LOOKING BACK: The Missile Technology Control Regime

Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu

On April 16, 1987, the world's seven most industrialized nations (Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and West Germany) established the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Constructed in the waning days of the Cold War, the export control regime was aimed primarily at curtailing the spread of missiles cabable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The MTCR soon transformed into a more general attempt to limit ballistic missile technology to nonmember states that could use the capability to deliver biological and chemical weapons as well. Only much later did it evolve to restrict the spread of rockets, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including some cruise missiles and drones.[1]

The MTCR's overriding objective was to limit the perceived value and attributes of missiles so as to diminish their spread. The regime began with two clear strategies for accomplishing this goal. First, it sought to coordinate policies and practices in supplying missiles and missile components to nonmembers. Second, it attempted to limit the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons by curtailing the spread of ballistic missiles that could deliver such weapons. Have these strategies helped the regime meet its ambitious objective over the past 20 years? The answer would have to be a qualified maybe.

The regime has been reasonably successful in streamlining and coordinating the relevant policies of the Group of Seven (G-7) and other Western countries. In particular, it has helped establish common ground for preventing the export of complete missiles or missile components that could provide the recipient country with ballistic missiles capable of delivering a first-generation nuclear weapon. Before the MTCR began, several countries, including Argentina , Iraq , Israel , Libya , and South Korea , had acquired either missiles or missile technology, mostly from the G-7 and other Western nations, which gave them the capability to deliver nuclear weapons.

One of the earliest contributions of the MTCR was to set the parameter of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile as one that could carry a 500-kilogram payload to a range of 300 kilometers. Of course, here the regime erred on the side of caution as a first-generation nuclear weapon was likely to weigh closer to 1,000 kilograms. These parameters and guidelines were readily accepted by the first generation of MTCR members for two reasons. First, these restrictions did not apply to transfers within the MTCR membership, evident in the U.S. supply of Polaris and Trident ballistic missiles to the United Kingdom . Second, in the early 1980s, there was concern that nuclear-capable ballistic missiles or technology supplied by one G-7 country might be used by the recipient against another G-7 country. This worry was highlighted indirectly by Argentina 's use of French Exocet missiles to sink the British destroyer HMS Sheffield and support ship Atlantic Conveyor during the 1982 Falkland Islands War.

Following concerns that several non-MTCR countries were working on chemical and biological weapons as an alternative or in addition to nuclear weapons, the regime was extended in 1993 to cover not only ballistic missiles and technology capable of delivering nuclear weapons but also chemical and biological weapons. The new MTCR guidelines did not alter the established payload or range limits, even though it was evident that a chemical or biological warhead could weigh considerably less than the prescribed 500-kilogram payload. Instead, members were urged to restrict the sale of any missile or unmanned aircraft to countries thought to be developing these so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Although the regime has been fairly successful in establishing policies, it has been less so in putting these policies into practice among its members. Indeed, some of the notable violators of the MTCR guidelines have been entities from within the original MTCR member states. For instance, the weapons-program dossier submitted by Iraq to the UN Security Council in December 2002 reads like a who's who of the MTCR. Among those listed as supplying missile technology to Baghdad are nine U.S. companies, apart from U.S. government agencies and laboratories; seven British companies; and one French company. In addition, U.S. entities have also cooperated with Israel to develop the Arrow Interceptor, whose 500-kilogram payload with a 300-kilometer range exceeds the MTCR's technical threshold. Israel is not a member of the MTCR but claims to adhere to its guidelines and control list.

