on the Korean peninsula and that South Korea and the United States need to clarify whether the U.S. commander in South Korea will be consulted about any use of these weapons. If the decision on use rests solely with the South Koreans, there is a greater concern for escalation in the event of an incident, Sigal said.

North Korea is believed to have several varieties of operationally deployed ballistic missiles, including the Nodong, which has a range of approximately 1,300 kilometers. North Korea also is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, although it has yet to conduct a successful test of a missile in that category. The last of these tests, which North Korea maintains was a satellite launch on an Unha-3 rocket, took place in April. (See ACT, May 2012.)

Michael Elleman, who was a missile expert for the UN team conducting weapons inspections in Iraq, said in an Oct. 15 e-mail that although Seoul’s “symbolic and psychological need to ‘mirror’” North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities is understandable, it could be done using space launchers and that theater missile defenses “to defeat or blunt” North Korean threats would have “greater utility.” Space launchers use technology applicable to longer-range ballistic missile development.

If striking targets throughout North Korea is Seoul’s priority, developing cruise missiles is a better option because they are “more accurate, militarily effective and less vulnerable to pre-emption,” said Elleman, who now is with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

A State Department official told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 18 e-mail that, under the new guidelines, South Korea also will be able to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with “greater range and payload capabilities” for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. The official did not provide a figure, but South Korean media reported that the new agreement raises the UAV payload limit from 500 kilograms to 2,500 kilograms with an unlimited range. There was no change from the existing guidelines for cruise missiles, the official said.

Impact on the MTCR

With the 2001 ballistic missile restrictions in place, the United States then supported South Korea’s admission to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The 34 member countries of the MTCR follow export control guidelines designed to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 300 kilometers carrying payloads larger than 500 kilograms.

Although the MTCR guidelines are voluntary and do not restrict countries from indigenously developing their own longer-range systems, it has been the U.S. practice to request that non-nuclear-weapon states joining after 1993 adhere to those guidelines for their own missile programs as well as their exports.

Elleman said that the damage done to the MTCR by the South Korean exception is “troublesome” but “should not be overestimated.”

In the Oct. 18 e-mail, the State Department official dismissed the possibility that the new South Korean missile guidelines would have an adverse effect on the MTCR, saying that the extension will have “no implications for other countries’ missile-related export behavior” and that it does “not impact the export control commitments” to which South Korea agreed when it joined the MTCR.­­­­


North Korean Response

The North Korean Foreign Ministry responded to Seoul’s announcement in an Oct. 10 statement saying that the United States “discarded its mask of deterring” missile proliferation by supporting South Korea’s increased missile ranges and killed efforts to restrain the development of long-range missile launches on the Korean peninsula.

The statement alluded to future North Korean launches of long-range missiles for “military purposes.” Sigal said the wording of the statement was significant because North Korea’s statements on its most recent test launches have not acknowledged a military purpose, claiming that they were for satellites.

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Posted: December 31, 1969

Missile Control: An Interview With Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State Vann Van Diepen

Vann Van Diepen has been principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation since June 2009. He has worked for 30 years on issues relating to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their delivery systems. For more than 14 years, he directed the Department of State’s Office of Chemical, Biological and Missile Nonproliferation.

Interviewed by Kelsey Davenport, Daniel Horner, and Daryl G. Kimball

Vann Van Diepen has been principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation since June 2009. He has worked for 30 years on issues relating to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their delivery systems. For more than 14 years, he directed the Department of State’s Office of Chemical, Biological and Missile Nonproliferation.

Arms Control Today spoke with Van Diepen in his office on June 18. The interview covered missile programs in countries such as Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan, as well as the impact and future of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

The interview was transcribed by Lauren Weiss. It has been edited for clarity. A condensed version appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Arms Control Today.

ACT: Thank you for doing this. We really appreciate it.

Estimates of the threat to the United States from ballistic missiles fluctuate over time, as new evidence emerges on different countries’ programs. How would you describe the current trends, and in particular, is the threat to the United States growing or shrinking?

Van Diepen: Strictly speaking, these threat assessments are really the job of the intelligence community [IC] rather than the policy community. But certainly what we’ve seen over time is that, for those countries that continue to be in the ballistic missile business and who are potential adversaries to the United States, they are working to expand their missile programs both quantitatively and qualitatively. And so you’ve seen, increases over time in the range capability of, say, Iranian missiles from 300-kilometer Scuds to 500-kilometer Scuds to 1,300-kilometer-range Nodongs, and now obviously they’re working on longer-range systems. You see the same kind of thing with North Korea. So that’s on the one hand. On the other hand, over the past 20 years, we’ve gotten a number of countries out of the business of [pursuing] missile programs capable of delivering WMD [weapons of mass destruction], and we’ve gotten yet other countries out of the business of supplying missile proliferation programs. So overall, there have been pluses and minuses on the historical track record, I would say.

ACT: Iran, which you mentioned, possesses the largest ballistic missile inventory in the Middle East, and ballistic missiles are considered to be a likely delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons that Iran might acquire. Estimates vary as to when Iran may deploy a long-range ballistic missile. Currently, Iran’s longest-range ballistic missile under developmental testing seems to be the Sajjil medium-range ballistic missile, with a range of about 2,200 kilometers. And they have a large space launch vehicle that contains technology that could be used for an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM], but it hasn’t been flight-tested. So what’s the current U.S. government assessment for the most likely time frame for the appearance of an Iranian ICBM threat to the United States?

Van Diepen: Again, those types of questions really are intelligence community questions rather than policy community questions, so I think I’d really have to refer you to whatever the latest public IC assessment may be on that question. [1]

ACT: But could you just summarize what the basic assessment is from the IC, that we have, the policy assessment?

Van Diepen: No, only because I don’t know what it is. I know what the classified assessments are, but I’m not in a position to provide those.

ACT: A similar question with North Korea but maybe we could ask it a little bit differently: Has the most recent North Korean missile flight-test failure altered the U.S. government’s assessment of North Korea’s ability to deliver a weapon of mass destruction on a long-range ballistic missile?

Van Diepen: Not that I’m aware of. Remember, for example, in roughly the same time frame that that failed test occurred, the North Koreans rolled out, literally, a road-mobile ICBM. So one can’t simply look at that one program and its checkered flight-test history to draw conclusions about the overall North Korean missile threat.

ACT: You mentioned the road-mobile ICBM. Is there anything you can say about that in terms of how you’re viewing that?

Van Diepen: Well obviously, that’s very serious. That portends the ability to have a usable, militarily effective, survivable system that can reach the United States with a significant payload. So that’s obviously a very serious and significant development.

ACT: Are you referring to the missiles that a number of nongovernmental experts have said were mock-ups?

Van Diepen: I am referring to the mobile ICBM program, of which the paraded mobile launchers and missiles are a part. [2]

ACT: If I can just follow up on Iran and North Korea: When Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates spoke about these issues back in 2009, he mentioned in testimony to the Hill that the threat of potential Iranian ICBM capabilities has been slower to develop than anticipated in 2006. The same might be said for North Korea, which has had these long-range flight tests, most of which have been considered to be failures. What are the factors that you see as being essential to further slowing the ability of both these countries to successfully test and field these systems in the years ahead? What kinds of barriers can we be putting in the way and the international community be putting in the way?

Van Diepen: First of all, we need to continue to find ways to make it politically uncomfortable for them to engage in this type of activity. I think it’s pretty clear that the North Koreans certainly don’t seem to be conducting their test activity on a technically driven schedule. It clearly appears to be a politically driven schedule. So the extent to which we the international community can continue to make it clear to them that that kind of behavior is unacceptable and there are consequences for that—hopefully, that will slow the pace of at least the flight-test portion of those programs. Likewise, we’ve got to continue our efforts to ensure robust implementation of UN Security Council sanctions, of restrictions like those of the Missile Technology Control Regime, and do what we can to try to make it harder for [the countries] to get better technology, force them to have to settle for less effective and less reliable technology, interdict shipments, et cetera, et cetera. So continue the ongoing efforts that we’ve been doing for really the past several decades to impede these programs, to make them take longer, cost more, be less reliable, less effective than would otherwise be the case.

ACT: Moving on to India and Pakistan: In April, India flight-tested the Agni-5 ballistic missile, which the Indian government claims has a range of some 5,000 kilometers. In reference to that test, the U.S. government “urged all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding their nuclear and missile capabilities” while recognizing India’s “solid nonproliferation record.” So, in the view of the U.S. government, why is such restraint important, particularly with respect to the Agni-5 program?

Van Diepen: Well, I’m not sure I’d single out any particular program, but obviously you know South Asia is one area where one could actually conceive of the unfortunate possibility of a nuclear war occurring between neighboring states. So for a long time, we have been counseling restraint both on the nuclear side and the missile side of both countries, to try to do whatever we can from the outside to encourage behaviors and practices that would make things more stable and make it less likely you could have such a war.

ACT: We’ll get back to that point about the arms race dynamic in a minute, but I also wanted to ask, what is the U.S. government’s assessment of India’s interest in acquiring long-range ballistic missile capabilities that would extend the range of its nuclear arsenal beyond the border of its two nuclear-armed neighbors, China and Pakistan?

Van Diepen: I’m really not in a position to comment on what we might be assessing for the future.

ACT: Then going back to the point about the reaction to the Indian missile test, is there concern in the administration that Pakistan may take the U.S. response to the India test as a green light to go ahead with testing on its own longer-range ballistic missiles?

Van Diepen: Other people may have their own assessment, but I don’t see this being a sort of action-reaction phenomenon. I think that these two countries’ programs respond to different kinds of dynamics. You know there are substantial internal dynamics on both sides that aren’t directly dependent on the other, certainly for longer-range systems. I’m sure Indian strategists would be pointing to China rather than Pakistan, so I don’t see it as literally that kind of a tit-for-tat dynamic.

ACT: But I think some people saw the U.S. reaction to the Indian test as very muted, so would other countries use that as sort of a justification or sort of a signal that there wouldn’t be a strong U.S. response if they went ahead?

Van Diepen: Again I think that overstates the impact we as an outsider could have and understates the impact of these internal factors that drive these programs.

ACT: This year marks the 25th anniversary of the MTCR, which was created to limit the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks. How is the MTCR still relevant to U.S. efforts to curb the spread of ballistic missile technology?

Van Diepen: The main reason it’s relevant is that it’s really the only multilateral institution we have, with 34 members, that comprehensively combats the proliferation not just of ballistic missiles but of cruise missiles capable of delivering WMD. We relatively recently evolved the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, but that’s very much focused on ballistic missiles and is more of a sort of mild, normative institution rather than something that has the teeth that the MTCR has in terms of export control requirements, in terms of information sharing, policy coordination, cooperation. So the MTCR has much more of an active ability to really have a bite on the proliferation problem.

ACT: So how does the United States believe the MTCR needs to evolve or can evolve over time to address future missile proliferation challenges?

Van Diepen: Well, we have to move simultaneously on a number of different fronts, which in fact is what we’ve been doing. First of all, we’ve got to continue to try and update the regime’s technology controls to take account of evolutions in technology, take account of what we see in proliferant procurement activity.

ACT: So updating the list—

Van Diepen: Updating the list, but also augmenting that sort of export control focus with other counterproliferation tools, with cooperation in interdiction, in work on intangible technology transfers, brokering, transit, transshipment, looking at all the ways that proliferators try to evade standard export-from-country-A-to-country-B export controls and add on things that can help deal with that. Then also to do what we can to get cooperation from countries that are not members of the regime, and there the regime has been very successful in establishing itself as the global standard for missile-related export behavior. Most of the major repositories of missile technology in the world now are either members of the MTCR or are avowed adherents to the MTCR or adopt practices that are very, very close to those in the MTCR.

ACT: As you mentioned, since the MTCR was established in 1987 it has had some notable successes, but some countries, such as India, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, continue to advance their missile programs. And all four have deployed medium-range ballistic missiles and are exploring missiles with greater ranges. So how can the MTCR affect further missile development in these and other countries that developed indigenous capabilities or formed networks for importing the necessary technology from supplier countries that are not part of the MTCR?

Van Diepen: Again, I think fundamentally what we end up doing in those cases is impeding those programs and making them take longer, be less effective and less reliable than what would otherwise be the case, and making them cost more. That does inhibit the missile proliferation problem, but the fact is that it is very difficult to prevent someone from pursuing a missile program if they’re bound and determined to do so.

ACT: But you think the MTCR still can have an effect in the cases of the countries I mentioned in slowing the growth of programs that already exist, as opposed to just preventing the starting-up of countries that are aspiring to it but don’t have the capability yet?

Van Diepen: We’re doing both of those things simultaneously, and in fact if you look at who are the countries of proliferation interest, you’re talking roughly a dozen countries. Everybody’s list might be a little bit different, but it’s roughly that magnitude. Compared to what that list could look like, I think that’s a way of gauging the impact. Doing what we can to keep it that way is important, so not only impeding the programs that we have but doing what we can to discourage countries from getting into the business is an ongoing thing. That is an area where this mild norm of the Hague Code of Conduct is helpful. It establishes a predisposition that missile proliferation is bad, missile nonproliferation is good. This is also an area where the different nonproliferation tools kind of start to meld together, where we’re discouraging countries from having chemical, biological, nuclear weapons, and we also help discourage them from having missiles capable of WMD delivery and vice versa.

ACT: You mentioned the relationship between the MTCR and interdiction efforts. To what extent is there an active integration of ideas and work between the Proliferation Security Initiative [PSI], for instance, and UN Security Council Resolution 1540 work and the MTCR? What is being done on the ground to try to affect what you’re talking about in terms of putting these efforts together to be more powerful?

Van Diepen: For 1540, I think its main contribution is this requirement that all UN member states have proliferation-related controls including on missile proliferation, and there the MTCR really provides the de facto standard. Its list was implicitly endorsed in the footnotes to UN Security Council Resolution 1540. A lot of the work that is going on in our export controls assistance programs in terms of helping other countries set up systems is setting up systems that are consistent with the lists of these different regimes. We have a lot of countries that even though they have not formally said that they adhere to the MTCR guidelines, their export control system has lists that draw from the MTCR annex, for example. [3]

For PSI, I think its fundamental contribution has been to raise the political profile of interdiction where people understand that it’s important, it’s something that needs to be done. When the call comes to cooperate in an interdiction, people understand that that’s not just a routine working-level activity, this is something that has a presidential imprimatur. A lot of work also has gone on in PSI in terms of exercises and other things to help people be able to conduct an interdiction when and if it’s their turn to do so.

