A congressional watchdog has charged key federal agencies with complacency in addressing the growing danger presented by the global spread of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), provoking a round of dissent from the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and State.
At a March 9 congressional hearing, representatives of the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Congressional Research Service, the State and Commerce Departments, and the Pentagon offered conflicting views on the adequacy of measures to prevent cruise missiles and UAVs from ending up in the hands of terrorists or hostile states. The hearing before a House Committee on Government Reform subcommittee was convened to discuss a January 2004 GAO report that found U.S. and international trade controls on such weapon systems inadequate.
GAO, which conducts investigations for Congress, estimated that at least 70 states currently possess cruise missiles and some 40 states own UAVs. Most of the world’s roughly 75,000 cruise missiles are anti-ship models with short ranges and small payload capabilities. However, GAO reported that at least a dozen states, including six defined as “countries of concern,” are working on land-attack cruise missiles, which could be used to strike U.S. territory from forward launching areas, such as from the deck of a ship.
Cruise missiles and UAVs pose a different type of challenge for defenses than ballistic missiles, which are only powered during the first few minutes after launch as they ascend to high altitudes and then rely on gravity to reach their target. Cruise missiles and UAVs are powered throughout their entire flight and can fly and maneuver at low altitudes, making them hard to track and shoot down. The flight characteristics of cruise missiles and UAVs are also very similar to planes, making it hard for battlefield radars and defenses to determine whether an incoming object is an enemy projectile or a friendly aircraft.
The Patriot missile defense system’s record in Iraq last year underscored the difficulty that militaries face in trying to defend against cruise missiles. Although Patriot systems destroyed nine Iraqi missiles, no Iraqi cruise missiles were successfully intercepted. Moreover, Patriot systems mistakenly blew up two friendly fighter aircraft and targeted a third. A September 2003 Army report assessing the Patriot’s record stated, “[T]he ability of these older cruise missiles to penetrate friendly airspace and reach their targets should serve as a warning to joint and Army leaders that the emerging cruise missile threat must be addressed.”
The ability of cruise missiles and UAVs to fly at specific altitudes and speeds makes them suitable for dispersing chemical or biological weapons. Because of their relatively smaller size, cruise missiles and UAVs are not ideal for carrying nuclear warheads. The United States and Russia are the only two states known to have nuclear cruise missiles. China is also believed to be developing a nuclear-capable cruise missile.
In its report, GAO warned that federal agencies are not conducting enough checks on U.S. exports of cruise missiles, UAVs, and related technologies to make sure that they are not falling into the wrong hands. Reviewing exports between fiscal years 1998 and 2002, GAO reported that the State Department followed up on only four of 786 licenses that it issued for cruise missile and UAV technologies and the Pentagon did not do a single check on more than 500 cruise missiles shipped to other states. The Commerce Department had a similar record, conducting end-use visits for only 1 percent of the nearly 2,500 missile-related export licenses it approved.
Although officials from the three departments all agreed with a GAO recommendation that more post-export checks be carried out, they defended past practices at the March 9 hearing. They observed that GAO did not report any evidence indicating that previous U.S. exports had contributed to or abetted proliferation.
Yet, Joseph Christoff, the director of GAO’s international affairs and trade office that conducted the study, stated that response misses the point. “While the departments contend that there is no evidence of wrongdoing, their conclusion is based on the small [number of] (33) post-shipment verifications they conducted over a four-year period,” Christoff wrote in a March 13 response to questions from Arms Control Today.
General Tome Walters Jr., who directs the Pentagon agency overseeing arms sales to foreign governments, claimed the United States only sells weapons to friends and that U.S. exports are not the problem. Walters, who said his agency has not exported any UAVs, asserted that the Pentagon has exported or agreed to export almost 200 fewer cruise missiles during the reviewed period than GAO claimed. Past cruise missile deliveries went to the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, and Taiwan, according to Walters. He said there are pending deliveries to Oman, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Among others, GAO identified Egypt, Kuwait, and Israel as additional U.S. cruise missile recipients.
The managing director of the State Department’s office of defense trade controls, Robert Maggi, faulted the GAO review for not taking into account other processes, such as pre-license checks, to vet potential buyers. However, GAO pointed out that the State Department only carried out six such inquiries for its 786 approved cruise missile- and UAV-related licenses.
GAO further charged in its report that it discovered a loophole in U.S. export controls that could enable proliferators to acquire cruise missile and UAV technologies surreptitiously. The U.S. government does not explicitly control all technologies related to cruise missiles and UAVs because they are so widely available and have legitimate commercial uses. However, a “catch-all” requires that even items not appearing on export control lists be restricted if destined for specific states or programs. The U.S. catch-all currently applies to requests from 20 states and 12 foreign missile projects.
Citing the fact that a New Zealand man was able to purchase uncontrolled items to build a cruise missile, GAO concluded that the catch-all is too narrow.
Matthew Borman, the deputy assistant secretary for export administration at the Commerce Department, said the catch-all is currently under review but questioned GAO’s New Zealand example. “Our engineers…are skeptical that a functioning cruise missile could be constructed out of uncontrolled parts and components,” Borman stated.
In a written response to the GAO report, the Commerce Department, which is responsible for promoting American business exports, also responded, “Any modifications to the catch-all policy should be carefully considered in order to ensure that the controls protect U.S. national security, but avoid unnecessary burdens on U.S. trade.”
GAO did not confine its criticisms to just U.S. export controls. It also looked at cruise missile and UAV control efforts by the 33-member Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the 33-member Wassenaar Arrangement—both of which the United States belongs to. MTCR calls on its members to restrict exports of missiles and UAVs capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, while the Wassenaar Arrangement specifies missile, aerospace, and dual-use items that its members are expected to control. Both MTCR and Wassenaar are voluntary and operate by consensus.
Although the two regimes have increased attention and controls on cruise missile and UAV sales over the past few years, GAO said their effectiveness is limited by the fact that not all exporters of these types of arms are regime members. For instance, China and Israel do not currently belong to either regime, although China is exploring MTCR membership and Israel has committed itself to abide by that regime’s guidelines. Iran, India, and Taiwan are also nonmember states that manufacture cruise missiles and may soon be looking to export them.
Moreover, GAO pointed out that not even members always agree on what constitutes an appropriate deal. France is a member of both regimes, but it went ahead with a sale of its Black Shaheen cruise missile to the UAE despite U.S. protests. Similarly, Russian assistance to India in developing the Brahmos cruise missile has raised concerns among some of Moscow’s fellow MTCR members.
GAO also knocked the regimes for not facilitating timely and efficient exchanges of information between members on their potential deals and export denials. Delays in sharing such information could prevent a member from raising concerns it may have about another’s transactions.