Indeed, as the MTCR is a voluntary arrangement, it does not have the ability to sanction member states that violate its guidelines. The regime, considered as a cartel by many observers, has fared even worse in its unenviable task of convincing nonmembers to adhere to its guidelines and has struggled to gain legitimacy outside of its membership.[2]

One way it sought to better its standing was by expanding its membership to include key missile suppliers. Ironically, this enlargement from the original seven to the present 34 also created challenges for the regime.[3] The first round of enlargement between 1989 and 1993, coinciding with the end of the Cold War, was relatively smooth and uncontroversial, but the inclusion of Russia in 1995 and Ukraine in 1998 was problematic. Russia agreed to comply with the guidelines subject to three caveats: that all export-related disputes would be resolved multilaterally, that there should be increasing opportunity for supplying MTCR-controlled items to MTCR members, and that Moscow would have a say in regulating MTCR provisions. Predictably, several disputes arose over Russia 's missile exports, some of which were seen as contravening the guidelines. Similarly, when Ukraine joined the MTCR, it reserved the right to produce missiles, which went against the spirit of the MTCR and also flouted the U.S. rule that prospective members had to give up missles exceeding the original range/payload threshold.

Possibly in light of this experience, the MTCR membership has not invited China to join the regime. Although China gave a commitment in 1992 that it would abide by the MTCR guidelines, Beijing has subsequently refused to adhere to the updated 1993 guidelines, making the MTCR reluctant to admit a member likely to be even more recalcitrant than Russia . Thus, MTCR enlargement appears to have not only eroded the entry standards but also made consensus on sensitive issues increasingly difficult.

Limited WMD Success

On the objective of limiting the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons by curtailing the spread of ballistic missiles that could deliver such weapons, the achievements of the MTCR have been minimal at best and dubious at worst. Proponents of the MTCR often cite the abandonment of the joint Condor II program by Argentina , Egypt , and Iraq as well as the decisions of Brazil , Libya , South Africa , South Korea , and Taiwan to give up either their nuclear-capable ballistic missile or space launch vehicle programs as proof of the effectiveness of the regime. More recently, the decisions of Hungary , Poland , and the Czech Republic to destroy their old ballistic missiles, including some Soviet-era Scuds, partly to join the MTCR in 1993, are touted as evidence of the success and attractiveness of the MTCR.

In the strongest examples, the technology embargo was a contributing factor. The cases of Argentina , Brazil , Libya , and South Africa owed at least as much to domestic political changes and an improved regional security scenario. Similarly, Egypt 's decision was partly prompted by the generous annual aid package of around $2 billion from Washington and partly on account of the “cold peace” it established with Israel . These developments led Cairo to opt for a diplomatic approach, rather than a military one, to challenge Israel 's nuclear and missile capability.

Iraq 's decision to pull out of the Condor II project, on the other hand, was on account of Baghdad embarking on an ambitious indigenous missile program, which took one major war and several years of UN inspections to dismantle. Although Taiwan and South Korea ditched their ballistic missile programs, each has embarked on a sophisticated, potent, indigenous cruise missile program.

Some also argue that countries such as Brazil have joined the treaty to procure space launch technology. Finally, the Polish and Czech decisions did succeed in removing some aging missiles. Indirectly and inadvertently, however, it also paved the way for both countries to possibly acquire new and more sophisticated missiles from the United States as part of Washington 's global anti-missile system. If Russia were to carry through on its threat to respond by withdrawing unilaterally from the epoch-making 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of ballistic missiles, the MTCR would suffer a double blow.

It appears that the MTCR did play a role in reducing ballistic missile programs capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in some non-MTCR countries. Yet, it is doubtful that the absence of ballistic missiles alone has limited the proliferation of these so-called weapons of mass destruction even in these few countries. For instance, many of the countries that have ostensibly given up ballistic missile programs capable of delivering chemical and biological weapons, such as Egypt , Iraq , and Syria , have still not joined either the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) or Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and, therefore, might still seek to acquire these weapons.

On the other hand, some countries such as Iran that have signed both the CWC and the BWC as well as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) are still pursuing active missile programs. Despite its public vows, Iran may or may not be seeking to use its missiles as platforms for the delivery of nuclear or other unconventional weapons. Yet, because Tehran lacks access to reliable supplies of combat aircraft, it considers missiles a viable substitute. Indeed, given Iran 's experience in the eight-year-long war with Iraq , when its cities were attacked by conventionally armed Iraqi Scuds, conventionally armed missiles offer a serious military option.