And in MTCR, what we’ve done is build a lot of awareness of how missile proliferation works, who the proliferators are, their front companies, the techniques they engage in, so that people are in a better position to recognize activities that need to be interdicted. We’ve done a lot to build partnerships between the actual people who do this in the real world so that when the time comes, people know who to call; they’re used to cooperating with these people. And we do a lot of sharing of experiences so that people can learn from what happened to the other guy so that when it’s their turn, they can do it better the next time.

ACT: You also mentioned the Hague Code of Conduct. Do you want to talk about how that intersects with the MTCR and how the two work together, in your view?

Van Diepen: I think the major contribution of the Hague Code of Conduct is that you’ve got a widely subscribed, 134-country, quasi-norm. It’s not legally binding; it’s politically binding, but it has this normative effect that underlines the idea that the proliferation of ballistic missiles capable of delivering WMD is a bad thing and that promoting the nonproliferation of such missiles is a good thing. So in effect, it helps build an awareness of the importance of the missile nonproliferation issue and a receptivity in a wide swath of countries to the importance of this issue.

A lot of missile proliferation-related activity can occur in some of these countries that aren’t members of the MTCR but are subscribing states to the [Hague Code of Conduct]. So it helps build this awareness and receptivity to working with us on this issue and bolster the more directly pointy-end-of-the-spear kind of contributions that the MTCR and its members can make, by giving us this broader support, this broader coverage that this wider membership provides.

ACT: You mentioned earlier that the MTCR covers cruise missiles as well as ballistic missiles, but compared to ballistic missiles, it seems the MTCR has had less success in stemming the proliferation of cruise missiles apparently because of a rise in the dual uses for cruise missile technology and the simplification of the technological requirements for cruise missiles. So do you see a need to strengthen the MTCR to address this issue?

Van Diepen: Well first of all, I’m not sure I’d necessarily agree with that characterization. If you think about MTCR Category I cruise missiles, cruise missiles that were in this category of [being] inherently capable of delivering WMD, that’s still a very small set of the total population of cruise missiles out there. Most of the cruise missiles out there are medium-range, anti-ship cruise missiles that are MTCR Category II systems. Now we are starting to see relatively large land-attack cruise missiles beginning to bubble up in countries like India and Pakistan, not just countries in the traditional West, and in China. But that’s happened a lot later than a lot of people expected, so I think this is another example of the impedance function that the MTCR provides.

But because the basic technologies are very similar to aircraft technologies, and manned aircraft are specifically exempted from the reach of the MTCR, it’s not surprising that over time that technology is going to be able to move. So we need to continue looking for areas where we can have a purchase on the cruise-missile dimension of the problem that doesn’t get too far into the manned aircraft side of the problem. We continue to look for areas that we need to tighten controls up on to help us stay on that cruise missile problem, but it is a very difficult thing just because aircraft technology has become more widespread over the years.

ACT: So overall, you would say the MTCR has been largely successful in regard to cruise missiles?

Van Diepen: Well, I’d say it’s been more effective than the initial comment gave it credit for. But if someone is determined to get into this business, over time they’re going to be able to do it. If we can delay that, force them to settle for guidance, propulsion, and other technologies that are not as good as they could otherwise get, we’re still having an impact on the problem.

ACT: Are there efforts underway to rein in cruise missile proliferation to address this problem that you characterized as now, later than you expected, starting to emerge?

Van Diepen: I think we talked about this a little before. Basically it’s part of our overall effort to try and keep the regime’s controls current with technology and with the activities of missile proliferation programs. That’s not a ballistic missile-specific thing; that covers the waterfront.

ACT: With regard to another area of possible adjustments, some observers have suggested that some of the MTCR’s restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] could be loosened because UAVs are not part of the problem the MTCR was designed to address, but other people argue that they should continue to be subject to such export controls because they are able to disperse chemical or biological agents over a wide area. What is the U.S. view on this issue?

Van Diepen: The general approach the MTCR has is to restrict systems based on their inherent capability. So if a system is capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms to a range of at least 300 kilometers, it’s inherently capable of delivering WMD and therefore is subject to the greatest restraint. It doesn’t matter what you call it, whether it’s a ballistic missile or space-launch vehicle, whether it’s a UAV or a cruise missile; if it’s got that level of capability, it’s inherently capable of delivering WMD and should be treated accordingly.

Now the MTCR restrictions, even the strong presumption of denial for Category I exports, are not an absolute ban, and that can be overcome on what the MTCR guidelines calls “rare occasions” that are extremely well justified in terms of the nonproliferation factors that are listed in the MTCR guidelines. So there is an ability to make certain sales under certain good circumstances, and the United States has in fact sold Category I UAV systems to some of its allies. I think there is a way of striking the appropriate balance that’s laid out there.

ACT: And what is that? You said that you have certain criteria that have to be met? How do you go about that so it doesn’t look like some people favoring friends or making special political exceptions? How do you go about striking that balance?

Van Diepen: Fundamentally, it’s applying the factors that are written out in the guidelines themselves. The whole thrust of the guidelines for these Category I systems [is that] the first answer is no and then there has to be a really good reason to be able, on what you can justify as a rare occasion, to overcome that strong presumption of denial. We’ve been doing this long enough that we’ve got sort of internal understandings and rules of the road that help us apply that on a reasonably consistent basis.

ACT: Just to follow up on one of the things you were saying, you seem to suggest that one of the keys to dealing with the cruise missile issue and the UAV issue is to maintain updated control lists. So are there ongoing plans at work within the MTCR countries to do that? Is there a schedule, are there some benchmarks that the member states are seeking to meet in order to update those lists, especially with the UAV and the cruise missile issues?

Van Diepen: No, basically this is an ongoing process, and at every annual MTCR plenary, part of what happens is debating the various proposals that various member countries make for changes to the control list. And to help drive that, there’s been a concerted effort over the past couple of years to provide information and analysis on emerging technologies and on proliferant procurement activities so that we can look for reasons to modify our list based both on how technology moves and on what the proliferators are doing, what they’re seeking, and how they’re doing it.

ACT: And to round out our questions on UAVs, is the MTCR a suitable mechanism to deal with the UAV technology, or should it be covered by some sort of separate mechanism?

Van Diepen: Right now, we’ve got two different regimes that deal with UAV technology. One is the MTCR, which of course looks at them from a WMD-driven, WMD delivery prism, and then the Wassenaar Arrangement, which looks at them through the prism of trying to prevent destabilizing accumulations of conventional weapons. UAVs with a certain performance level are controlled by the MTCR, either in Category II or Category I, and we have to look at them through that WMD prism, but then basically all military UAVs of any sort would be covered by the Wassenaar Arrangement and looked at through that prism as well.

ACT: Going to some specific countries and their interactions with the MTCR: Under a 1979 agreement with the United States, South Korea restricted its ballistic missile range to 180 kilometers. In 2001, when South Korea joined the MTCR, the United States agreed to a South Korean request to extend the capability to 300 kilometers [with a payload of 500 kilograms] for its ballistic missiles. South Korea reportedly has been in discussions with the United States about the range limit. Has the United States agreed to grant South Korea an exemption to develop longer-range missiles?

Van Diepen: South Korea joined the MTCR in 2001, based in part on understandings of the range/payload capability of its missile systems—not just range. There is an interactivity, ability to trade off range and payload, so it’s not just range in the picture. I think it’s pretty clear that we are in discussions with the South Koreans about their interest in being able to have more-capable missile systems. Basically all I can say is that we are in those discussions, and in those discussions we have to take account of both the legitimate defense requirements of our treaty ally, who is under very substantial threat, as well as our interest in upholding global nonproliferation standards. That’s kind of what’s going on right now.

ACT: So how are you weighing those? In particular, if there are exceptions made, how do you make sure that the exception doesn’t become a precedent for weakening the regime?

Van Diepen: Again, I really can’t get into the dynamics of this issue, but clearly South Korea has some distinguishing features in terms of the threat it faces from North Korea that clearly would have to be taken into account.

ACT: And on that point, what effect might an exception have on North Korea’s missile activities?

Van Diepen: North Korea’s already testing ICBM-class systems. I’m sure it can use as an excuse whatever the South Koreans do, but they’re already the world’s biggest missile proliferator. They have very extensive missile deployments of their own. They are already flight-testing ICBM-class systems. So I’m sure they could use for rhetorical purposes whatever they want, but realistically, whatever the South Koreans are doing is unlikely to be an actual driver.

ACT: The United States has launched an effort within the MTCR to accept India as a member. Given that India has already pledged to conform with the MTCR as part of the deal to exempt it from certain Nuclear Suppliers Group [NSG] restrictions, [4] what benefits to missile nonproliferation would Indian membership provide?

Van Diepen: I’m not sure about this [connection to the] NSG and whether that’s actually accurate or not—

ACT: The week before the NSG exemption was made, on September 6, 2008, the Indian government made a statement outlining the nonproliferation commitments it was making in conjunction with that, and MTCR guideline conformance was part of that. So that’s what we’re referring to.

Van Diepen: All right. Again, I’m not sure there was, strictly speaking, a linkage between those two, but basically India is a country that’s a major repository of missile technology. They’ve tested and demonstrated systems across the entire spectrum, including cruise missile systems. So bringing that repository of technology under control and taking steps to make sure it doesn’t go elsewhere is a major contribution to the missile proliferation picture. The Indians, you know, have a lot of information that could be of use to the regime. So basically, our belief is that the regime and missile nonproliferation would be better off having them in the regime rather than out of the regime.

ACT: But the question is, basically, if India has already committed to conform with MTCR guidelines, how does membership alter its behavior? How does it improve its behavior?

Van Diepen: Well, I think, from our standpoint, it’s not a question of improving their behavior. I think, from our standpoint, their behavior is such that they warrant membership in the regime. You don’t bring somebody in and hope that because they become a member, they behave better; you only bring into the regime countries whose behavior is such that it’s supportive of the objectives of the regime and thereby strengthens the regime. And we think India falls into that category.

ACT: How would you handle the issue of the range limits that countries normally have to abide by when they come into the MTCR, that is, they agree to restrictions on their own systems comparable to what the MTCR range limits are for export?

Van Diepen: Well, none of that is a regime restriction. Oftentimes, [the United States] in particular, as a condition of our agreeing to permit a certain country to enter the MTCR, will require that that country forgo Category I systems. But sort of apropos of our attitude on their membership in the NSG—it would certainly be nice if they signed up to the [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], but realistically that’s not going to happen any time soon—in recognition of that, we believe we’re better off having them in than having them out. It’s sort of the same thing with the delivery systems.

ACT: Given that India already has ballistic missile systems that are beyond the 300-kilometer range and the payloads outlined in the MTCR guidelines, would Indian membership in the NSG in any way affect the behavior of MTCR member states in denying transfers to India that could aid its missile program in missiles beyond those ranges? That’s one of the things we’re getting at here because that is a concern among some about Indian membership in the MTCR.

Van Diepen: The regime is very clear in including on its website that membership in the regime does not confer an entitlement to receive technology from another member or confer a responsibility to provide technology to another member. And the MTCR guidelines are not denominated in terms of members and nonmembers. So just as we currently control MTCR annex items to essentially all countries, we would continue doing that for India just as we have continued to deny exports to a variety of programs that we don’t support in member countries. We would apply that exact same policy to India.

ACT: Moving on to China: China applied for membership in the MTCR in 2004 after pledging that it would voluntarily follow the export control guidelines laid out by the regime. Its membership, however, was rejected by the United States due to concerns that China’s participation would weaken the regime, as certain Chinese companies were believed to be supplying sensitive technology to countries such as North Korea. Would accepting Chinese membership now put more pressure on that country’s government to rein in violators?

Van Diepen: Well first of all, “rejected by the United States” sounds like we were the only country that felt that China did not currently meet the MTCR membership criteria, and I can assure you that’s not the case.

Now, China’s the kind of country where if they were following the rules, their membership would strengthen the regime, just as I laid out in the discussion on India—sort of the same thing. Unfortunately, as is manifestly clear, including in numerous U.S. sanctions impositions, right now there’s a substantial problem of Chinese entities providing missile technology to programs in places like Iran and North Korea, and until that problem is substantially addressed—right now China does not meet the membership criteria. We expect them to meet the same criteria that everyone else has met to become a member, and we would very much like them to be able to meet those criteria because that would also then mean there would be few if any missile proliferation problems emanating from China, which unfortunately is not the case right now.

ACT: With respect to these various membership issues, is there a timeline or a schedule that the United States or the other MTCR member states have in mind with respect to Indian membership consideration or a future Chinese membership consideration?

Van Diepen: No. Part of this is that any decision on anything in any of these regimes requires a consensus of all the current members, and that will develop on its own dynamic. And if you had enough agreement to have a timetable, then you’d have enough agreement to let them in. We’re working with our partners, and our objective is to try to get that consensus in the case of India as quickly as we can, but with 34 countries of a diverse composition, that may take some time.

ACT: So those discussions have begun on a formal basis, or are they still on an informal level about possible Indian membership in the MTCR?

Van Diepen: Indian membership has been under discussion in a serious way ever since we took our public position that we supported their membership [in November 2010].

ACT: On China, you mentioned the ongoing problems with regard to exports to Iran and North Korea. Do you see progress the United States and other countries are making in modifying that behavior, or how would you characterize the discussions and efforts on that topic?

Van Diepen: I think if you look at this issue on kind of a Chinese time scale, over the past 20 or 30 years, I think you can say there’s been progress on the issue in the sense that we no longer see China selling complete MTCR-class missile systems like we did in the ’80s and ’90s.

We don’t see China selling complete production capabilities for MTCR-class missile systems like we did in the ’80s and ’90s. I think most observers would say that the issue is no longer one of China, the country, the government, deliberately supporting programs of proliferation concern.

Where we continue to have problems is the ability of Chinese entities to be approached by proliferators and to provide them with equipment and technology that they need for their programs, a lot of which is dual use, a lot of which is not even necessarily listed on the MTCR annex but nonetheless is of value to these programs. From our perspective, we don’t see sufficient priority, resources, and effort being put by the Chinese authorities in bringing that under control.

ACT: But so in your view, it’s an inability of the Chinese government to control things that they’re not necessarily supporting, as opposed to these companies doing these activities with the support or complicity of the Chinese government?

Van Diepen: Right. I think most observers would say that these are not activities that are being done at the behest of the Chinese government. That said, the Chinese government has the ability to decide to devote more resources, efforts, and priority to crack down on these activities; and for whatever reason, thus far they have not chosen to do that.

