"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Missile Proliferation

South Korea Extends Missile Range

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.

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.

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


May 10, 2012
By Greg Thielmann

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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.


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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Lawmakers Raise North Korea ICBM Fears

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


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.

India Extending Missile Reach

Peter Crail and Kathleen E. Masterson

India is preparing to test a missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers early this year and possibly develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the future, Indian defense officials have indicated in recent weeks.

India conducted its first successful test of the Agni-4, which has a 3,500-kilometer range, Nov. 15. In a press release that day, New Delhi’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) said the test marks a “quantum leap” in India’s indigenous technological capabilities.

Following the test, the defense officials said their country had mastered a series of technologies that would allow it to field longer-range systems. However, there appear to be some differences within India’s defense community over whether New Delhi should use those technologies to cross the ICBM threshold by developing missiles with a range exceeding 5,500 kilometers.

Only five countries—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have a demonstrated ICBM capability. North Korea has unsuccessfully tested missiles in the ICBM range.

The technologies India claimed it has successfully developed include a re-entry heat shield to protect the warhead from extreme temperatures as it returns into the atmosphere, an improved navigation system, and a composite rocket motor. Indian officials claimed the country’s scientists made these advances even though it has been subject to international technology controls to prevent the spread of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. India is not a member of the 35-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which was formed in 1987 to restrict the spread of missile technology. New Delhi committed in 2008 to adhere to MTCR rules, and Washington announced in November 2010 that it would support India’s membership in the group. (See ACT, December 2010.)

DRDO Director-General Vijay Kumar Saraswat told reporters Nov. 16, “The technologies proven in this mission will give us the necessary confidence to go in for the Agni-5 launch in a couple of months.” Indian defense officials have since said that the Agni-5, which is to have a range of 5,000 kilometers, will undergo its first test in February.

Michael Elleman, a former UN weapons inspector who is now a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a Dec. 21 e-mail to Arms Control Today that India’s missile development pattern was “highly unusual.”

“They conduct a limited number of tests, declare development completed and then embark on an improvement effort,” he said. “[A]t least a half-dozen flight tests would be needed to validate the performance and reliability of the new missile under a range of operational conditions,” he added.

The two-stage, solid-fuel Agni-4 failed its first test, in December 2010 as the Agni-2 Prime, and was not tested again until Nov. 15.

India fields a number of systems geared toward South Asian rival Pakistan, but it has been increasing the range of its ballistic missiles in order to place a larger number of Chinese targets in range. The Agni-5 would be capable of covering all of China while being deployed deep within Indian territory.

For some current and former Indian defense officials, such a range is all that is necessary for India’s deterrence needs. Former Indian President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who is regarded as the father of India’s missile program, told the Indian newspaper The Tribune Nov. 18 that a missile that can reach 5,000 kilometers “was enough as the potential enemies were well within this range.”

Saraswat similarly told reporters in February 2010 that India is focused on “threat mitigation” and does intend to develop an ICBM.

However, in comments to reporters last June 11, Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik said, “India should pursue an ICBM program” with missiles having a range of 10,000 kilometers “or even more,” the Hindustan Times reported.

“Breaking out of the regional context is important as the country’s sphere of influence grows,” Naik said.

In a Dec. 13 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Bharat Karnad, one of the authors of India’s 1999 draft nuclear doctrine, said, “The technological momentum driving the Indian missile program is going to take it well beyond the 5,000 km range Agni-5 and into producing genuine ICBM category delivery systems, if only to match China.” He added that although Kalam’s suggestions would be “taken on board, his influence on current missile programs should not be overstated.”

According to Karnad, “[L]onger range, more accurate missiles will be developed [by India] as a technological imperative."

India is preparing to test a missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers early this year and possibly develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the future, Indian defense officials have indicated in recent weeks.

U.S. Navy Turns Back North Korean Ship

Peter Crail

A North Korean cargo ship suspected of violating UN sanctions turned back to North Korea after a U.S. naval vessel confronted it in late May, U.S. officials said in June.

The New York Times reported June 12 that the United States suspected the ship was carrying short-range missiles to Myanmar (Burma), adding to long-standing concerns about military cooperation between the two Asian countries that may include North Korean aid to a possible illicit Myanmar nuclear program. (See ACT, July/August 2010.)

