"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Complementary or Competitive? Missile Controls vs. Missile Defense
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Richard Speier

As cruise and ballistic missile technology has spread around the globe, two approaches to dealing with this proliferation have claimed the greatest adherents. One direction is the long-standing regime—it is now 17 years old—against the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering mass destruction weapons. This is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a policy to which 33 governments formally subscribe.

The other is missile defenses, a military program to defend against attacks by missiles that already have spread. Both offer benefits to U.S. policymakers but also have their limitations. Further, although they are in some ways complementary, they are also somewhat competitive.

The MTCR is a supplier regime, that is, it controls exports. It does not represent any kind of consensus among the have-nots that they will not obtain missiles. Yet, the MTCR takes advantage of a fact about missiles that makes them unusually controllable, and that is that missiles of whatever kind require a very large number of bits and pieces, and all of these have to work reliably the first time, under very difficult conditions. Especially for ballistic missiles, the temperatures, the vibrations, the pressure and de-pressurization, the need to keep missiles in storage in the field for long periods all make it very difficult to get these, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of components that need to work together in a missile to work reliably.

You do not need to block every bit and piece that goes into a missile in order to block or slow down the missile program. You just need to block enough of them, and that is what export controls can do. That is what the MTCR has done with some success over the years, especially when combined with active diplomacy, sanctions, and recently the Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative for coordinating multinational interdiction efforts.

The MTCR as a policy has one major element, and that is to draw a very strong line between items that you can export on a case-by-case basis and items for which there is a strong presumption to deny export approvals. That strong line separates a lot of bits and pieces from entire systems—rocket systems or unmanned aerial vehicle systems—that are capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload to a range of 300 kilometers. In designing the MTCR, we chose 500 kilograms as the weight limit because that is the weight of a relatively unsophisticated nuclear warhead. We settled on 300 kilometers as the range limit because that is the range of a nuclear-capable missile in a relatively compact theater.

We use these numbers in order to have a clear engineering definition to support this line between what you can make case-by-case judgments about and what is strongly presumed to be denied. The rocket systems that are over this line, over the MTCR threshold, are not just ballistic missiles. They are rockets of any kind that can deliver 500 kilograms to 300 kilometers, including space-launch vehicles and scientific sounding rockets, all of which can be adapted to deliver warheads. This was very difficult to get the seven nations, the United States and the rest of the Western economic summit nations, to accept when we negotiated this regime in the mid-1980s—-the idea that you put identical controls on military ballistic missiles and on civilian space-launch vehicles and scientific sounding rockets. Yet, it was absolutely necessary in order to have a strong, unambiguous line that would coordinate the actions of all of the governments.

The other items controlled are entire unmanned aerial vehicles. They might be called “cruise missiles,” “unmanned aerial vehicles,” “reconnaissance drones,” or “target drones,” but if they have the range and payload capability I described, they are subject to a strong presumption of export denial.

Now, there are good missiles and bad missiles in the world. Some defensive missiles are very good, and so we needed some way of defining what it was that the regime was going to target with its export controls. That line is the essence of the MTCR. To begin to fuzz that line is to begin to weaken our ability to control the spread of missiles.

Missile defense can be a complement to missile nonproliferation. In fact, many people from all parts of the political spectrum are coming to the point of view that missile defense and the MTCR may indeed be complementary. The president’s National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 23, issued last year, in fact said that missile defense and the MTCR are complementary.

Why are they complementary? Missile defense attempts to shoot at an offensive missile in its boost, midcourse, and re-entry phases, while missile nonproliferation attempts to shoot at a missile in its research, development, and production phases. They are all trying to stop the same thing. It is just that they are shooting at different points in the trajectory.

There are other ways in which the two complement each other. If missile defense is likely to work—and that has always been a question—but if it is likely to be effective, it makes it less attractive to get in the business of developing missiles in the first place, very much complementing the efforts of the MTCR to stop development. On the other hand, if the MTCR is effective in slowing down or stopping the proliferation of missiles, it reduces the stress that missile defense systems face. So, they really can complement each other.

The problem is that they can also compete with each other. True, most of the systems that are now in use or in major development fall short of the line that I have mentioned, the ability to deliver 500 kilograms to 300 kilometers: the Patriot; the Medium Extended Air Defense (MEAD) system, which is being developed by the U.S. and Europe; most of the versions of the Russian S-300 system; and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

Some of the missile defense systems now being developed, however, are over the clear line that I mentioned. For example, the Israeli Arrow system is over the line and, in fact, has been originally demonstrated as a target missile simulating an offensive missile to be intercepted by another Arrow. The U.S. sea-launch system, the SM-3, is slightly over the line. The Ground-Based Interceptors, the large missile defense rockets that are to be based in Alaska and the Vandenberg Air Force Base, are way over the line. The Kinetic Energy Interceptor, which is now in the design phase as a late-generation U.S. missile defense system, has even been described as a small ICBM.

In NSPD-23, the Bush administration stated that the United States should administer the MTCR so it does not impede missile defense cooperation. What does this mean? Does this mean we should begin to fuzz that line in order to spread missile defense interceptors? Because by doing so, we may be sharing very large rockets indeed. These large rockets can be used offensively. For example, the SA-2, a large Soviet air defense missile, was adapted as an offensive missile by India, China, Iran, Iraq, and Serbia. In fact, one of the plans that was discovered to be the next step in Iraq’s clandestine missile development program was to take the SA-2 engines, which were supposed to be limited to being used on missiles compliant with the UN resolutions, and to adapt them to missiles along the Indian design or bigger, to enable them to reach ranges of up to 500 kilometers.

The administration should think long and hard before tampering with the MTCR guidelines. They have worked well for nearly two decades, and once we obscure that clear line, it will not be easy to construct another one. We will be dependent on missile defense as a substitute for, rather than a complement to, missile nonproliferation.

Instead, we should focus on the many effective missile defense systems below the line that can be shared and should use U.S. and allied missile defenses to defend very large areas. For example, the Ground-Based Interceptor, from one site, could defend all of Europe. Indeed, many of the nations being defended need not have access to the rockets themselves. In fact, there is no reason for the United States even to give up control of those rockets. We can operate the defensive system and unify the control of it with our other missile defense systems. It is militarily attractive, and it is certainly attractive from the point of view of nonproliferation.

Currently a private consultant on nonproliferation and counter-proliferation issues, Richard Speier spent more than 20 years in government at the Office of Management and Budget, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. While in government, he helped negotiate the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). This article is adapted from a speech he delivered January 28, 2004, at the Paul C. Warnke Conference on the Past, Present, and Future of Arms Control, which was co-sponsored by the Arms Control Association.