ACT: By the end of the year, there is supposed to be a meeting on the WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and ballistic missiles are within the scope of the meeting. In October 2008, Russia and the United States issued a statement declaring U.S. and Russian intentions to “work with all interested countries” and “discuss the possibility of imparting a global character” to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty, which bans intermediate-range missiles. Some outside analysts have suggested that states in the Middle East should consider a ban on the development and possession of ballistic missiles capable of flying more than 3,000 kilometers, in part because it could help build momentum toward a WMD-free Middle East. Is the United States discussing a similar concept with its partners in the region or in the context of the consultations on the WMD-free zone?

Van Diepen: I’m really not in a position to get too far into the Middle East WMD-free zone issue, but I think at this point, I think it’s fair to say that we’re still looking at this in a very broad, general kind of way, looking to try to get the buy-in of all the states in the region to the general idea of having a meeting to discuss the zone. So I don’t think we’ve really gotten into the sort of 200- or 300-level [course] questions at this point.

ACT: Going back to the 2008 statement that was made at the United Nations by the United States and Russia on multilateralizing the INF Treaty, what discussions has the United States had with Russia or other countries about this concept? Is this a concept that might be applicable to certain regions like the Middle East where we have ballistic missile proliferation problems, in terms of going from the short- to medium-range level to the longer-range level?

Van Diepen: I think there are just a lot of problems in trying to transpose something that was done in a bilateral Cold War context to a multilateral post-Cold War context. From a verification standpoint, there are a lot of shortcomings in the INF Treaty that were okay in the context of everybody having lots of missiles and lots of nuclear weapons above and below the 500- to 5,500-kilometer-range prohibited zone. So the impact of cheating or inability to really nail down compliance was a lot less in that setting. For example, the definition of range in the INF Treaty is the range that’s demonstrated in a flight test, so it would be relatively straightforward to flight-test a missile to range X but know that it has the capability to go well beyond X. In the U.S.-Soviet context, that was a perfectly survivable way of doing business; but outside of that context, that could lead to lots of problems and circumvention avenues, [as could] the way that space-launch vehicles were treated in the INF Treaty and the fact that [the treaty] deliberately only dealt with land-based missile systems. So there are lots of circumvention avenues, which again were entirely understandable and appropriate in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War context, that could be very problematic in a wider context. That’s aside from all the political problems of, could you even get the buy-in from all the counties that one would have to get that buy-in from in order to be able to have such a treaty, given that some of these countries already have systems deployed well within that range band? How realistic is it to expect that they would actually be prepared to give those up where they’re not in the situation of having lots of things above and lots of things below that range band that we were in with the Soviets back in the day? So I think it’s something that, on one level, sounds good but when you really start parsing it and applying it outside of that historical context, has some shortcomings that you’ve got to think about.




1. The most recent U.S. unclassified intelligence estimate assessing Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities does not indicate a time frame in which Tehran is likely to develop an ICBM. It says that Iran continues to “move toward self-sufficiency” in its production of ballistic missiles but “certainly remains dependent on foreign suppliers” for components that are “key” to missile production. See Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2011,” 2012, pp. 3-4, www.odni.gov/reports/2011_report_to_congress_wmd.pdf.

2. This question was asked and answered in writing as a follow-up to the interview.

3. The Equipment, Software and Technology Annex lists the items that are subject to MTCR guidelines. The annex divides the items into two categories. Category I includes complete missiles and rockets, major subsystems, and production facilities. Category II includes specialized materials, technologies, propellants, and subcomponents for missiles and rockets. MTCR restrictions for Category II exports are less stringent, largely because many items in the category also have civilian uses.

4. In the July 18, 2005, "Joint Statement Between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh" outlining the terms of their joint civil nuclear cooperation initiative, Singh pledged that India would be ready to assume a number of "responsibilities and practices" that "other leading countries with advanced nuclear technology" had. Among the practices Singh said India would follow was "ensuring that the necessary steps have been taken to secure nuclear materials and technology through comprehensive export control legislation and through harmonization and adherence to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines."

On September 5, 2008, in the run-up to the NSG decision on the proposed exemption for India from certain NSG guidelines, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee issued a statement on the "Civil Nuclear Initiative" in which he said that "India has taken the necessary steps to secure nuclear materials and technology through comprehensive export control legislation and through harmonization and committing to adhere to Missile Technology Control Regime and Nuclear Suppliers Group guidelines."


Selected Export Control and Nonproliferation Regimes

•   Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Established in 1987, the MTCR is a voluntary association of countries that coordinate national export control licensing to prevent the proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Member countries are asked to adhere to common export policy guidelines on lists of controlled items, including completed missile systems and dual-use technologies, that would enable countries to produce systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The MTCR specifically aims to prevent the proliferation of missiles capable of carrying a 500-kilogram payload at least 300 kilometers. The MTCR now has 34 member countries.

•   Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. The Hague Code of Conduct is a voluntary association of countries that formed in 2002 as a supplement to the MTCR and existing disarmament and nonproliferation mechanisms. It provides a means for promoting the nonproliferation of ballistic missiles. Member countries are asked to make annual declarations of their policies on ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles and to provide notifications prior to launches or test flights. The regime has 134 member countries.

•   Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The NSG was founded in 1974 as a group of countries seeking to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by implementing shared guidelines on the export of nuclear and nuclear-related technologies. The aim of the guidelines is to allow trade in nuclear technology for peaceful purposes without contributing to weapons proliferation. In determining export applications, each participating government applies the guidelines in accordance with its national laws. Currently, the NSG has 46 member countries.

•   Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Launched in 2003, the PSI is a nonbinding effort by member countries to stop the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from countries and nonstate actors that pose proliferation concerns. Countries that are a part of the PSI are asked to endorse the “Statement of Interdiction Principles,” which commits them to establish more-coordinated efforts to impede and stop the transfers of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems based on existing national and international laws. It currently has 99 participating countries.

•   UN Security Council Resolution 1540. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1540 in April 2004. It designates the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their means of delivery as a threat to international peace and security and obligates countries to enforce domestic controls over such items and related materials. Under the resolution, countries also are prohibited from providing any form of support to nonstate actors seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction and are required to criminalize the possession or attempts to finance the purchase of such items by nonstate actors.

Wassenaar Arrangement. The Wassenaar Arrangement grew out of a Cold War export control regime called the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls. It was formally established in 1995. Participating states pledge to use national policies to promote transparency and the responsible use of conventional arms and dual-use technologies transferred to other countries. The group decides on the scope of the export controls, but implementation is determined by each country’s national procedures. Forty-one countries currently participate.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Posted: December 31, 1969

Long-Range Ballistic Missile Development: A Tale of Two Tests


North Korea's failed attempt to launch a satellite from its Unha-3 space rocket on April 13 and India's successful flight test of the Agni-5 long-range missile on April 19 marked significant events in the ballistic missile development programs of the two countries. These two ballistic missile test events not only reveal technical information about system performance, but also invite reflection on U.S. policy responses.


May 10, 2012

North Korea's failed attempt to launch a satellite from its Unha-3 space rocket on April 13 and India's successful flight test of the Agni-5 long-range missile on April 19 marked significant events in the ballistic missile development programs of the two countries. These two ballistic missile test events not only reveal technical information about system performance, but also invite reflection on U.S. policy responses.  

The demonstration of North Korean failure and Indian success is only the most readily accessible feature of the story. The broader implications for U.S. nonproliferation and security policies are more complicated and less obvious. Both cases imply U.S. failure to accurately assess threats and to adopt appropriate responses for mitigating those threats.  

The the full text of the brief "Long-Range Ballistic Missile Development: A Tale of Two Tests" is available online.  

# # #   

The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent nongovernmental organization dedicated to addressing the challenges posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Posted: December 31, 1969

Banning Long-Range Missiles in the Middle East: A First Step for Regional Arms Control

Although the goal of ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is receiving increased attention, it remains a distant prospect. Achieving such an ambitious goal will require a series of incremental steps even to begin the process. An agreement that bans the development and possession of ballistic missiles capable of flying more than 3,000 kilometers and includes members of the Arab League, Iran, Israel, and Turkey is a reasonable first step toward a WMD-free Middle East.

By Michael Elleman

Although the goal of ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is receiving increased attention, it remains a distant prospect. Achieving such an ambitious goal will require a series of incremental steps even to begin the process. An agreement that bans the development and possession of ballistic missiles capable of flying more than 3,000 kilometers and includes members of the Arab League, Iran, Israel, and Turkey is a reasonable first step toward a WMD-free Middle East.

Pursuit of a regional ban on these long-range missiles naturally would begin with negotiations, a process that by itself could help ease tensions, generate better understanding, and build trust across the region. An agreement on the ban, although modest in its aim, would yield a tangible result that sets a precedent and breaks some of the taboos surrounding arms control in the region. More importantly, perhaps, the successful implementation of the agreement would create new bureaucracies that advocate for disarmament and institutions that assume responsibility for the implementation of arms reduction measures. At a minimum, the region would be one step closer to ridding itself of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

The proposed ban is achievable principally because it would not impinge on the core security interests of any country in the region. No state would be asked to relinquish its capacity to defend against or deter a regional rival, and few states in the Middle East face threats from outside the region. The one exception might be Iran, with its concerns about the United States. Yet, the United States has key interests, allies, and military bases throughout the region that could be held at risk by Tehran’s current missile arsenal.

Moreover, outside powers are likely to embrace and promote the regional missile ban and may go as far as pressuring reluctant regional actors to agree to the prohibition because it serves their individual and collective national security interests. The ban eliminates the threat to Europe posed by missile proliferation in the Middle East. In addition, the absence of intermediate-range and intercontinental missiles capable of reaching major portions of Europe would reduce NATO-Russian tensions by obviating the need to deploy the latter two phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense, which Moscow fears could degrade Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.[1]

A regional ban necessarily would consist of two complementary components. The first implements measures to prevent the development of intermediate-range missiles in countries within the region that do not already have them. The second verifiably eliminates current stocks of missiles that exceed the proposed range limit.

Presently, only three countries in the region have the technical wherewithal and industrial capacity to develop intermediate-range missiles. Israel, according to media reports, already fields the medium-range Jericho-2 and possibly the intermediate-range Jericho-3 missiles that are believed to have been manufactured domestically.[2] Iran is actively developing the Sajjil-2, which has a range of 2,000 kilometers.[3] The experience and knowledge accrued in developing the Sajjil-2 provide Iran with the means to build viable, long-range missiles in the future.[4] Turkey could create the capability if it invested the proper money and time into the effort. Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have pursued short-range ballistic missile development programs in the past. Yet, there is no evidence to suggest they seek to create longer-range systems in the near to medium term, nor do any of these countries have the technical capacity to support development of an intermediate-range missile for the foreseeable future. Finally, one country, Saudi Arabia, has purchased intermediate-range missiles from a foreign source, in 1988 when Riyadh imported DF-3 systems from China.[5]

Preventing New Capabilities

Countries wishing to create new ballistic missiles, with or without foreign assistance, must undertake extensive flight-test programs as part of the development process to validate performance parameters, verify reliability under a wide range of operational conditions, correct inevitable design flaws, and train military forces to operate the missile. Flight tests, which cannot be concealed, provide outside observers the data needed to characterize missiles under development and to forecast future capabilities with considerable confidence.

An in-depth review of ballistic missile development programs undertaken worldwide over the past seven decades, most notably those conducted by China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and the United States, reveals that flight testing involves at least a dozen launches, often many more.[6] Germany, for example, flight-tested more than 300 A-4 (V-2) missiles before it began firing them at targets in western Europe during the closing months of World War II. France averaged about two dozen test launches when developing each of its ground- and sea-based strategic missiles. The United States and the Soviet Union/Russia test-fired considerably more for a majority of the missile systems they made operational during and after the Cold War. China used 18 flight tests during the development of the JL-1 missile. Even Iraq, during its war with Iran in the 1980s, when striking Tehran was viewed as an immediate strategic imperative, tested the 600 kilometer-range al-Hussein missile 10 times over a two-year period before using it against the more distant cities in Iran. The al-Hussein was not even a new missile, developed from fundamentals. Rather, it was a modified missile made from Soviet-produced Scud components.

Historical data also show that flight-testing campaigns associated with the development of new missiles require three to five years to complete. There were exceptions, but they were rare, involved minor modifications to existing systems, included multiple tests per month, and were performed by countries with rich experience developing missiles. These conditions do not exist in Iran, Turkey, or other countries in the Middle East today and will not exist in the coming decade. In any event, when the few exceptions did transpire, the minimum time, regardless of circumstances, was still about two years.

The need to conduct flight-test programs to develop an operational system suggests that if the countries in the region could be persuaded to forgo such activities, no country could create and field longer-range systems without assuming considerable if not excessive technical and operational risk. There is nothing in Iran’s history of missile development, for instance, to suggest that it would accept such risks. Tehran did not induct the Shahab-3 into military service until 2003, five years after receiving Nodong missiles from North Korea and initiating test launches. Modifications to extend the range of the Shahab-3, resulting in the 1,600 kilometer-range Ghadr-1, required three to five additional years of testing. Development of the Sajjil-2, which continues today, has been ongoing since it was first flight-tested in late 2007. The caution Iran has exhibited while developing conventionally armed missiles suggests convincingly that if it were to fashion a small nuclear arsenal, it would not fit the highly prized payloads to missiles with unproven performance or reliability. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest Israel, Turkey, or any other state in the region could defy the history experienced by others.

The testing requirement should be exploited to promote a regional flight-test ban on intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The range-payload characteristics of an intermediate-range missile would have to be defined by all of the parties involved in the final agreement, although an envelope of 3,000 kilometers and 500 kilograms seems reasonable.

Space launch vehicles, which Iran, Israel, and others, including North Korea, are unlikely to relinquish, would not be included in the proposed regime. Although it is certainly true that space launchers and ballistic missiles are founded on similar technologies, there are fundamental differences between the two systems. Space launchers are prepared for flight over a period of many days, if not weeks. Components and subsystems can be checked and verified prior to launch, and the mission commander can wait for ideal weather before initiating the countdown. If an anomaly is encountered during the countdown, the launch can be delayed, the problem fixed, and the process restarted. Ballistic missiles, on the other hand, must perform reliably under a variety of operational conditions and with little advance notification, like any other military system. These operational requirements must be validated through an extensive test program before a missile can be declared combat ready.

Although space launch activities offer an opportunity to accumulate some of the experience and data that could aid efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles, the results have limited application to ballistic missiles. Only a fraction of the overall development issues can be addressed when operating the system as a satellite launcher. Converting a proven space launcher into a ballistic missile would still require two to five years of additional testing in the ballistic missile mode. In fact, the universal trend has been to convert ballistic missiles into space launchers, not the opposite. The Soviets, for example, used the R-7 intercontinental missile to launch its first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Likewise, the U.S. Redstone missile was modified and used to place into orbit the Explorer-1 satellite a few months after the unprecedented Soviet success. The Chinese CZ-2 launch vehicle was founded on the DF-3 ballistic missile technology and components.