Two sets of UN sanctions prohibit North Korea from exporting any nuclear- or missile-related goods or technology. Pyongyang has a long history of selling ballistic missiles and ballistic missile technology to earn hard currency, which the isolated Communist regime finds difficult to obtain.

U.S. officials said that they sought cooperation from countries in the region to prevent the cargo ship M/V Light from reaching its destination and that a U.S. warship intercepted it in late May in the South China Sea to request an inspection. After repeatedly refusing requests to board, the Light turned back toward North Korea just prior to entering the Strait of Malacca, a 500 mile-wide waterway between Indonesia and Malaysia that serves as one of the world’s major sea lanes.

“Since we had alerted the Singaporean and Malaysian authorities, there might have been concern [in Pyongyang] whether it could pass through the straits without action by either of those countries,” White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Gary Samore told The Wall Street Journal June 14. Samore said North Korea claimed the shipment contained industrial chemicals bound for Bangladesh.

The United States was granted authorization to inspect the Light by Belize, where the ship is registered.

Belize allows its flag to be used as a “flag of convenience,” which means that a ship with a non-Belizean owner is registered in Belize and flies its flag. Such flags of convenience are often abused by smugglers seeking to obscure the ownership of a vessel, but the flag state maintains jurisdiction over the ship and can authorize boarding by a third party.

Belize signed a ship-boarding agreement with the United States under the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative in 2005. That agreement establishes a procedure for boarding ships suspected of trafficking in nonconventional weapons and related materials, including on the high seas.

UN Security Council Resolution 1874, adopted by the council in June 2009 in response to a second North Korean nuclear test, also calls on states to inspect vessels suspected of violating sanctions against North Korea on the high seas, with the consent of the flag state. After that resolution was adopted, diplomats told Arms Control Today that, in spite of the resolution’s language allowing high-seas interdiction, Washington was likely to rely primarily on cooperation from states in the region to carry out inspections rather than engage in forcible boarding. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)

Choosing to board the Light may have carried some risks, given the uncertainty regarding the vessel’s actual cargo. U.S. officials said that although they did not know for certain the contents aboard the ship, the behavior of its crew substantiated U.S. suspicions about its intentions.

Department of State spokesman Mark Toner told reporters June 13 that “the ship’s master refusing us permission to board it, as well as the fact that it turned and headed back to North Korea,” validated concerns that the ship was involved in illegal activity.

In several ways, the incident echoes a June 2009 interception of a North Korean vessel by a U.S. warship. Washington suspected that the cargo vessel Kang Nam was carrying conventional armaments bound for Myanmar in contravention of UN sanctions. At that time, the destroyer USS John McCain shadowed the North Korean-flagged ship, which eventually turned back to North Korea.

According to a recent unreleased report, obtained by Arms Control Today, by a UN panel overseeing sanctions against North Korea, Pyongyang rarely uses ships such as the Light and Kang Nam as part of its illicit trafficking operations.

In the report, the UN panel said that North Korea “relies only to a very limited extent on its own vessels to deliver illicit shipments to a recipient country,” generally doing so only when the route is short enough to avoid port calls where the shipment risks inspection and seizure.

The report also said that only a fraction of North Korean cargo vessels sailed under a foreign flag, which suggests that Pyongyang views the use of its own flag as “the best available protection against boarding on the high seas.” North Korea has relied instead on foreign-owned ships, as well as air transport, to smuggle goods, employing a range of masking techniques to circumvent UN sanctions, the report said.

Myanmar has pledged to honor its obligations under the UN sanctions against North Korea. Myanmar Vice President Thiha Thura U Tin Aung Myint Oo also told Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the senator’s June 1-3 visit to the country that Myanmar “does not have the economic strength” to pursue nuclear weapons, the country’s state-run media reported June 3.

The vessel that trailed the Kang Nam was named after McCain’s father and grandfather.


A North Korean ship suspected of carrying missile technology to Myanmar turned back to North Korea after being confronted by a U.S. naval vessel, part of a U.S. effort that involved coordination with countries in the region.