The MTCR also did not gain universal appeal on account of two key omissions. First, by initially restricting itself to WMD-capable ballistic and then cruise missiles while ignoring conventionally armed cruise missiles, although it was evident as early as the Falkland Islands War that such missile proliferation and use was likely to be of greater concern in the coming years. This preference for ballistic missiles over cruise missiles and other UAVs was based on the erroneous assumption that such sophisticated missiles were more difficult for aspirant countries to acquire. The urge not to control the spread of conventionally armed cruise missile also may have been prompted by the lucrative export potential of such missiles. Second, the MTCR deliberately focused on horizontal proliferation (spread of missiles among newer states) rather than vertical proliferation (qualitative and quantitative improvement of missiles by existing missile-possessing states) and, consequently, was accused of dividing the world into missile haves and have-nots. This similarity with the NPT made the MTCR unpalatable for many countries even when they agreed with its principles.

Inadvertently in some cases, the MTCR also became a rationale for some nascent missile programs that otherwise might have been shelved. The best example is India , where one of the official justifications for its missile program is “to develop critical components [and] technologies…and to reduce the vulnerability of major programs [such as missiles]…from various embargoes/denial regimes [such as the MTCR], instituted by advanced countries.”

Indeed, partly to make this point, the creation of the MTCR in 1987 was greeted by a series of dramatic missile tests by Israel (the Jericho II in 1987, 1988, and 1989), India (the Prithvi in 1988 and the Agni in 1989), Pakistan (the Hatf II in 1989), and North Korea (the Nodong in 1993), and China's shipment of CSS-2 missiles to Saudi Arabia (1988) and M-11 and M-9 missiles to Pakistan (early 1990s). Even the most ardent MTCR supporters acknowledge that not only did the MTCR fail to significantly slow down the missile programs of India , Iran , Israel , North Korea , and Pakistan but may have actually provided a fillip for waning domestic support to their indigenous programs. In the process, they also produced a second tier of missile suppliers.

By the late 1990s, it was evident that the MTCR was in serious danger of becoming ineffective and irrelevant. One indication of this was the decision by Washington to embark on an ambitious, multilayered anti-ballistic missile defense program, seeking a techno-military fix to the perceived threat of missile proliferation from countries such as North Korea and Iran .

While Washington seeks to make a fine distinction between offensive and defensive missiles and argues that the former is benign and therefore legitimate, there are concerns that missile defense could inadvertently undermine the MTCR. First, emphasizing the techno-military fix over the politico-diplomatic approach of the MTCR might further weaken adherence to the flagging regime. Second, technically offensive and defensive missiles are more or less the same; they just have different roles. Thus, providing defensive missiles or missile technology to MTCR members might inadvertently give the recipient offensive missile capability, which contradicts the spirit of the MTCR. Finally, on what grounds could the MTCR persuade non-MTCR members not to transfer or receive similar defensive missile technology from others?

Partly to counter this prospect and partly to buttress the decline of the MTCR, several European members of the MTCR, notably the Netherlands , proposed a code of conduct against ballistic missile proliferation in 1999. This code, which was discussed over the next few years, including (at the initiative of the European Union) with several prominent non-MTCR members such as Pakistan, sought to address both missile possession and behavior and was formally adopted in November 2002 as the Hague code of conduct against ballistic missile proliferation. Although as many as 93 countries signed up to the code immediately, China , India , Iran , North Korea , Pakistan , and Syria did not. Even MTCR member Brazil has still not signed the code. The United States has signed the code, but Washington 's endorsement was tempered by its withdrawal in June 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, paving the way for an unfettered missile defense program and dashing the hopes of the European MTCR members that at least the pace of the destabilizing missile defense program could be slowed down.