Space launches, however, cannot be ignored and must be closely monitored by states within the region, as well as outside powers, precisely because they could contribute to a missile development program by offering validation of fundamental concepts, such as those for propulsion systems, stage separation, and testing procedures. Consequently, countries that insist on developing and operating space launchers must conduct these activities with maximum transparency to avoid suspicion. The protocols established under the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation could serve as an initial foundation for promoting transparency and trust among all parties adhering to the regional ban on intermediate-range missiles.

States in the Middle East could go further and establish a monitoring authority to oversee space-related activities within the region and perhaps facilitate reciprocal visits by member states to observe launch activities. To ensure compliance by member states, Russia and the United States could share data from their respective sensor networks with the monitoring authority. Indeed, the monitoring authority could serve as a verification center for the broader ban on intermediate-range flight tests. Participation by Russia and the United States would be key, as they are the only two countries with the suite of space-based sensors and ground-based radars capable of detecting and tracking ballistic missile tests or space launches from the Middle East.

Reaching agreement on a regional prohibition on flight-testing intermediate-range missiles is not an insurmountable task. Iran has publicly declared that it has no interest in developing a missile capable of distances of more than 2,000 kilometers. As recently as July 2011, Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, insisted to Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency in Iran that “the range of our missiles has been designed based on American bases in the region as well as the Zionist regime,” adding that “the Americans have reduced our labours.… [T]heir military bases in the region are in a range of 130, 250 and maximum 700 km in Afghanistan which we can hit with [our presently available] missiles.”[7] Of course, there are valid reasons for doubting Hajizadeh’s words. Yet, when one considers Iran’s strategic priorities, his claims seem reasonable. Iran’s most distant strategic target is Israel, about 1,000 kilometers from launching points near Iran’s border with Iraq. Operational security and prelaunch survivability, however, demand deployment zones far from the border. Extending the minimum range requirement to roughly 1,600 kilometers, as Iran has achieved with the Ghadr-1, facilitates the launch of missiles from secure locations in the heart of Iranian territory. The Sajjil-2, once developed fully, will have a similar range capability when carrying significantly heavier payloads of up to 1,300 kilograms.

Iran might dismiss or reject a ban on intermediate-range missile tests as an infringement on its sovereign rights. Taking such action, however, would turn the country’s nuclear diplomacy on its head. Iran already is the only country to have pursued development of a 2,000 kilometer-range missile, the Sajjil-2, without first having acquired nuclear weapons. Seeking still-longer-range delivery vehicles only would increase existing doubts about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Iran might attempt to hedge or delay acceptance of a regional test ban by insisting that Israel and Saudi Arabia first verifiably eliminate their respective Jericho-3 and DF-3 missiles. Convincing Israel and Saudi Arabia to accept such plans will not be easy and cannot be assured. Nevertheless, success could be achieved if the incentives and diplomatic pressures were sufficient.

Israel and the Jericho-3

Surprisingly, persuading Israel to relinquish its intermediate-range ballistic missiles might be easier than convincing Saudi Arabia to part with its DF-3s. Israel presently has little strategic imperative for deploying missiles with a range greater than 3,000 kilometers, as the primary threats to the country reside within the Middle East. The whole of Iran, for instance, can be covered by Israeli missiles with a range of 2,800 kilometers. Moreover, Israel maintains a range of delivery options for its strategic payloads and need not rely on ballistic missiles to deter distant rivals.

Israel’s fleet of advanced fighter-bomber aircraft, which consists of roughly 80 F-15s and 300 F-16s, has no war-fighting rival in the Middle East. The aircraft are operated by the best-trained pilots in the region and carry sophisticated avionics packages that can defeat the air defense systems of any adversary in the region. Its airborne refueling capacity enables Israel to strike targets well beyond the combat radius of the F-15s and F-16s. The long-standing strategic U.S. commitment to the country ensures that Israel will not have a conventional military peer within the region. Washington’s promise to transfer to Israel its most advanced aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, once available, is one example of the pledge.[8]

Israel also maintains a second-strike force consisting of submarine-launched cruise missiles.[9] The fleet includes three diesel-electric powered submarines built in Germany for the Israeli navy. Each submarine is believed to carry a handful of Popeye or Popeye-Turbo cruise missiles. There is considerable debate about the performance capabilities of the Popeye-Turbo, but it appears certain that the missile has the capacity to deliver the small 200- to 300-kilogram nuclear payloads Israel is believed to have manufactured.[10] Two more submarines are under procurement, with scheduled deliveries of 2013 and 2014.[11] Once all five submarines reach operational status, Israel would have at least two boats on patrol at any given moment.

Ballistic missiles afford Israel a third weapons delivery option, but there is some uncertainty about what systems have been deployed and how they perform. The Jericho-1 was designed, developed, and tested by the French firm Marcel Dassault Aviation in the late 1960s, and either the missiles, the technology, or both were transferred to Israel for deployment in the early 1970s.[12] The Jericho-1 is thought to have a maximum range of 480 to 750 kilometers, with a reported payload capacity of 500 to 1,000 kilograms.[13] A technical assessment of the Jericho-1 suggests the missile has a 500-kilometer range when carrying a 750-kilogram payload.

The Jericho-1 missiles are likely obsolete. There are persistent reports that Israel replaced them with the two-stage, solid-propellant Jericho-2, whose development likely began in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Flight testing commenced in 1986, with initial deployment around 1990. Reports claim the Jericho-2 has a maximum range of 1,500 kilometers when fitted with a 1,000-kilogram warhead. However, based on the Jericho-2’s dimensions and the likely propellant loads and type, the missile should have a range of roughly 2,500 to 2,800 kilometers. Israel’s Shavit space launcher appears to be derived from Jericho-2 technology and components.

Some reports suggest that Israel has worked to create a three-stage Jericho-3 missile. Such a missile would significantly extend Israel’s strategic reach to well beyond 3,000 kilometers. Two flight tests of the Jericho-3 have been reported, one in 2008 and another in 2011.[14] The minimal number of flight tests suggests that the Jericho-3 is not combat ready. Adding to the mystery surrounding the Jericho-3 is the possibility that the two firings were satellite launches and not missile tests. Whether the Jericho-3 exists is somewhat irrelevant, as Israel certainly has the technical and industrial wherewithal to develop the missile.

As discussed above, the diverse mix of strategic delivery options offers Israel considerable flexibility, and subtracting intermediate-range ballistic missiles is unlikely to degrade the country’s nuclear deterrence capabilities. Israeli acceptance of a regional ban on intermediate-range ballistic missiles seems feasible, especially if it is sold as a first step in a comprehensive effort to halt the Iranian nuclear program through the more ambitious WMD-free-zone concept. A U.S. offer of increased financial and operational assistance to Israel’s extant missile defense programs and continued supply of advanced military technology, including the F-35, should help induce Israel’s acceptance of the regional prohibition.

Convincing Saudi Arabia

As explained above, neither Iran nor Israel appears to hold compelling military or strategic imperatives that demand intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The strategic calculus in Riyadh, however, is less clear. Convincing the Saudis to relinquish their DF-3 missiles may prove to be the most difficult challenge to achieving the ban.

In 1988, Saudi Arabia purchased 30 to 50 conventionally armed DF-3 (CSS-2) intermediate-range missiles from China. Negotiations with Beijing reportedly began soon after the United States refused in 1985 to supply the Saudis with short-range Lance ballistic missiles and an additional 40 F-15 fighters. The DF-3 was not intended to fill a gap created by the U.S. refusal to supply the Lance, a battlefield missile with a range of about 100 kilometers. Rather, as the Saudis claimed at the time of purchase, the DF-3s were acquired to deter Iran and other potential adversaries in the Middle East. Given Saudi fears at the time of purchase that Iran would widen the war with Iraq by attacking targets in the kingdom or one of its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, this rationale is not implausible. The Saudi decision may have also been driven by country’s pattern of acquiring advanced weapons, both symbolic and militarily useful systems, to enhance its international status and establish itself as a major regional power.

The single-stage, liquid-propellant DF-3 has a maximum range of roughly 2,600 kilometers when carrying a warhead weighing slightly more than 2,000 kilograms. When armed with a 1,000-kilogram payload, however, the range grows to about 3,100 kilometers, which exceeds the proposed limit.

Saudi Arabia is rumored to have recently acquired two-stage, solid-propellant DF-21 or Shaheen-2 missiles from China or Pakistan, respectively.[15] The DF-21 and Shaheen-2 missiles are more accurate and reliable than their DF-3 counterparts, they are easier to maintain and operate, and they offer greater mobility, which enhances prelaunch survivability. Upgrading the arsenal with the more modern missiles also bestows greater prestige on Saudi Arabia, although the newer missiles have a reduced range capability. Nonetheless, if the rumors are accurate, it seems reasonable to conclude that Saudi Arabia is in the process of replacing its obsolete DF-3s with 2,000 kilometer-range DF-21 or Shaheen-2 missiles, in which case Riyadh could painlessly decide to scrap the DF-3s altogether, unilaterally or in conjunction with the proposed intermediate-range missile ban.

If the rumors are inaccurate, Riyadh may hesitate to accept a deal that does not yield a replacement capability. Because the DF-3s are old and likely no longer serviceable, even with continued Chinese maintenance efforts, the Saudis might be convinced to eliminate the missiles if they are promised additional fighter-bomber aircraft and advanced missile defense systems. A military assistance package that includes the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and the Aegis Ashore system, with its Standard Missile-3 interceptors, might prove too tempting to refuse. Yet, even with such inducements, Saudi Arabia may be reluctant to forfeit the DF-3 because of its symbolic value.

Moving Forward

The international community, perhaps led by China, Russia, the United States, and key member states of the European Union, should seek to persuade countries in the Middle East to negotiate and agree to a verifiable regime that prohibits the possession or flight testing of intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As outlined above, a combination of incentive packages and diplomatic pressure almost certainly will be required, but the precise nature of the inducements will not become clear until the key parties from the Middle East begin negotiations and define their objectives and concerns.

Russia and the United States could begin by offering to create jointly the foundations of a regional monitoring authority whose initial purpose would be to house data on missile and space launches from the region. At first, the database would consist of information gathered by Russian and U.S. sensors and might later be augmented by voluntary submissions to the monitoring authority from countries within the region. The transparency created by the monitoring authority could be used to build a minimal level of trust, from which negotiations on the basic parameters of a ban on long-range missiles could begin.

In addition to the diplomatic benefits of contributing to the successful conclusion of a sensitive negotiation, Russia and the United States could gain security benefits from participating. A verifiable ban on long-range missiles would remove most or all of the basis for the planned deployment of the later phases of the U.S.-NATO missile defense system in Europe. U.S.-Russian disagreements over European missile defense currently are an irritant to U.S.-Russian relations and, in particular, are a major obstacle to further arms reductions.

The negotiations on a Middle Eastern missile agreement undoubtedly will be difficult, as many issues bedevil relations in the Middle East beyond ballistic missile inventories. The lack of peace between Israel and Palestine, historical enmities, territorial and sectarian disputes, and asymmetries in military capabilities are just a few of the issues that could derail progress on a missile agreement.

The United States and the Soviet Union also faced seemingly insurmountable challenges during the height of the Cold War, yet both parties found it in their respective interests to work together on arms control. Sharing their experiences in negotiating arms control measures is one contribution that Russia and the United States could make to the WMD-free zone, although the lessons learned during the Cold War have limited application to the conditions and dynamics of the Middle East. Indeed, the additional complexities underline the importance of finding a measure that does not collide with long-standing security tenets of any of the affected states and therefore can serve as a first step in what undoubtedly will be a long and tortuous path to a WMD-free Middle East.

Michael Elleman is senior fellow for regional security cooperation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and is principal author of “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment” (2010). He spent 20 years developing ballistic missiles at Lockheed Martin Corp. before joining the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission as a missile expert for weapons inspection missions in Iraq. From 1995 to 2001, he led a Cooperative Threat Reduction program in Russia aimed at dismantling obsolete strategic missiles.


1. For an analysis of the Phased Adaptive Approach and its effectiveness against the current and future Russian deterrent, see Dean A. Wilkening, “Does Missile Defence in Europe Threaten Russia?” Survival, Vol. 54, No. 1 (February-March 2012): 31-52.

2. Andrew Feickert, “Missile Survey: Ballistic and Cruise Missiles of Foreign Countries,” CRS Report for Congress, RL30427, March 5, 2004.

3. There is no internationally recognized missile classification scheme. For the purposes of this article, ballistic missiles are categorized into four classes: short-range missiles are capable of traveling distances of 1,000 kilometers; medium-range missiles, between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometers; intermediate-range missiles, between 3,000 and 5,500 kilometers; and intercontinental ballistic missiles, more than 5,500 kilometers. For the purposes of this article, “long-range” missiles are those that exceed the proposed limit of 3,000 kilometers.

4. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment,” 2010.

5. Jim Mann, “U.S. Caught Napping by Sino-Saudi Missile Deal,” Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1988, p. 1.

6. For details, see IISS, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities,” ch. 3.

7. Parisa Hafezi, “Iran Fires 14 Missiles in 2nd Day of War Games,” Reuters, June 28, 2011.

8. Alon Ben-David, Amy Butler, and Robert Wall, “Israel, U.S. Strike F-35 Technology Deal,” Aviation Week, July 7, 2011.

9. James Hackett, ed., The Military Balance (London: IISS, 2010).

10. Uzi Mahnaimi and Matthew Campbell, “Israel Makes Nuclear Waves With Submarine Missile Test,” London Sunday Times, June 18, 2000.

11. “Germany Sells Israel More Dolphin Subs,” Defense Industry Daily, February 6, 2012, http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/germany-may-sell-2-more-dolphin-subs-to-israel-for-117b-01528/.

12. “Dassault Lève Le Voile Sur Le Missile Jericho” [Dassault lifts the lid on the Jericho missile story], Air & Cosmos, December 6, 1996, p. 36.

13. See, for example, GlobalSecurity.org, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” July 24, 2011, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/israel/missile.htm; Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Israel: Missile,” November 2011, http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Israel/Missile/index.html.

14. Yuval Azoulay, “Missile Test ‘Will Improve Deterrence,’” Haaretz, January 18, 2008; Anshel Pfeffer and Reuters, “IDF Test-Fires Ballistic Missile in Central Israel,” Haaretz, November 2, 2011.

15. GlobalSecurity.org, “Saudi Arabia Special Weapons,” July 24, 2011, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/saudi/index.html; Jeffrey Lewis, “Saudi Missile Claims,” Arms Control Wonk, June 8, 2010, http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/2761/china-and-saudi-bms.