The Missile Gap Myth and Its Progeny

Greg Thielmann

Public misperceptions in 1959 and 1960 that the Soviet Union had opened up a dangerous and growing lead over the United States in the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had fateful consequences beyond influencing an exceedingly close presidential election. What was then labeled “the missile gap” also helped establish patterns in the nuclear arms race that persisted throughout the Cold War and beyond.

For the U.S. public, the missile gap burst forth spectacularly toward the end of the 1950s as a result of two developments in 1957. The first was the successful flight test of the Soviet SS-6 ICBM in August and the Soviet Union’s launch several weeks later of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the same rocket type. Both launches represented Soviet technological achievements not yet matched by the United States. Sputnik, visible in the night sky over the United States, was the more dramatic symbol of Soviet progress, but the ICBM test that preceded it had the more ominous and immediate security implications.

The second development was the secret completion in November and public discussion shortly thereafter of a presidentially commissioned review of U.S. nuclear policies by an outside and predominantly civilian committee, chaired by Horace Rowan Gaither. The Gaither Report, as it was called, warned that the Soviet Union could have a “significant” ICBM capability by the end of 1959, making the Strategic Air Command’s bomber fleet vulnerable to surprise attack “during a period of lessened world tension.” [1] Although classified top secret, some of the report’s conclusions, including its alarmist view of Soviet ICBM capabilities, were leaked to the press.

The shock of being bested in space by the United States’ superpower rival and the prediction by an independent, blue-ribbon commission of future Soviet strategic advances set the stage for the appearance of the missile gap. A sense of alarm spread, along with a narrative that the Eisenhower administration had been complacent in the face of an acute military threat. Influenced by a combination of inadequate information and partisan political motives, Democratic politicians cultivated the notion that the aging incumbent had been asleep at the switch and that a new team was needed to reinvigorate government and restore U.S. nuclear superiority.

In one sense, the Gaither Report’s findings and the January 1959 joint Senate hearings on missile and space activities merely led to a necessary and overdue adjustment in the U.S. psyche as a new and unpleasant reality of the nuclear age sank in: The United States had become profoundly vulnerable to foreign attack. However, the press and politicians outside the White House made little effort to discuss root causes or to put the report in perspective. Press characterizations were even less restrained than the language of the report itself. For example, The Washington Post provided its influential readership this description of the report’s contents: “[The report] pictures the Nation moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power. It shows an America exposed to an almost immediate threat from the missile-bristling Soviet Union. It finds America’s long-term prospect one of cataclysmic peril in the face of rocketing Soviet military might.”[2]

Hyping Sputnik and the Gaither Report was very much in the political interests of Democratic contenders for the presidency in 1960. Judging from what is now known about the missile numbers, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) consistently mischaracterized the strategic trend lines. For example, in an October 1960 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, the Democratic nominee said, “The Soviet Union made the great breakthrough in space and in missiles, and, therefore, they are going to be ahead of us in those very decisive weapons of war in the early 1960s.”[3]

In other cases, Kennedy could gain advantage merely by describing the new reality objectively because of its unpleasant shock value to the U.S. public, which was only beginning to absorb the full implications of living in the nuclear age. Thus, he could say without hyperbole in his Senate floor remarks of February 29, 1960, “For the first time since the War of 1812, foreign enemy forces potentially had become a direct and unmistakable threat to the continental United States, to our homes and to our people.”[4]

The fault in Kennedy’s argument was not so much the inaccurate characterization of the Soviet missile numbers, for the intelligence community had provided him with estimates it later revised downward on the basis of subsequent intelligence collection and analysis. A more serious flaw was that he implied that a new administration somehow could alter the fundamental reality of U.S. nuclear vulnerability, which was not the case. Moreover, his focus on simple side-by-side numerical comparisons was misplaced; the more important question was whether the U.S. ability to threaten devastating nuclear retaliation was really in jeopardy.