In addition, by calling on members to “exercise maximum possible restraint in the development, testing, and deployment of ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, including, where possible, to reduce national holdings of such missiles,” the code also appeared inadvertently to acquiesce to the possession of such missiles by all countries, much to the discomfiture of many of its original MTCR membership. Apart from a lukewarm reception among its core constituents, the code also failed to entice new constituents by focusing only on ballistic missiles and excluding cruise missiles, both conventional and nonconventional, even though the proliferation and use of cruise missiles had risen sharply since the early 1990s.

Despite these drawbacks, the Hague code is essential, given the ongoing frenetic pace of missile activity—more than 100 ballistic and cruise missiles have been tested and used just in the last couple of years. At the very least, the initial process was a useful first step by the MTCR in multilateralizing the issue of missiles. Although its proposed transparency and confidence-building measures, such as an annual declaration of ballistic missile policies and holdings and pre-flight notification of tests, are limited in scope, they are worthwhile if they are effectively and universally implemented. In this context, the efforts of code members to universalize it by having it “welcomed” by the UN General Assembly has to be commended. Much more needs to be done, however, both within and outside the United Nations, before the code is likely to be accepted and implemented universally.

If member states want the MTCR and the Hague code to remain relevant and effective, then they will have to do more to address the concerns of nonmembers in a genuinely democratic and universal setting. Among these concerns are legitimate security issues. Some of these issues can be addressed at the bilateral level or even at the regional level, but other issues can only be addressed with the inclusion of MTCR members with the biggest nuclear and missile arsenals, as with the six-party talks in Northeast Asia. Indeed, in some instances, it is the qualitative and quantitative improvement in the missile arsenals of MTCR members such as the United States that is of direct concern to non-MTCR members such as Iran and North Korea . Therefore, unless vertical missile proliferation by MTCR members is curbed, the regime is unlikely to stem the tide of horizontal missile proliferation by non-MTCR members.

Another concern for non-MTCR members is the increasing proliferation and use of conventionally armed cruise missiles by MTCR members against non-MTCR members. Hence, unless the MTCR and the code of conduct addresses the increasing use of cruise missiles, non-MTCR members are unlikely to consider the regime to be in their interest.

Finally, many non-MTCR members are concerned that the regime aims to prevent their legitimate access to civilian space launch technology under the guise of preventing missile proliferation. Unless the MTCR and the code incorporate some of the proposals related to civilian space launch made in the now-shelved Global Control System, it is unlikely to attract many new members.

Both the MTCR and the Hague code would do well to address concerns related to all missiles, not just some, if their purpose is truly to curb missile proliferation in the coming years. Otherwise, there is a danger that the MTCR will fade into history as a valiant but vain effort by the armed Western world to disarm the rest of the world of ballistic missiles.

Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu is director of the New Issues in Security course at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and was a consultant for the two UN panels of governmental experts on missiles. He is also co-editor of Arms Control After Iraq: Normative and Operational Challenges (UN University Press 2006).


1. For the official Missile Technology Control Regime website, see www.mtcr.info.

2. Mark Smith, “On Thin Ice: First Steps for the Ballistic Missile Code of Conduct,” Arms Control Today , July/August 2002, pp. 12-16.

3. The present members and their year of joining are Argentina (1993), Australia (1990), Austria (1991), Belgium (1990), Brazil (1995), Bulgaria (2004), Canada (1987), Czech Republic (1998), Denmark (1990), Finland (1991), France (1987), Germany (1987), Greece (1992), Hungary (1993), Iceland (1993), Ireland (1992), Italy (1987), Japan (1987), Luxembourg (1990), Netherlands (1990), New Zealand (1991), Norway (1990), Poland (1998), Portugal (1992), Republic of Korea (2001), Russian Federation (1995), South Africa (1995), Spain (1990), Sweden (1991), Switzerland (1992), Turkey (1997), Ukraine (1998), United Kingdom (1987), and the United States (1987). In addition, a few countries, such as China and Israel , declared that they would “adhere” to the MTCR guidelines.