Posted: December 31, 1969

Stemming the Spread of Missiles: Hits, Misses, and Hard Cases

Twenty-five years after it was publicly announced on April 16, 1987, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has overcome uncertainty and hostility to become a major force in global nonproliferation. Supported by the 2002 Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation and the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), it is the principal mechanism of the international regime against the spread of long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and their technology.

By Aaron Karp

Twenty-five years after it was publicly announced on April 16, 1987, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has overcome uncertainty and hostility to become a major force in global nonproliferation. Supported by the 2002 Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation and the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), it is the principal mechanism of the international regime against the spread of long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and their technology.

In the late 1970s, news and intelligence reports revealed a rising tide of ballistic missile and space-launch projects, many coinciding with efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities. More than two dozen countries were moving into long-range rocketry. Many relied on Soviet-supplied Scud missiles, while others, such as Iraq and Libya, were acquiring rocketry technology from Europe. Persuaded of the need for multilateral coordination but initially suspicious of new treaties, the Reagan administration authorized the negotiations that eventually culminated in the MTCR.[1]

Like the earlier Nuclear Suppliers Group, the MTCR is not a treaty but an agreement to coordinate national export policies. The members agree to implement export controls based on the Technology Annex, which lists ballistic and cruise missile-related technologies, accepting an “unconditional strong presumption of denial” against exports of highly sensitive technologies and “exercis[ing] restraint” in approving export of others.[2] The MTCR has grown from seven original parties in 1987 to 34 with the acceptance of the latest in 2004, and several other countries unilaterally committed to abide by the rules but not formally join the regime. The Technology Annex—the heart of the regime—has been updated repeatedly, most importantly to cover any missile capable of delivering nuclear, biological, or chemical armaments.

Silver anniversaries are for celebration but also reappraisal. During the 25 years since the birth of the MTCR, the number of countries with active programs to develop long-range rockets (ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles) has declined significantly, although the number investing in cruise missiles has grown. Acute worries today focus mostly on two emerging missile powers—Iran and North Korea—although this is partially because the MTCR members have accepted, to varying degrees, the missile capabilities that other emerging powers such as India and Pakistan refuse to abandon. Conventionally armed missiles also are much more of a priority today.

Through its intermittent plenary meetings and routine intersessionals, the MTCR has created a large network of national agencies directly engaged in the daily work of missile nonproliferation. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the MTCR and the broader missile nonproliferation regime is creation of a cultural expectation of nonproliferation. Many missile programs that previously seemed unstoppable are long gone, and survivors have been slowed sufficiently to permit neighboring countries to adjust to changing regional dynamics, especially the introduction of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. As a result, the international system is much less fragile than it seemed in the 1980s, when the possibility of a single country’s—virtually any country’s—dramatic advances in missilery threatened the stability of entire regions.

This restraint reflects much more than technical barriers. As rocket technology ages—this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the German V-2—developing long-range missiles becomes simpler and cheaper due to electronic, component, and manufacturing improvements. As technical barriers to entry continuously erode, normative and strategic considerations gain importance in efforts to suppress missile proliferation and its effects. Normative elements of the global ballistic missile regime are growing more important. Countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Libya, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Ukraine did not give up their long-range missile programs because the programs were technically unsupportable. On the contrary, several of those countries continue to develop space-launch capabilities. Instead, their retreat testifies to the powerful principle of missile nonproliferation.

Hits and Misses

The MTCR never was intended to prevent countries from acquiring all types of missiles. Rather, it was crafted as a barrier to long-range military missilery. In the 1980s, there was growing fear that many countries would work incrementally, starting with sounding or artillery rockets and gradually accumulating self-sufficient capabilities to make much larger weapons. This has not happened.

The MTCR and the broader missile nonproliferation regime cannot take all the credit for the brightening international picture—the end of the Cold War and the decline of state-to-state conflict played major roles—but neither can the MTCR be denied credit for its contribution. Among its accomplishments:

Establishing the principle of missile nonproliferation for ballistic missiles. Most governments accept the principle that governments have an obligation to combat the spread of ballistic missile technology. This principle subsequently was codified in the Hague Code of Conduct, which was opened for signature in 2002 and now has been signed by 134 countries, all pledging not to aid ballistic missile proliferation.

Narrowing threat list. Few countries are interested in acquiring long-range rocketry. In the late 1980s, roughly a dozen countries were actively considering intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development.[3] Today, there are four candidates: Iran and North Korea are in this category, as noted above; India is developing an introductory ICBM capability with the Agni-5, which has a range of about 5,000 kilometers; and Pakistan cannot be excluded

Reducing the number of countries trying to export destabilizing technology. When the MTCR was created, the worst offenders were Western European countries willing to supply larger booster engines to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Now the remaining suppliers are North Korea and, to a lesser degree, Iran. China and Russia may continue to export ballistic missile technology, although neither appears to sell complete, large ballistic missiles (described below).

Eliminating most of the randomness of ballistic missile proliferation. Few countries are able to import major rocket technologies, and fewer are serious about ballistic missile development. Instead of the possibility that major rocketry projects could appear anywhere at any moment, the international community faces a handful of more-predictable priorities. The list of countries arousing concern has shrunk to a hard core of difficult cases, led by Iran and North Korea.

In place of the old game between proliferators and controllers, cooperation for nonproliferation became normal. More and more governments came to see ballistic missile control as an element in their broader strategic interests, and what used to be a strategic exception to other rules of cooperative restraint has become part of those same cooperative assumptions.

The MTCR became a potent incentive for any government interested in global acceptance, better relations with its neighbors and the West, easier high-tech trade, and security cooperation with the United States and its allies. The regime helped cement governments into the global security system. Because MTCR obligations control their most dangerous sales, exporters found their other technology sales easier to expand. Recipient countries found that nonproliferation adherence facilitates their imports of more-advanced technology, civilian and conventional military. This is export control at its best.

The great accomplishment against missile proliferation cannot be separated from larger transformations of international politics. Above all, the decline in state-to-state war made large missile forces strategically dubious and their cost more difficult to justify. With less of a role to play, they became vulnerable to cutting and were stopped or were redirected toward peaceful purposes.

Unfortunately, the appraisal cannot end there. The MTCR was born with limitations. Even before it was announced, negotiators had given up on stopping the further spread of Soviet Scud missiles, which were in the hands of about a dozen countries in 1987. The rules were written to avoid confronting Scud capabilities, if only because Scud technology already was so widely available. Not surprisingly, Scud technology became the most difficult problem of missile proliferation, spreading to more countries and used in many armed conflicts since that time. There were other, more general shortcomings.

The regime’s effectiveness against ballistic missile technology was not matched against cruise missiles. In contrast to the rising barriers against the ballistic missile trade, the barriers to cruise missile proliferation declined, eroded by simplification of the technology, the rise of new uses for it, and legitimation of cruise missiles by leading MTCR parties.

The MTCR failed to make ballistic missiles less important in strategic affairs. If anything, they gained importance in some countries. This is clearest in China and especially in Russia, where the ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) programs are the most favored of military procurement projects, lavished with financial support and public recognition while virtually all other military programs wither. Although Soviet/Russian-U.S. strategic arms reduction treaties prove that ballistic missiles are not weapons of the future, these weapons cannot be dismissed as relics of the past.

The MTCR has slowed but cannot halt countries that have no interest in joining international society. Reducing the breadth of the ballistic missile proliferation problem came at the cost of being left with the most challenging cases.

Trapped by Rising Expectations

Even an inconspicuous security regime requires constant massaging to remain effective. Nothing happens by accident—not reaffirming first principles, getting intelligence where it is needed, continuously updating rules, or ensuring that governments act quickly. The day-to-day work of the MTCR requires deliberate effort by the foreign ministries of all 34 member countries.[4] Only the undiluted commitment of the parties makes it sustainable.

Behind this success lies active diplomacy by key governments. Although the MTCR rarely makes the news, its work affects vital multilateral issues of commerce and security and a complex skein of bilateral relationships.[5] If it did not exist, this cooperation would have to be re-created in a much more ad hoc and unsatisfying form. Inattentiveness is a constant danger.

The MTCR also suffers today from its own success. In the past, the basic test of the MTCR was relative effectiveness—how many programs could it stop or starve into immobility? Most of the countries at which it was directed quit the ballistic missile field, trimmed their ambitions, switched to peaceful uses, or persuaded the United States and its allies not to see them as threats and were dropped from the list of major targets.

It is tempting to dismiss past accomplishments as easy cases, but a careful reading shows that every success required concerted effort. Most missile control victories were anything but inevitable. Bringing countries into the regime often involved negotiations adapting MTCR standards to permit smaller missile projects, typically within MTCR thresholds, or allowing continued progress on civilian space launch projects. For example, Brazil joined in 1995 after winning access to U.S. technical assistance for its space launch program. South Korea joined in 2001 only after winning assurances it could proceed with MTCR-compliant ballistic missiles and larger space-launch boosters.[6]

Although criticized by purists, these deals were not exceptional nor were they concessions. Rather, they were essential to wider compliance. Deals do not undermine the regime; they are the basis of its expansion and success. Every new country that joins the MTCR brings change in the form of its own agenda and priorities. The great strength of the regime is its ability to accommodate this diversity while enhancing progress toward basic goals.

Sometimes, the trade-offs were judged unacceptable, most spectacularly in 2004 when the Bush administration vetoed Chinese membership. The Bush administration took this step partially because of residual distrust from Chinese transfers of ballistic missiles to Pakistan in the early 1990s and concern that even a reformed China would necessitate diluting MTCR standards.[7] An opportunity to bring in a major power was lost, as was a basic truth: making room for virtually every new member required adjusting the regime to accommodate its distinctive needs.

By adapting, the regime gained an extraordinary degree of control over government-to-government transfers of missile technology. Yet, with much of the original task done, the test of regime effectiveness shifts to outliers, the cases that eluded the MTCR throughout its past 25 years. Instead of being judged on its relative success, the regime now is evaluated in terms of absolute standards. Above all, can it stop or slow Iran and North Korea? If those countries continue, can the regime stop their neighbors from responding in kind?

Enigmas in Iran and North Korea

At the heart of contemporary proliferation worries are not the most advanced countries feared in 1987, but technological laggards, distinguished by their isolation and truculence. Iran and North Korea are on the road to creating nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Although their rocketry programs originated before the creation of the MTCR, these programs continue to be veiled in obscurity.

A series of reports in the last year showed that the process of missile proliferation still is not understood as well as one might think. Enormous ambiguities surround the ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles of both countries, revealing important gaps in outside knowledge and ability to enforce export controls. These uncertainties go to the heart of MTCR effectiveness.

North Korea’s rocketry program emerged as the missile counterpart to the Abdul Qadeer Khan network, supplying launchers to complement the nuclear wherewithal exported with abandon by the former head of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea is widely acknowledged to be the world’s most important international source of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, especially Scud versions and Nodongs supplied to Iran and Pakistan. Even so, an assessment of public intelligence reports led one analyst, Joshua Pollack, to conclude that North Korean missile exports have declined dramatically since the early 1990s. Export controls, especially the PSI, are important, but Pollack concludes that declining demand is a bigger factor: there are fewer buyers for North Korean rockets.[8]

The state of North Korean progress is highly controversial, culminating in the recent debates over whether North Korea will deploy a mobile ICBM in the next five years. Pyongyang has tested delivery systems with ICBM potential and launched a space launch vehicle, but without success, leading analysts such as David Wright to regard alarmist claims skeptically.[9]

No less surprising, previous assumptions about the source of North Korean missile technology have come under question. For many years, it was widely believed that North Korea’s rocketry was largely indigenous, based on Scud technology acquired through Egypt around 1980 and progressively developed to create the Nodong and more-capable systems such as the Taepo Dong-1 and -2. This conclusion was shaken by the display in October 2010 of the Musudan, a ballistic missile apparently derived from the Soviet R-27 SLBM. A subsequent analysis shows that North Korean reliance on Russian missile supplies and technology extends to the Scuds and Nodong rockets it has exported (or re-exported) in recent years.[10] In light of these discoveries, MTCR compliance by Russia, a member since 1995, looks dubious or its law enforcement comical.

The allegations about North Korea’s continuing dependence on Russia cast doubt on previous conclusions that Iran is largely self-sufficient. A recent UN report noted “conflicting views regarding the impact of sanctions on Iran’s missile program.” Indeed, Iran also appears to be dependent on foreign assistance.[11] U.S. diplomatic cables reveal allegations that Chinese-made rocket parts—graphite exhaust vanes—continued to reach Iran as of 2010, shipped through North Korea.[12]

After supplying short-range M-11 missiles to Pakistan in 1992-1993, Beijing appeared to recede from the global missile trade. In 2004, when it was being considered for MTCR membership, China went to great lengths to show it had reformed its export control policies. The Iranian exhaust vanes are small compared to whole rockets, but contradict this image. The transfers support the conclusion that Iran’s ballistic missiles, despite distinctive designs, continue to rely on imported technology.[13] This view is contested. Uzi Rubin maintains that Iran’s domestic infrastructure has reached a threshold beyond which export controls cannot stop its further progress.[14] Imports seem most significant, he suggests, as an accelerator rather than a determinant of progress.

These reports and analyses show that international trade remains important and inadequately controlled. Although Russia is an MTCR party and Chinese officials maintain that their country upholds international nonproliferation standards, both countries either allow exports of ostensibly forbidden technologies or are unable to enforce their laws.

Dilemmas of Interconnectedness

The MTCR needs reinforcement, but even an airtight export regime would not solve missile proliferation. Never simple, the problem has grown in complexity. Testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that “it is the multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats—and the actors behind them—that constitute our biggest challenge.”[15] As much as it transformed economics, globalization is transforming international security, making it impossible to separate dangers or isolate problems for special treatment. If policymakers focus on one technology, a synonym is certain to cause new trouble. Penalties imposed on one country surely will create problems with others. Interconnectedness weakens the effectiveness of single-purpose arms control regimes, making it more difficult for them to target particular programs or countries.

The interchangeability of ballistic and cruise missiles has long been recognized. Both are addressed in the MTCR, but cruise missile controls have been getting weaker. There are greater dual-use justifications for cruise missile technologies, including manned and unmanned aircraft. As less-risky versions of tactical aircraft, cruise missiles never have lacked for legitimacy. Beginning with the 1991 Persian Gulf War, they have become a stalwart of armed conflict. It is no wonder that missile diplomacy resists grappling with cruise missile issues. The Hague Code of Conduct, which forbids ballistic missile proliferation but not ownership, avoids cruise missiles altogether in its normative language. Dennis Gormley correctly calls this oversight “regrettable.”[16] It is no mere slip; it acknowledges the seeming impossibility of restricting a technology that is so widely accepted.