Congressional hearings provided an ideal platform for amplifying the general theme that the United States was falling behind in the missile race and that numerical inferiority in nuclear missiles would be a game-changer. During January 1959 hearings, Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), who was also to be a candidate in the following year’s Democratic presidential primary, pounced on Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy’s stated unwillingness “to try to match the Soviets missile for missile”: “Then as I understand it your position is that we are voluntarily passing over to the Russians production superiority in the ICBM missile field because we believe that our capacity to retaliate with other weapons is sufficient to permit them that advantage despite the great damage that we know we would suffer if they instigated an attack?”[5]

CIA projections of Soviet ICBM numbers had been falling from initial estimates in late 1957 of 100 by 1960. By early 1960, the CIA was predicting 36 by the end of the year, based on an “orderly” production rate, reaching 100 by mid-1961. The Air Force intelligence estimate for 1960, which was 500 in late 1957, remained higher than that of the CIA throughout this period.[6] The first Soviet ICBM actually went on “combat duty” in January 1960,[7] and only two had been deployed by the end of the year.[8] The first U.S. ICBM, the Atlas D, had achieved operational capability in September 1959.[9]

Soon after the Kennedy administration took office, the missile gap started officially to evanesce. In a February 1961 press backgrounder on U.S. defense programs, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted that there were “no signs of a Soviet crash effort to build ICBMs” and concluded that “there is no missile gap today.”[10] By the end of 1961, it was clear and acknowledged officially that the United States, not the Soviet Union, held the lead in ICBMs and in most other categories of nuclear weapons as well.

It now is well established that the number of deployed U.S. ICBMs was never lower than the number of deployed Soviet ICBMs during the period of the alleged missile gap. Instead, it was the United States that enjoyed an early lead in ICBMs and maintained it until 1968.[11]

It is impossible to know how much a more accurate U.S. assessment of the strategic balance in 1960 would have altered history. With the benefit of half a century’s hindsight, however, it is worth reflecting on the factors contributing to this monumental error and on the ways the public can be alert in avoiding serious threat inflation in the future.

Possible Versus Probable

During the missile gap debate, as with many threat debates since, there was confusion about the numbers being compared. For the most part, the missile gap misperception grew from an “apples and oranges” comparison. The intelligence community projected how many missiles the Soviets could deploy in the future, not how many they would be likely to deploy. This number was only an estimate, less certain than the number planned for U.S. forces over the same time frame. Moreover, the projection for Soviet forces represented a worst-case estimate.

Only in January 1960 did the Department of Defense introduce into its estimates the notion of a probable rather than a possible outcome. In House Appropriations Committee hearings, Defense Secretary Thomas Gates emphasized the change: “Heretofore we have been giving you intelligence figures that dealt with theoretical Soviet capability. This is the first time that we have an intelligence estimate that says, ‘This is what the Soviet Union probably will do.’”[12] Even so, the growing potential gap forecast for the early 1960s described a circumstance in which all Soviet missile production resources would be focused on maximizing the number of deployed ICBMs. As it turned out, Moscow switched its focus to developing a newer type of ICBM, the SS-7, contributing to a slower rise in ICBM numbers. It also diverted significant resources from ICBMs into the production of SS-4 medium-range and SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. These shorter-range missiles could not reach the United States while based in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the later Soviet decision to base SS-4s in Cuba secretly was made in part to redress the overall strategic imbalance that Moscow accurately perceived as the Kennedy administration came into office.

The next decades of the Cold War featured many instances of U.S. actions premised on the worst-case interpretation of future Soviet force deployments. However prudent the inclusion of such estimates in executive branch strategic planning efforts, they regularly were interpreted by congressional overseers and the public at large as predictions of what was likely to happen. Throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the United States overestimated Soviet anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capabilities. Fears in the 1960s that the strategic missile defense system protecting Moscow was the harbinger of a nationwide network turned out to be unfounded. The Reagan-era depictions of Soviet progress in developing exotic directed-energy weapons proved greatly exaggerated.[13]

The virulent impact of worst-case analysis continued into the post-Cold War era. The Rumsfeld Commission’s 1998 report on the foreign ballistic missile threat concluded that several emerging missile states could develop and deploy ICBMs within five years. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat was less alarmist than Rumsfeld’s report and included “most likely” as well as “could” projections, but it still gave pride of place to the worst case, as evidenced in the first two bullets of the NIE’s Iran section:

• “Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to many parts of the United States in the latter half of the next decade, using Russian technology and assistance.”