Further complicating nonproliferation diplomacy is the rising tempo of missile defense deployments. Previously understood as alternatives, missile nonproliferation and missile defense apply to the same countries and threats. Although they are implemented by different agencies, address different points in the proliferation cycle, and differ radically in cost, they are directed at the same targets. They share pessimism over the prospects for cooperation with determined proliferators. There is uncertainty over the effectiveness of both; neither is a panacea. In this respect, missile nonproliferation and missile defense increasingly resemble each other. The future of missile proliferation cannot be understood without considering the interrelated effects of the MTCR and missile defense.

At the component level, many missile defense technologies are themselves subject to MTCR control.[17] More fundamentally, missile nonproliferation and missile defense affect each other operationally. The separation between the two has become increasingly arbitrary and unsustainable. When the U.S.-Soviet balance was paramount and everything else a sideshow, the division made sense. After President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty on June 13, 2002, the situation was altered forever. Bush tried to maintain the distinction by reassuring Moscow and emphasizing bilateral counterterrorism cooperation instead.[18] Instead, more cooperation is necessary in all areas.

Further muddying the distinction, missile defenses designed for one situation generally have the flexibility to be used in others. After the collapse of Bush’s provocative central European ABM system, mercifully terminated by President Barack Obama in September 2009, the dominant crossover concern is the replacement, U.S. missile defenses in the Mediterranean and southeastern Europe.[19] Unlike the previous system, which was designed to intercept ICBMs,the U.S.-NATO approach to missile defense initially will counter Iranian medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile developments.[20]

Russian officials, including President Dmitry Medvedev, have maintained that the new system still would undermine Russian security. They have made U.S.-NATO missile defense the dominant issue of Russia’s transatlantic diplomacy.[21] Their strenuous rhetoric elevated strategic policy to a prominence not seen since the Cold War. Missile proliferation has reversed older strategic relationships, as emerging missile threats, the traditional secondary priority, increasingly lead the agenda, forcing the U.S.-Russian relationship to adjust.

The same confusion affects other regions. Sea-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) missile defenses deployed primarily against Iran or North Korea are inherently capable against China’s DF-21D, the missile seen as China’s greatest deterrent to U.S. naval action in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The effectiveness of the SM-3 against the Chinese missile is unknowable in the absence of experience.[22] This uncertainty affects planning for both sides. China already has to consider the effectiveness of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, with interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Designed to counter a North Korean ICBM breakout, the GMD system is ideally located to intercept a Chinese attack. Chinese strategists therefore are considering expanding their deterrent forces to make them capable of larger salvos to saturate defenses. The GMD system undoubtedly plays a role in the gradual expansion of China’s ICBM force, now numbering perhaps 72 missiles.[23] The absence of an all-out East Asian arms race testifies to Chinese and U.S. mutual restraint in the face of significant structural dangers.

The tendency to connect strategic and regional capabilities is further illustrated by the temptations of pre-emptive strikes. A statement of this trend is U.S. proposals to use ICBMs for prompt attacks on small targets, creating uncertainty about the possible targets of long-range rockets.[24] These innovations make the missile forces of the United States and other countries even more ambiguous and unpredictable. No longer can observers look on long-range missiles as they did 25 years ago, when they exclusively were weapons of strategic deterrence.

The rising salience of artillery rockets has broken precedents and inhibitions that previously restrained ballistic missile attacks. As artillery rockets grow larger—unguided rockets or guided versions with ranges up to 300 kilometers are increasingly common—they equal crucial performance capabilities of ballistic missiles. Some artillery rockets are in fact fully guided, such as the U.S. Multiple Launch Rocket System, making artillery rockets and ballistic missiles truly interchangeable. Missile defense already has had to adjust to this confusion.

A final element of this issue is the impact of short-range artillery rockets on strategic stability. Tactical weapons such as ubiquitous 107-millimeter Katyushas have become consequential in strategic balances. Hezbollah’s estimated 200,000 rockets—some much larger than 107 millimeters—are part of the Iranian-Israeli strategic equation.[25] The new asymmetries go even further. Iranian rhetoric, for example, routinely suggests that alternative forms of violence, possibly suicide bombings, radiological attack, or effective closure of the Strait of Hormuz, can be used to deter ballistic missile attacks. Such interconnectedness is creating strategic problems that stretch far beyond the reach of the MTCR or any export control regime.

Toward Conflict Resolution

Although regimes such as the MTCR must play crucial roles for years to come, they increasingly are understood as parts of an orchestra, working to support a larger diplomatic process to reduce tensions and promote conflict resolution. To be sure, the easiest way to advance missile nonproliferation in the next few years is by strengthening the MTCR, which means bringing in new members and improving enforcement by current ones. However, there are limits to what the MTCR can accomplish by itself.

Much can be done to improve the regime. Further membership growth is essential. No country has been admitted since Bulgaria in 2004. By failing to move forward, the MTCR has stagnated, losing its relevance to the most serious proliferation risks and regions. In discussions of potential new members, the countries to stress are not just those that already adhere to MTCR restrictions, but also those most likely to help recipients such as Iran or North Korea. China is the most important potential member; India is the next priority. Others to be considered are Pakistan, countries of the Middle East, and eventually the most challenging countries such as Iran and North Korea.

The regime would be more credible if its Technology Annex were modernized to include long-overlooked issues, above all, cruise missiles. The reasons for avoiding cruise missiles are easy to appreciate. The most vigorous advocates of control are themselves increasingly dependent on cruise missiles and comparable precision-guided weapons, illustrated most recently by NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya and counterterrorism drone attacks elsewhere. As has always been the case, effective export control requires making nonproliferation a top priority, forgoing sales opportunities, and accepting self-restraint.

Developing the normative foundations of missile nonproliferation requires further progress as well. The Hague Code of Conduct approach, stigmatizing trade but not ownership, probably has run its course. Normative progress requires greater attention to the interconnectedness of all missiles. Normative processes are especially potent in eroding the prestige of ballistic missiles, making them less appealing. Nothing weakens that prestige so much as the sight of nuclear-weapon states destroying their own ballistic missile forces. It is no accident that the greatest milestones of missile nonproliferation came at the very moment the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty were cutting superpower arsenals.

Yet, there are limits to the ability to resolve proliferation issues through norms, especially when the norms do not culminate in comprehensive bans. The normative consensus against chemical weapons or anti-personnel landmines—facilitating complete disarmament—is much weaker against missiles.[26] Stigmatizing ballistic missiles can reach only so far if security fears and symbolic appeal remain, while every use of cruise missiles makes their spread all the more likely.

The greatest value of missile nonproliferation is reducing tensions where it can and buying time where it cannot. That will remain the essential role of the MTCR. The solution to missile proliferation, to difficult cases, lies elsewhere, in policies that apply the time bought by export controls to resolve underlying conflicts. The ultimate answers to missile fears lie less in the distinctiveness of missile technologies and more in the all-encompassing principles of arms control and regional conflict resolution. Interconnectedness is not just a cause of security problems; it also is the basis of security solutions.


Aaron Karp is a senior lecturer at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and co-editor of the journal Contemporary Security Policy. His writing on missile proliferation includes Ballistic Missile Proliferation: Politics and Technics (1996).





1. Richard Speier, “The Missile Technology Control Regime: Case Study of a Multilateral Negotiation” (manuscript, U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., November 1995).

2. Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), “Equipment, Software, and Technology Annex,” MTCR/TEM/2011/Annex, November 18, 2011.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “The Emerging Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States: Report of the Proliferation Study Team,” February 1993.

4. For a remarkably revealing portrait of the MTCR at work, see “Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Reinforced Point of Contact (RPOC) Meeting, April 10, 2008,” 08STATE44438, April 28, 2008, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/wikileaks-files/nuclear-wikileaks/8298531/MISSILE-TECHNOLOGY-CONTROL-REGIME-MTCR-REINFORCED-POINT-OF-CONTACT-RPOC-MEETING-APRIL-10-2008.html (retrieved by WikiLeaks).

5. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Rumblings Precede 25th Missile-Control Meeting,” Strategic Comments, Vol. 17, No. 14 (March 2011).

6. Wyn Q. Bowen, “Brazil’s Accession to the MTCR,” The Nonproliferation Review, Spring-Summer 1996, pp. 86-91; Alex Wagner, “S. Korea, U.S. Agree on Missile Guidelines, MTCR Membership,” Arms Control Today, March 2001

7. Niels Aadal Rasmussen, Chinese Missile Technology Control: Regime or No Regime? (Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, 2007).

8. Joshua Pollack, “Ballistic Trajectory: The Evolution of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Market,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 18, No. 2 (July 2011).

9. See David Wright, “A North Korean ICBM?” 38 North, February 12, 2012, http://38north.org/2012/02/dwright021212/.

10. Mark Fitzpatrick, ed., North Korean Security Challenges (London: IISS, 2011), ch. 6.

11. “Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1929 (2010): Final Report,” 2011, p. 26, www.scribd.com/doc/55737041/Leaked-UN-Panel-of-Experts-Report-on-Iran-Sanctions-May-2011.

12. “Post Requested to Follow Up on Ongoing Matters of Proliferation Concern Raised at APEC by President Bush,” State 152317, November 3, 2007, www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/128567.

13. Mark Fitzpatrick, ed., Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities (London: IISS, 2010), p. 75 (retrieved by WikiLeaks).

14. Uzi Rubin, “Showcase of Missile Proliferation: Iran’s Missile and Space Program,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2012.

15. James R. Clapper, “Unclassified Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” January 31, 2012, www.dni.gov/testimonies/20120131_testimony_ata.pdf.

16. Dennis M. Gormley, Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008), p. 10.

17. Richard Speier, “Missile Nonproliferation and Missile Defense: Fitting Them Together,” Arms Control Today, November 2007.

18. Wade Boese, “U.S. Withdraws From ABM Treaty; Global Response Muted,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2002.

19. Peter Baker, “White House Scraps Bush’s Approach to Missile Shield,” The New York Times, September 17, 2009.

20. The White House, “Fact Sheet: Implementing Missile Defense in Europe,” September 15, 2011.

21. Tom Z. Collina, “U.S.-Russia Missile Defense Talks Deadlock,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2012.

22. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities,” CRS Report for Congress, RL33153, August 26, 2010, pp. 47-48.

23. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2011,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 2011, p. 82.

24. M. Elaine Bunn and Vincent A. Manzo, “Conventional Prompt Global Strike: Strategic Asset or Unusable Liability?” Strategic Forum, No. 263 (February 2011).

25. Amos Harel, “Some 200,000 Missiles Aimed Consistently at Israel, Top IDF Officer Says,” Haaretz, February 2, 2012.

26. “Landmine Treaty: Progress in Phnom Penh,” Human Rights Watch, December 2, 2011; Paul F. Walker, “Abolishing Chemical Weapons: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities,” Arms Control Today, November 2010.

Posted: December 31, 1969

Showcase of Missile Proliferation: Iran’s Missile and Space Program

A comprehensive review of missile proliferation published in 1988 listed 20 nonindustrialized nations that were deploying various types of ballistic missiles at the time. Tucked toward the bottom of that list was one Middle Eastern country with just three types of missiles, two of which were actually simple, unguided rockets. That country was Iran.

Uzi Rubin

A comprehensive review of missile proliferation published in 1988 listed 20 nonindustrialized nations that were deploying various types of ballistic missiles at the time. Tucked toward the bottom of that list was one Middle Eastern country with just three types of missiles, two of which were actually simple, unguided rockets. That country was Iran.[1]

Today, the United States regards Iran as “the country with the largest and most active missile program in the Middle East.”[2] Tehran now fields an arsenal of hundreds of locally made ballistic missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers.[3] It has successfully tested a 21-ton, two-stage, solid-propellant missile with a range of 2,200 kilometers[4] and twice has orbited its own satellites by an indigenous space launcher from its national spaceport. Further, it has converted unguided rockets into reasonably accurate guided missiles and then into anti-ship ballistic missiles.[5]

In retrospect, Iran managed to transform itself from a nonplayer to a significant missile power in less than one generation. For a country that never has had a world-class aerospace industry, this is quite remarkable. Even more remarkably, this was achieved in the face of continuous international and U.S. efforts to block Iran’s missile programs through legal, diplomatic, and financial measures. The ever-growing numbers of Iranian ballistic missiles rolling in Tehran’s main thoroughfare during the twice-yearly military parades testify to the apparent failure of these measures to stop or even stall Iran’s advances in rocket science.

As demonstrated by their latest tests, Iran’s deployed missiles might have the range to hit NATO member countries in eastern Europe. The capability to build even longer-range missiles was recently announced by a top Iranian general.[6] Whether Iran actually will build nuclear weapons remains controversial, but there is no doubt that once it decided to do so, the appropriate delivery systems would be mature, ready, and survivable against pre-emption and first strikes.

How did Iran manage to do it? Publicly available evidence indicates that this feat was accomplished partly through the usual route of technology transfer from established missile powers and partly by hiring non-Iranian specialists. It seems, however, that two other factors played a role: the extraordinary Iranian ingenuity in developing covert acquisition channels from outside suppliers, even in Western countries, and a deliberate and well-focused effort by Tehran to develop a cadre of Iranian scientists and engineers that eventually would replace the foreign specialists. The leap in global oil prices during the last few years helped to fund extensive infrastructure projects for building, testing, and deploying ballistic missiles and large space launchers.

The question of Iran’s proficiency is now threatening to unhinge President Barack Obama’s policy of “reset,” or rapprochement, with Russia.[7] The perceived long-range offensive capabilities of Iran are a source of concern to Washington and the entire Western alliance and have prompted NATO to adapt Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach as a cornerstone of a European missile shield. Russia strongly resents the European missile defense system and argues that Iran’s missile industry is not competent to threaten the West with missiles in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the issue of Iran’s technological competence is at the heart of a major controversy between the United States and Russia. This question and a related one, namely whether Iran’s missile programs are stoppable or at least postponable by blocking off outside support, have global implications.

This article examines the issue from several perspectives. The capability of any country to build and deploy long-range ballistic missiles and space launchers competently depends on several restrictive factors. Some, such as level of education or financial strength, can be influenced by government policies; others, such as geographical limitations, cannot. None of these restrictive factors can now stop Iran from developing missiles that could threaten the West, should the Iranians choose to do so.

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Proficiency

The U.S.-Russian controversy over missile defense in Europe generated numerous studies and papers on whether Iranian missiles are a threat that warrants the deployment of a European missile defense system. Perhaps the most influential study was published by the EastWest Institute in May 2009 and concluded that Iran is decades away from deploying any survivable missile that could threaten Europe because Iran’s indigenous proficiency is rudimentary, limited to 1950s-vintage SCUD-level technology.[8] According to this study, “Iran does not have the infrastructure of research institutes, industrial plants, or the scientists and engineers that are needed to make substantial improvements in the basic rocket components it has used from the start.”[9] This implies that Iran’s threat to Europe is insubstantial and does not warrant the political damage to U.S.-Russian relations that would be caused by deploying U.S. missile defenses there. Furthermore, the report concludes that more-stringent export controls could prevent Iran from obtaining more-advanced missile capabilities.

WikiLeaks cables reveal that Russian government officials hold a very similar view. For example, in an October 2007 meeting between U.S. and Russian teams on a so-called joint regional missile defense architecture, Vladimir Venevtsev of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, stated, “Iran did not enjoy technical mastery of the design process…. [I]ts engineers were insufficient in number and not highly skilled…. Iran lacked solid fuel-propelled mid-range ballistic missiles and did not possess the necessary industrial chemicals to develop them.”[10] More than two years later, in a session of the U.S.-Russian Joint Threat Assessment talks on February 24, 2010, Vladimir Yermakov of the Russian delegation said, “Iran does not have the military-industrial capability to develop” a medium-range ballistic missile with a range of 3,000 kilometers and the capability to carry a one-ton warhead. “If Iran could gain access to foreign technology, it might develop such a program but this is unlikely due to export controls,” he said.[11]

The EastWest Institute report overlooked Iran’s solid-propellant capabilities. To correct this lacuna, one of its authors issued a technical addendum analyzing the recently unveiled Iranian Sajjil two-stage ballistic missile. His conclusions were that Iran’s solid-propellant capability was too rudimentary to produce a survivable long-range ballistic missile that could reach western Europe in the near future. The addendum was not endorsed by the other members of the original team of researchers.[12]

A group of technical experts from the United States and Israel rebutted the report and its addendum. The group, which includes the author of this article, criticized the assumption and methodology of the report and voiced its opinion that, “with the technology currently available to it, Iran could build solid-propellant [intermediate-range ballistic missiles] that would not be…cumbersome.” The authors said they were not very “sanguine” that diplomatic measures could prevent Iran from acquiring intermediate-range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs): “It may be too late. Nor is it clear that Iran is critically dependent on foreign sources for advancing its ballistic missile program.”[13]

The main conclusions of the next important study on Iran’s missile capabilities, published in May 2010 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, were that Iran “has developed a robust and capable solid-propellant production industry, complete with facilities, equipment and most importantly indigenous technical know-how” and that “[n]o longer will the Islamic Republic be held hostage to foreign suppliers for its strategic delivery capabilities, except for the need to import navigation and guidance units for its missiles.”[14] The study forecasts that a three-stage version of the solid-propellant Sajjil missile capable of delivering a one-ton warhead a distance of 3,700 kilometers is “at least four or five years away from possible deployment”[15] and could therefore be expected as soon as 2015. The implications are that the prospects of a near-term Iranian missile threat to Europe cannot be dismissed and that tightening export controls may not be effective in diminishing those prospects.

This rather somber view was recently endorsed by Yuri Solomonov, Russia’s foremost missile expert and a former director of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (Russia’s top ballistic missile producer). In a recent interview, Solomonov said that “both Iran and North Korea have the technology to produce a functioning ICBM.” Although such missiles could not match the quality of their U.S. and Russian counterparts, they will be adequate to reach the continental United States with nuclear warheads, Solomonov said.[16] He did not predict when such missiles might be ready. In his view, the important thing is that the Iranians are not facing any technological barriers if and when they decide to embark on such a program.

Thus, it seems that opinion on the future missile threat from Iran is sharply divided between groups that, for purposes of this article, can be called optimists and pessimists. The former holds that Iran’s missile capability is still rudimentary and that more-stringent export controls can choke it off. The latter maintains that Iran already is self-sufficient in most if not all technologies required to make adequate long-range ballistic missiles and that, consequently, it is less sensitive to export controls. This divergence of opinion between experts warrants a closer look at the building blocks of Iran’s missile capabilities.

The capability to build, maintain, and field a strategic missile force depends on at least four factors: the availability of the appropriate human resources, the existence of the appropriate industrial infrastructure, the availability of appropriate test ranges, and the ability to base the missile force in a survivable manner. A fifth factor and, in most cases, the most crucial one is the availability of financial resources. In the case of oil-rich Iran, however, this factor should be taken for granted. The other four factors will be examined in terms of their applicability to the Iranian case.

Industrial Infrastructure

Although Iran tends to be surprisingly transparent about its missile programs, it is much less so with regard to its industrial infrastructure. Yet, the very existence and the frequently televised testing of two families of large ballistic missiles—one of SCUD-era technology but the other of a considerably more modern, composite solid-propellant technology—are incontestable evidence of the existence of an extensive industrial infrastructure, without which no more than static mockups, as opposed to live flight tests, could be displayed. Indeed, two of those flights successfully put Iranian-made satellites into earth orbit, indicating that some if not all of those flights were successful.

In the rare instances when the Iranians unveil some missile-related industrial infrastructure, they label it as space oriented. Thus, the few video clips released with footage of the missile industry in action are supposed to show the manufacturing of their Safir liquid-propellant space launcher. The more modern and much more significant production facilities for solid-propellant rockets, where the real growth potential lies, remain hidden. Yet to make a large solid-propellant rocket motor such as the Sajjil’s first stage, an array of specialized production facilities is mandatory, including blenders, propellant mixers, and powerful x-ray machines.[17] Although the production complex remains covert, each televised flight test of the Sajjil testifies to its existence. To a large extent, solid-propellant rocket motors can be scaled up much more easily than liquid-propellant ones. In all likelihood, the already existing machinery could be used to double the size of the Sajjil first-stage rocket motor, which is a fairly straightforward venture. Such a double-size rocket motor, if used with the existing second stage of the original Sajjil, would make a missile that could hit targets all the way to the English Channel. Needless to say, the export of this machinery is prohibited by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and in a more perfect world never should have reached Iran.

Although most of the sinews of Iran’s rocket industry remain hidden from view, the regime recently has allowed some selective peeks. On January 30, 2011, Iran inaugurated a “space test laboratory,” an ultramodern structural and environmental test lab for complete rocket systems, whether ballistic or space launchers.[18] This new facility is filled with huge testing rigs for rocket sections, a thermal test rig for heat shields, and fixtures for aeroelasticity testing of complete multistage rockets—all MTCR-controlled items. It even features hard-to-get shaking tables for testing the ability of components to withstand vibrations. Significantly, 12 such units were illegally sold to Iran by a German company in the early 2000s.[19] An even more alarming peek was offered by Iran on August 27, 2011, when a new production facility for making carbon fibers was unveiled. Carbon fiber is a strategic material for building uranium-enrichment centrifuges as well as for producing lightweight casings of large solid-propellant rocket motors.[20] Such a production facility is a banned item under the MTCR, and its recent surfacing in Iran is an outstanding indication of Iran’s continuing access to the market of rocket production facilities.

Whether implied or explicitly displayed, Iran’s industrial infrastructure seems to be adequate not only for its present generation of missiles, but also for bigger and more threatening weapons. It tests rockets that it should not have been able to manufacture and unveils new facilities for strategic materials that by rights should not be available to it. Iran not only possesses the necessary industrial facilities for its current generation of missiles, but also seems to continue to enjoy access to more-modern missile-related machinery. It can be reasonably assumed that the industrial infrastructure factor is not an impediment to the further growth of Iran’s missile capabilities.

Testing and Test Ranges

Because the wear and tear during the re-entry phase of ballistic missiles grows exponentially with range, it is necessary to flight-test them to full or near-full range. This requires not only a fully instrumented test range, but also the geographical space for safely shooting missiles at distant impact points hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the launch point.

There is sufficient evidence to indicate that Iran is not firing its missiles “blind” and that its test missiles are fully instrumented to collect and transmit flight-test data to telemetry ground stations. On February 7, 2011, an exhibit in Tehran displayed some of Iran’s test-range instrumentation under the guise of “space launch capability.” Some crucial test-range instruments can be seen clearly on YouTube: cinetheodolites, track mounts, large telemetry-receiving antennae, and what looks like a homemade phased-array tracking radar.[21] Most of the equipment is modern and obviously foreign made. Because such equipment is controlled under the MTCR and banned for sale if used to develop large ballistic missiles and space launchers,[22] its presence is a testimony to Iran’s possession of modern test equipment as well as to its continuing access to the missile technology market.

In geographical terms, Iran is a medium-sized country, and its dimensions are too small for testing ICBMs or the longer-range types of intermediate-range ballistic missiles within its borders. Its main ballistic missile test range (and spaceport) in Semnan, east of Tehran, is just 1,400 kilometers away from the country’s furthest point on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Thus, if Iran would have been restricted to this testing limitation, it would not be able to develop missiles with much longer ranges. On July 9, 2011, however, Iran announced that in February it had flight-tested two types of long-range ballistic missiles into the Indian Ocean and that the ranges of those missiles were 1,900 kilometers.[23] Testing ballistic missiles into the sea is quite routine elsewhere: France, a country one-third the size of Iran, has successfully developed global-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) by testing them from its territory to the South Atlantic. Even the United States, with its large land area, is testing its ICBMs and SLBMs into distant oceans.

Unlike ground-to-ground testing, however, where the impact point can be precisely measured at leisure to check the accuracy of the missile, testing into the sea requires real-time location of the impact point because all traces of a sea impact vanish after few seconds. Also, some instrumentation, mainly telemetry reception, is essential near the impact point to obtain data on the behavior of the missile toward the end of its flight. It is thus mandatory for sea testing for the deployment of instrumented ships or aircraft near the impact point for precise location and telemetry reception. It is reasonable to assume that Iran did not fire blindly into the sea and that it did deploy such instrumented aircraft or ships near the impact points of the February 2011 tests. Once available, such instrumented platforms could be positioned further downrange for testing longer-range missiles. In fact, they could be deployed deeper and deeper into the Indian Ocean, all the way to the equator and beyond. Practically speaking the February 2011 tests imply that Iran has now achieved the capability to test ballistic missiles to any range that it wants.

With the availability of up-to-date flight-test instrumentation and the capability to test to any range, it can be reasonably concluded that flight testing will not put any restriction on the further growth of Iran’s missile capability.

Survivable Basing

Missiles deployed in the open are vulnerable to preventive strikes, so a viable strategic missile force must be made immune to preemption. In the case of ground-launched missiles, two strategies of survivability are feasible: mobility and hardening. Basing missiles on launchers that can be readily moved around makes pre-emption quite impracticable unless real-time information on the whereabouts of each launcher is obtained—a formidable task in general but even more so in the case of a country such as Iran, which has a larger land area than France and Germany combined. Alternatively, the missiles can be based in protected shelters, preferably in underground “silos.”

Since the early days of Iran’s missile programs, all the longer-range missiles that were Shahab-3 variants and, later, the two-stage, solid-propellant Sajjil have been displayed on mobile transporter erector launchers (TELs) built from heavy-duty semitrailers pulled by Mercedes tow trucks. The message was clear: Iran’s missile force is fully mobile, hence not pre-emptable. Ballistic missiles fueled by nonstorable liquid propellant have a window of vulnerability when fueled shortly before firing, a relatively lengthy process that must take place in the open. Solid-propellant missiles such as the Sajjil have no such weakness and can be fired within seconds of reaching their presurveyed launch points. The current type of Iran’s mobile solid-propellant missile, the 22-ton Sajjil, can reach no further than eastern Europe. Could a bigger and heavier Iranian solid-propellant missile that could reach western Europe be mobile?

In all likelihood, the answer is affirmative. As noted above, doubling the weight of the Sajjil’s first stage will give it a range of 3,700 kilometers. Such a “Super Sajjil” will weigh about 34 to 35 tons[24] and will not be significantly longer than the current version. The same heavy-duty semitrailers that are used by Iran as mobile launchers for the Sajjil are modified from tank transporters, implying that they are built for carrying loads of more than 50 tons. Hence, there is no reason why a putative Super Sajjil could not be transported on and launched from a similar, somewhat beefed-up mobile TEL.

Iran’s construction of hardened silos for its missiles was first revealed in 2008 when Google Earth images of a missile silo farm near Tabriz were published in the media.[25] Three years later, Iran opened this site or a similar one to the world’s view and televised a video clip showing its insides, including a Shahab-3 missile ready to launch.[26] The missile looks a bit undersized for that silo. From this missile’s well-known dimensions, the diameter of the silo can be estimated, and the silos seem to be sufficiently large to shelter bigger missiles, including the Super Sajjil mentioned above. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Iranians sized their silo with growth potential in mind.

Thus, Iran is covering all bases in pursuit of the survivability of its missile force. Both its mobile TELs and its static hardened silos offer growth potential for larger and longer-range missiles. The optimists forecast that any Iranian missile that could threaten Europe and the United States will be so large and cumbersome that it could be launched only from static, above-ground, and easily pre-emptible launching towers. This is not necessarily realistic. With their already proven mastery of solid-propellant technology, Iran’s putative intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ICBMs could be compact enough for ground mobility. In any case, Iranian civil engineers already have demonstrated the capacity to design and construct huge, heavily reinforced, underground complexes in Natanz and Qom for their uranium-enrichment program. There is no reason to believe that they would be unable to build larger, hardened, underground silos for any size of missile, if so required. In conclusion, it can be reasonably assumed that survivability will not put any restriction on the further growth of Iran’s missile capability.

Human Resources

The question as to whether Iran has human capital with the technological savvy for designing, testing, and building longer-range missiles is perhaps the most crucial one. As noted above, the EastWest Institute report states that “Iran does not have the infrastructure of research institutes, industrial plants, or the scientists and engineers that are needed to make substantial improvements in the basic rocket components it has used from the start.” The evidence, however, is not supportive of this optimism. Rather, it seems that Iran has already made considerable strides toward assembling a competent workforce of scientists, engineers, and managers to embark on indigenous designs of its own.

Technology transfer is almost invariably linked to expert assistance from providers to recipients, and Iran’s case is not much different from that of the United States, the Soviet Union, India, or Pakistan. In nearly all previous cases, acquiring indigenous missile proficiency initially relied on foreign expertise. (In the case of the United States and the Soviet Union, it came from teams of German scientists and engineers.) The foreign support from China, North Korea, and Russia that started Iran’s missile industry is well documented; the question is whether the Iranians now can pick up from that point and continue on their own. This depends on the quality and extent of higher technological education in Iran.