• “Irancould pursue a Taepo Dong-type ICBM and could test a Taepo Dong-1 or Taepo Dong-2-type ICBM, possibly with North Korean assistance, in the next few years.”[14]

Iran did not test either Taepo Dong system “in the next few years” and still has not tested an ICBM although “the latter half of the next decade” has come and gone. Furthermore, 13 years after the Rumsfeld Commission’s clarion call, no additional state has acquired ICBMs. Each of these predictions played a role in justifying a massive U.S. strategic missile defense effort and U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. The financial costs have far exceeded $100 billion, and the opportunity costs for reducing strategic offensive arms have been considerable.[15]

Source Bias

When estimates provide a range of possibilities—entirely reasonable from an analytical standpoint—the highest (or lowest) numbers in the range can be emphasized for political reasons. Postmortems on the missile gap myth note that Air Force projections of future Soviet ICBM levels were consistently higher than those of the other services and that Kennedy “chose to believe the Air Force numbers rather than the information he received from Eisenhower administration officials in both open and closed hearings.”[16] It is difficult to reach definitive conclusions about the motives of the Air Force or of the Democratic presidential candidates who relied on Air Force estimates. Nevertheless, the Air Force derived institutional benefits from rendering inflated Soviet missile threat estimates, and the Democrats derived political benefits from relying on them. The synergism between these two fueled the public perception of a gap, which turned out to be bogus.

It is the nature of the intelligence assessment process that those rendering the expert judgments are often the commercial or bureaucratic entities that benefit from the most alarming projections being accepted as reality. To obtain the “best” technical assessments of foreign missile defense capabilities, the government often hires firms that could be the recipients of contracts to develop offensive countermeasures or to establish a parallel program of U.S. defensive interceptors. Technical assessments of foreign submarine capabilities logically might be performed by the makers of U.S. sonars or torpedoes. This does not mean these projections should be dismissed or that good alternative sources are available, but it does mean that source bias needs to be considered.

An additional source bias in the case of the missile gap and in many subsequent threat assessments is so obvious that it often is overlooked. Potential enemies usually have an incentive to exaggerate their capabilities. After the launch of Sputnik, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bragged that his country’s factories “were turning out missiles like sausages” and greatly exaggerated the size and operational capabilities of the Soviet ICBM force.[17] Asked at the time by his son why he was doing so, he explained that “the number of missiles we had wasn’t so important.… The important thing was that Americans believed in our power.”[18] That potential U.S. opponents from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Ali Khamenei’s Iran want to exaggerate their capabilities is logical, but the U.S. bias in considering such governments’ claims is to assume they are masking hidden capabilities.

Misunderstanding the Numbers

President Dwight Eisenhower commissioned the Gaither Report because he wanted a second opinion on options for improving early warning of a Soviet attack and, in the event of such an attack, reducing the vulnerability of the civilian population. Eisenhower and two consecutive defense secretaries in the latter half of his second term displayed a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the nuclear balance of terror than many of his critics who raised the alarm of an impending missile gap. U-2 reconnaissance flights over Russia were collecting information that undermined some of the worst-case projections. U.S. programs to build and deploy ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles were well underway. However, the president and other senior officials failed in effectively conveying the strategic realities of the nuclear age to the public. “Their attempts to dismiss the Sputnik launch as a ‘scientific bauble,’ intended to be reassuring, were seen in many quarters as an indication of presidential complacency (or worse).”[19] Eisenhower’s unwillingness to divulge the U-2 information “led to the impression that his reassurances were based on nothing at all.”[20] When Eisenhower’s defense secretaries sought to explain to Congress that missile-for-missile comparisons alone conveyed a misleading impression about the U.S.-Soviet balance, they were interpreted as admissions that the U.S. administration “had conceded a crucial strategic advantage to its adversary.”[21]

The tendency for politicians to simplify the complicated logic of nuclear issues for partisan purposes did not end with the disappearance of the original missile gap. At the very time when the U.S. lead in strategic warheads was widening dramatically as a result of accuracy improvements and the equipping of ICBMs with multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles, an opposite impression was being conveyed by arms control critics. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), one of his party’s leading voices on defense issues, compared the size of U.S. and Russian ICBMs to the linemen of two competing football teams, implying that missile size was the only important metric of capability. As the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) yielded progress in capping the growth of strategic arsenals, SALT opponents made effective use of desktop ICBM models displaying U.S. (white) missile types and much larger Soviet (black) missile types side by side. The not-so-subtle message was that SALT had failed to prevent a new and ominous missile gap from arising. The impact was visceral; intellectual explanations of the significance of superior U.S. accuracy and warhead numbers and the invulnerability of U.S. ballistic missile submarines often fell on deaf ears.


It is tempting to dismiss the missile gap as a quaint artifact from an earlier time, an interesting historical example of the negative effect election politics can have on assessing threats. However, it also should be recognized as a phenomenon that has arisen repeatedly since the “cataclysmic peril” of the first missile gap quickly evaporated 50 years ago. During the three remaining decades of the Cold War, the United States often sought to close strategic gaps that the Soviet Union was perceived to be opening, only to discover much later that Moscow had been struggling mightily merely to catch up with the technological advances and superior resources of the United States. The rise and fall of the missile gap myth is a cautionary tale, which should continue to inform efforts to achieve more realistic and sober appraisals of the threats faced today.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, where he directs the Realistic Threat Assessments and Responses Project. He previously served as a senior professional staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 25 years.


1. Office of Defense Mobilization, Executive Office of the President, “Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” November 7, 1957. For a highly regarded analysis of the report, see David L. Snead, The Gaither Committee, Eisenhower, and the Cold War (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1999).

2. Chalmers Roberts, “Enormous Arms Outlay Is Held Vital to Survival,” The Washington Post, December 20, 1957, p. 1.

3. Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee, Freedom of Communications, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, S. Rep. 994, pt. 3, p. 250.

4. John Kennedy, Congressional Record, 86th Congress, 2nd sess. (February 29, 1960): S3801.

5. Senate Armed Services Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee and Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Joint Hearings on Missile and Space Activities, 86th Congress, 1st sess., 1959, p. 53.

6. Jeffrey T. Richelson, “U.S. Intelligence and Soviet Star Wars,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1986, pp. 12-13.

7. Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Forces (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 182.

8. Robert S. Norris and Thomas B. Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook: U.S.-USSR/Russian Strategic Offensive Nuclear Forces 1945-1996,” January 1997, p. 18.

9. Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris, The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), p. 166.

10. Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980) (quoting articles in The Wall Street Journal on February 9, 1961, and The Washington Post on February 7, 1961).

11. Norris and Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook,” p. 18.

12. Edgar M. Bottome, The Missile Gap: A Study of the Formulation of Military and Political Policy (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1971), p. 120 (quoting testimony by Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates before the House Appropriations Committee in January 1960).

13. David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009), p. 294.

14. National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate: Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015,” September 1999 (unclassified summary) (emphasis in original).

15. See Greg Thielmann, “Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Strategic Arms Reductions,” ACA Threat Assessment Brief, January 26, 2011, pp. 3-4, www.armscontrol.org/system/files/TAB_StrategicMissileDefense_ThreattoFutureNuclearArmsReduction_2.pdf.

16. Daniel Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap” (paper, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, May 29, 1987), p. 33.

17. Richard Ned Lebow, “Was Khrushchev Bluffing in Cuba?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1988, pp. 41-42.

18. Sergei N. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower (University Park, PA: PennsylvaniaStateUniversity Press, 2000), p. 315.

19. Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap,” p. 2.

20. Ibid., p. 3.

21. Ibid.


The misperceived "missile gap" became a significant issue during the period between the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the U.S. presidential election of 1960. The story of how it arose and then quickly disappeared 50 years ago carries relevant lessons for assessing military threats today.

U.S. Alters Non-Nuclear Prompt-Strike Plan

Tom Z. Collina

Wrestling with an issue that has proven controversial with the U.S. Congress as well as Russia, the Department of Defense has decided not to develop systems for its Conventional Prompt Global Strike mission based on traditional ballistic missiles, according to a Feb. 2 White House report to Congress.

Instead, the report says, the Pentagon will continue to explore “boost-glide” concepts that have a nonballistic flight trajectory, which is deemed less likely to be mistaken for a nuclear attack and would not be counted by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits only missiles with a ballistic trajectory.