According to an unpublished report from 2005 by the United Nations, “Iran is today a middle-income developing country, with a significant industrial base, a relatively well-developed science and technology infrastructure and good human development.”[27] Iran boasts 10 academic institutes that offer technical education, with a body of more than 250,000 students in technology and science programs.[28] The Iranian authorities allow Iranian youth to receive technological and scientific education abroad, including in the United States and Canada.[29] Over the decades that have passed since Iran embarked on its missile programs, this should have provided it with a cadre of proficient scientists, engineers, and technicians to break free from reliance on foreign expertise.

There is significant indirect evidence that Iran now possesses a body of experienced technical cadres that can take over from foreigners, if it has not done so already. All types of ballistic missiles and space launchers unveiled by Iran since 2007 are unique designs, seen nowhere else. Some of those new designs, such as the two-stage space launcher Safir, are quite ingenious. Of course, they could have been designed to order by foreign teams from, say, North Korea. Yet, the fact the North Korea itself does not deploy a desirable solid-propellant intermediate-range ballistic missile like the Iranian Sajjil may indicate that it is a proprietary Iranian design.

Iran’s first space launch in August 2008 was a failure. Recovery from missile and space launcher failures invariably taxes the capability and proficiency of the development teams. In most cases, there are no physical remains to examine, and only recordings of telemetered data can be used for fault analysis. To give one example, the failure report of the U.S. ground-based interceptor test in December 2010 was released only in October 2011, a full 10 months after the event. Yet less than six months after its first botched flight, the Safir space launch vehicle performed faultlessly and put Iran’s first satellite into earth orbit. This impressive feat could not be achieved without teams of competent experts deciphering reams of telemetered data, capable designers pinpointing and fixing the flaws, and an effective management team coordinating the entire process. Such an effort is too vast to rely entirely on outside talent. It stands to reason that it was the Iranian cadres themselves that bore the brunt of it.

From the available evidence, it seems that Iran is on the threshold of moving from reliance on foreign expertise to self-sufficiency in missile and space engineering, if it has not done so already. It can be reasonably assumed that Iran’s human resources will be adequate to expedite the further growth of its missile capability with diminishing reliance on foreign support.


Iran is a veritable showcase of missile proliferation. From a starting point of no missile capability whatsoever, it has ratcheted itself up to become a regional missile powerhouse within one generation. It did so without any pre-existing industrial base and in the face of international restrictions that included general export control measures and specific sanctions. Yet, today it faces no major impediment to expanding its regional missile clout to a global level. Iran does not threaten central and western Europe yet, although the recent occupation of the British embassy in Tehran might be a harbinger of the future. If and when Iran decides to do so, it will have no major difficulty in producing and deploying longer-range missiles in short order. The view that Iran’s proficiency is not up to the job hinges on measuring proficiency by industrialized world standards, but this is the wrong yardstick. For power projection on a global scale, Iran’s missiles need not be more advanced than the early generations of Soviet and U.S. missiles. As Solomonov said, Iran faces no technological hurdle to making adequate ICBMs.

From this perspective, nonproliferation seems to have exhausted itself as far as Iran’s missile capabilities are concerned. Denial by the existing nonproliferation tools, such as the MTCR, may have slowed Iran’s programs, but evidently did not stop them; neither did the more specific sanctions mandated by UN decisions. Whatever Iranian vulnerability to export controls remains, in the field of special materials and components, might well be overcome by the combination of greedy sellers, Iran’s boundless oil money, and the country’s experienced covert acquisition network. This is not to say the nonproliferation measures against Iran should be relaxed—on the contrary, they should be tightened even further—but it does means that Western alliance policies should be based on soberly realistic premises.


Uzi Rubin is president of Rubincon Defense Technology Consultancy. He was the first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, serving in that position from 1991 to 1999.








1. Aaron Karp, “The Frantic Third World Quest for Ballistic Missiles,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1988, pp. 14-20.

2. “Missile Technology Control Regime: Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” September 23, 2009, 09STATE98727, www.wikileaks.ch/cable/2009/09/09STATE98727.html (cable obtained by WikiLeaks).

3. In a 2009 closed meeting, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi disclosed that Iran has had already fielded 300 Shahab-3 missiles. See “WikiLeaks: Iran Can Attack Israel Within Less Than 12 Minutes,” Voice Of America, January 3, 2011. Iran officially claims a range of 2,000 kilometers for its Shahab-3 variants.

4. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment,” 2010. The figure is considered by this author to be a low estimate. Other authorities suspect that the potential range of this missile could be as much as 2,500 kilometers.

5. This new capability has been widely reported in Iranian and the international media. See “‘Persian Gulf’ Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,” Uskowi on Iran, February 7, 2011, www.uskowioniran.com/2011/02/persian-gulf-asbm.html.

6. See “Iran ‘Will Not Make Longer-Range Missiles as Israel Is Already Within Reach,’” The Guardian, June 28, 2011.

7. Alexei Fenenko, “It Is Dangerous for Russia and the USA to Ignore the Looming Conflicts,” Valdai International Discussion Club, November 21, 2011, http://valdaiclub.com/usa/35080.html. There are numerous similar warnings from Russian officials and analysts.

8. EastWest Institute, “Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Potential,” May 2009, para. 3.15.

9. Ibid.

10. “Russia-U.S. Missile Defense Negotiations,” MOSCOW 005057, October 10, 2007, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/wikileaks-files/iran-wikileaks/8301419/RUSSIA-U.S.-MISSILE-DEFENSE-NEGOTIATIONS-OCTOBER-10-2007.html (cable obtained by WikiLeaks).

11. “U.S.–Russia Joint Threat Assessment Talks,” 10STATE17263, February 24, 2010,  http://statelogs.owni.fr/index.php/memo/2010/11/29/u-s-russia-joint-threat-assessment-talks (cable obtained by WikiLeaks).

12. Theodore Postol, “A Technical Assessment of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,”  May 6, 2009, http://docs.ewi.info/JTA_TA_Program.pdf.

13. David Montague, Uzi Rubin, and Dean Wilkening, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Potential,” n.d., http://www.ewi.info/system/files/IransBallisticMissilePotential.pdf.

14. IISS, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities,” p. 63.

15. Ibid., p. 143.

16. “North Korea Can Make ICBMs: Russian Expert,” The Korea Times, July 7, 2011 (translation from Kommersant interview in Russian).

17. For a comprehensive description of the industrial infrastructure for solid-propellant rocket motors, see Federation of American Scientists (FAS), “Missile Technology Control Regime Annex Handbook,” ch. 5, www.fas.org/nuke/control/mtcr/text/mtcr_handbook.pdf.

18. “Photos: Iran Inaugurates Largest Space Test Laboratory Center,” Payvand Iran News Agency, January 30, 2011.

19. “Supplier: Volker Stumpf,” Iran Watch, October 18, 2007, www.iranwatch.org/suppliers/records/volker.html.

20. “Inauguration of Carbon Fiber Plant,” Persia Digest, September 2, 2011, www.persiadigest.com/journal/tpl/set_thejournal/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&NrIssue=16&NrSection=4&NrArticle=523.

21. “Inauguration Ceremony of Iran’s Aerospace Capabilities,” YouTube, February 7, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEM8d3twF8w.

22. For a comprehensive description of MTCR-controlled test equipment, see FAS,
“Missile Technology Control Regime Annex Handbook,” ch. 12.

23. Robin Pomeroy, “Iran Says It Fires Missiles Into the Indian Ocean for the First Time,” Reuters, July 9, 2011.

24. See Montague, Rubin, and Wilkening, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Potential.”

25. See “Iran’s Military and Strategic Discussion Forum,” IranDefense.net, February 26, 2008, www.irandefence.net/showthread.php?t=29952.

26. For the Iranian-released video clip with an English translation in subtitles, see “Iranian TV Report on Underground Missile Silos,” YouTube, July 30, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=96b02CW-nZE.

27. UN Conference on Trade and Development, “Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Review: The Islamic Republic of Iran,” UNCTAD/ITE/IPC/2005/7, February 2005, www.unctad.org/en/docs/iteipc20057_en.pdf.

28. Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran-Copenhagen, “Education in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” n.d., www.iran-embassy.dk/fa/culteral/education%20en.pdf.

29. Mohammad Hafezi, “Fact Sheet on the Iranian Students in the U.S. and Canada,” July 2006, http://isgmit.org/research/?id=340&cat=iran&stat=full#ISG report.

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Lawmakers Raise North Korea ICBM Fears

Five Republican members of Congress raised concerns in November that North Korea is developing a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a capability that might allow it to protect its long-range missiles from being destroyed before they are used. However, some nongovernmental experts said such a system was very likely beyond North Korea’s current technical reach.

Peter Crail

Five Republican members of Congress raised concerns in November that North Korea is developing a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a capability that might allow it to protect its long-range missiles from being destroyed before they are used. However, some nongovernmental experts said such a system was very likely beyond North Korea’s current technical reach.

In a Nov. 17 letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the lawmakers expressed “concern about new intelligence concerning foreign developments in long-range ballistic missile development, specifically ballistic missiles capable of attacking the United States.” Rep. Michael Turner (Ohio), who chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, and four other members of the panel—Reps. Trent Franks (Ariz.), Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Mike Rogers (Ala.), and Mac Thornberry (Texas)—wrote the letter after their subcommittee received an intelligence briefing that week.

The legislators argued that the United States must increase missile defense spending against threats to the homeland, rather than focusing on regional missile threats.

The letter includes a June 4 quote from then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told an audience in Singapore that, “with the continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a road-mobile [ICBM]…North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States.” Gates later said even more definitively in a Newsweek interview published June 21 that Pyongyang was developing such a capability, commenting, “I never would have dreamed [North Korea] would go road-mobile before testing a static ICBM.”

ICBMs have a range of more than 5,500 kilometers. Only two countries, China and Russia, currently field road-mobile ICBMs. Three others—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have an ICBM capability, but do not use road-mobile systems. North Korea has unsuccessfully tested ICBMs twice, launching them from large, static platforms.

Previously, publicly available U.S. intelligence assessments have noted North Korea’s ICBM development, but have not referenced a road-mobile ICBM. An annual CIA report to Congress last February on the proliferation of unconventional weapons said that North Korea was continuing to develop a mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile. The omission of any assessment of road-mobile ICBM development suggests that any related intelligence would be more recent.

Some experts on missile technology are skeptical of the potential for North Korea to develop a road-mobile ICBM with its current state of technology. Theodore Postol, former scientific adviser to the U.S. chief of naval operations, said in a Dec. 8 e-mail that “the possibility that the North Koreans could deploy a ‘realistically’ mobile ICBM is extremely remote.”

Postol said his assessment was based on two key technology limitations seen in North Korean missiles. The first is North Korea’s reliance on clustering its medium-range Nodong ballistic missile rocket motors, which “are unable to efficiently lift heavy payloads to high speed,” he said. The other factor he cited was the heaviness of the airframes that North Korea manufactures, which makes it more difficult to carry heavy payloads, such as nuclear weapons, long distances.

Most of North Korea’s missile program is based on decades-old Soviet SCUD missile technology, which has proven difficult for countries to scale up to longer-range systems. In 2009, however, North Korea unsuccessfully tested a three-stage rocket called the Taepo Dong-2, whose second stage is believed to be based on the Soviet SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile. The SS-N-6 is far more sophisticated than the SCUD-based design North Korea used for the rocket’s first stage.

Postol said that based on the technology North Korea is known to possess, the only way it could reduce the size and weight of an ICBM to fit on a road-mobile platform would be to cluster four SS-N-6 rocket motors for the missile’s first stage. “This task would be absolutely gigantic relative to anything else that we have observed being done by either Iran or North Korea,” taking several years and using up potentially limited SS-N-6 rocket motors during the development process, he said.

According to a December 2009 Department of State cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published by The Guardian newspaper, the United States concluded that North Korea could pursue three paths to an ICBM capability: using the Taepo Dong-2, developing a missile larger than the Taepo Dong-2 using a new launch facility North Korea has been building, or further developing its intermediate-range ballistic missile. That missile, which the United States calls the Musudan, is believed to be based on the SS-N-6.

Missiles understood to be the Musudan first publicly appeared in an October 2010 military parade in Pyongyang, but experts believe those missiles to have been mock-ups. North Korea has not tested the Musudan.

Reactor and Enrichment Progress

North Korea also appears to have made progress constructing an experimental light-water nuclear reactor first revealed last year, according to expert satellite imagery analysis and a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement. A Nov. 14 analysis by former International Atomic Energy Agency inspector Robert Kelley and Mehdi Sarram on the U.S.-Korea Institute Web site 38 North said that “significant progress has been made in building the reactor over the past year.” The assessment concluded, however, that operations were unlikely to begin for another two to three years.

The satellite imagery analysis appeared to offer some evidence for a Nov. 30 North Korean Foreign Ministry statement quoted by the official Korean Central News Agency as saying that the light-water reactor (LWR) construction and Pyongyang’s uranium-enrichment program are “progressing apace.”

South Korea and the United States have demanded that North Korea suspend both activities prior to the resumption of multilateral talks to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization. Pyongyang has insisted that the talks begin first.

North Korea first publicly revealed that it was constructing an LWR, ostensibly to produce electricity, in November 2010. According its Nov. 30 Foreign Ministry statement, Pyongyang decided to build such a reactor because it had not received one as “promised” by other countries.

As part of a 1994 U.S.-North Korean denuclearization deal, Pyongyang was to receive two LWRs, but that agreement fell apart before much progress was made building them. Pyongyang has frequently raised the issue of receiving such reactors as part of negotiations on its nuclear weapons program.

Unlike North Korea’s five-megawatt research reactor, the LWR is not well suited to producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. However, the process used to produce fuel for the reactor, which involves enriching uranium, can be used to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons.

For several years, Pyongyang denied U.S. accusations that it was pursuing a uranium-enrichment program, first admitting that it had done so after abandoning multilateral nuclear talks in April 2009. It revealed an enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex at the same time that it disclosed its LWR construction, but it is widely believed to have other enrichment plants elsewhere.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il Dies

After holding power for 17 years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died Dec. 17 “from a great mental and physical strain,” North Korean state media reported Dec. 19. He is to be succeeded by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be about 28 years old. Preparations for the succession process appeared to begin in 2008 when the elder Kim suffered a stroke. The North Korean media highlighted the successor role that his son now is to play, with a Dec. 20 Korean Central News Agency report stating that “the Korean people now pledge themselves to remain true to the leadership of General Kim Jong Un.” Both North and South Korea raised their military alert level following news of Kim’s death.—PETER CRAIL


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Posted: December 31, 1969


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