The Pentagon’s interest in a conventional prompt-strike capability stems from the fact that the only weapons in the U.S. arsenal that can reach a target anywhere on the globe in less than an hour are deployed long-range ballistic missiles, all of which are currently armed with nuclear warheads. But using nuclear weapons to attack potential non-nuclear targets, such as leaders of a terrorist group or an adversary’s imminent missile launch, would seem to be inconsistent with current U.S. policy for using such weapons. The 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report” states that the “fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to “deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.” The report also says that the United States will continue to strengthen its conventional capabilities “with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or its allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Moreover, the Bush administration argued that the availability of conventional strike weapons could give the president more options in a crisis, reducing the chance that nuclear weapons would be used. A February 2011 report by the NationalDefenseUniversity made a similar point, saying that a conventional strike weapon “might enhance deterrence and assurance by providing an effective and usable (and thus more credible) strike option.”

On the other hand, skeptics such as Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) argue that conventional strike weapons may prove to be unusable as the United States would lack the necessary intelligence to use them quickly against such time-sensitive targets. The time required to verify that intelligence reports were sufficiently credible to justify action would allow the use of other, slower weapons in the U.S. arsenal, such as conventional cruise missiles, they say. For example, they argue, cruise missile-carrying submarines or airplanes could be moved within range of a potential target while breaking intelligence reports were being assessed.

Moreover, according to defense experts, the United States routinely deploys military assets to most “hot spots” where a crisis could be expected to emerge, such as submarines off the coast of North Korea or bombers in Afghanistan. The only regions where the United States might not have such reach would be deep inside large countries with significant air defenses, such as China or Russia. One possible mission for conventional prompt-strike weapons, congressional staffers say, is to be able to knock out Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities early in a crisis. China has conducted a series of ASAT tests, most recently on Jan. 11, 2010, according to a Jan. 12, 2010, Department of State cable released by WikiLeaks. “This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT and ballistic missile defense…technologies,” the cable said.

The Bush administration had proposed to place conventional warheads on existing Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Congress blocked that plan in 2008 out of concern that Russia might mistake a conventionally armed strategic missile for a nuclear one and perceive that it was under U.S. nuclear attack. For their part, Russian leaders have said they are concerned that even long-range missiles that are clearly identified as non-nuclear could be used against Russia’s nuclear forces and thus should be considered strategic weapons. During the New START negotiations, Russia initially sought to ban the deployment of conventional warheads on strategic ballistic missiles. The United States rejected this proposal, in part because Congress generally has been supportive of preserving the option for a conventional strike mission.

As a compromise, New START’s preamble states that the parties are “mindful of the impact of conventionally armed ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and SLBMs on strategic stability.” The treaty does not prohibit conventional strike systems, but it would count those based on treaty-limited strategic delivery systems, such as the Trident II SLBM and the Minuteman III ICBM, toward the treaty’s ceiling of 1,550 nuclear warheads. During last year’s Senate debate on New START, some Republican senators were concerned that a large deployment of conventional strike weapons would prevent the United States from deploying all 1,550 nuclear weapons allowed by the treaty. To reassure these senators, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that if the United States were to deploy treaty-limited conventional systems, they would amount to only a “niche capability.” Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, then the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress that the United States would size a conventional strike force to avoid “perturbing our strategic relationship with Russia and China.”

According to the White House report, a weapons system with a conventional warhead that does not use treaty-limited ICBMs or SLBMs and “does not fly a ballistic trajectory over most of its flight path” would not be counted by New START.


Addressing some congressional as well as Russian concerns, the Defense Department “at present has no plans to develop or field” conventionally armed ICBMs or SLBMs “with traditional ballistic trajectories,” according to the White House report, which was required by the Senate’s Dec. 22, 2010, resolution of ratification for New START.

Instead, the Pentagon will pursue “boost-glide” systems, which use nontraditional ballistic missiles to “boost” delivery vehicles into space that then “glide” at hypersonic speeds in the upper atmosphere for more than half of their flight. In the United States’ view, these systems would not be limited by New START and could be distinguished by Russia from nuclear-armed missiles.

According to the White House report, the “basing, launch signature, and flight trajectory [of these systems] are distinctly different from that of any deployed nuclear-armed U.S. strategic ballistic missile.”

Unlike U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs, which are based in the central United States and at sea, respectively, boost-glide systems would be based on the coasts, possibly at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Cape Canaveral in Florida, or both. Because Russia is “capable of monitoring U.S. ICBM fields, and possibly [SLBM] deployment areas,” according to the report, Moscow could verify that no nuclear launch had occurred. Moreover, says the report, each missile type has a unique infrared signature, and Russia would be able to tell the difference between a Trident SLBM and a missile used for boost-glide, for example.

In addition, Russian early-warning systems can track U.S. launches into space, and boost-glide trajectories look very different from ICBMs or SLBMs. For example, the apogee (highest point) for a boost-glide system is typically less than 100 nautical miles, compared to ICBM or SLBM apogees of 800-1,600 nautical miles, according to the report. Finally, U.S. nuclear-armed re-entry vehicles cannot maneuver as they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, but the report says a boost-glide system would, enabling it “to provide precision accuracy and to avoid overflight of selected areas.” However, the report notes that, in addition to providing an observable difference from ICBMs and SLBMs, this maneuverability would give the United States an advantage in carrying out an attack because it adds “an element of uncertainty in terms of impact location.”

According to congressional staff, the boost-glide approach should reduce concerns about Russian misperceptions but not necessarily doubts about the need for the system. There are still significant questions about what the weapon is for, against whom it would be used, and how many would be built and at what cost.

Systems Under Development

The Defense Department has not established an acquisition program for a specific boost-glide conventional-strike system, but is exploring three options: the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW), and the Conventional Strike Missile (CSM). For fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration has requested $240 million for a conventional strike program that includes the three options; the Pentagon plans to spend approximately $2 billion between 2011 and 2016 for research and development of these systems.

As part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Falcon program, the Pentagon has been developing two HTV-2s at a cost of $308 million from fiscal year 2003 through 2011. The first flight test took place from Vandenberg in April 2010, and “significant hypersonic flight data was captured,” although the HTV-2 signal was lost only nine minutes into flight, according to the report. The second test is planned for this fiscal year, to be launched from Vandenberg, the report says. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

The AHW technology experiment is being run by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command. It uses a hypersonic glide body that will have an initial flight test at the Kauai Test Facility in Hawaii in late fiscal year 2011 at a cost of $180 million from fiscal year 2006 to 2011.

The U.S. Air Force Space and MissileSystemsCenter runs the CSM program, the leading contender for the conventional strike mission. Under the current schedule, the CSM program will have a first flight demonstration at Vandenberg in fiscal year 2013 using a kinetic energy projectile (KEP) warhead at a cost of $477 million from fiscal year 2008 to 2013. The report says that an operational CSM could provide “complete global coverage of potential targets” from Vandenberg. The KEP warhead would “neutralize the target” by delivering thousands of “high density, cube-shaped metal fragments” at high speed, the report said.

“New” Strategic Arms?

Although boost-glide systems would not count as existing strategic weapons under New START, they could qualify as “new” kinds of strategic offensive arms, according to an October 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service. As a result, Russia could raise the issue of whether future boost-glide systems should count under the treaty. Nevertheless, the United States would not have to delay its boost-glide programs while such discussions are underway, even if Russia ultimately were to disagree with a U.S. decision to proceed with these systems. The United States would be obligated to try to resolve the issue within New START’s Bilateral Consultative Commission, but, according to the State Department’s article-by-article analysis of the treaty, “there is no requirement in the treaty for the deploying party to delay deployment of the new system pending such resolution.”

The Russian legislature disagrees. According to Russia’s resolution of ratification for New START, questions about new kinds of strategic offensive arms should be resolved within the consultative commission “prior to the deployment of" such new strategic weapons.



The Pentagon will continue to explore a concept called "boost-glide" for its Conventional Prompt Global Strike mission, rather than pursuing systems based on traditional ballistic missiles, a White House report says.


U.S., Allies Prod China on North Korea

Peter Crail

The United States and its East Asian allies called on China to place additional pressure on North Korea in December following a series of provocative actions by Pyongyang that they say violated international laws and regional security arrangements.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, speaking at a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Han Min-koo, Dec. 8, said it is now time for Beijing to “step up” to its “unique responsibility” and “guide the North, and indeed the whole region, to a better future.”

He criticized China for not condemning a Nov. 23 North Korean artillery barrage directed at the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians. Mullen visited South Korea to discuss joint military exercises in response to the North Korean shelling, as well as “how we view provocations in the future and what kind of responses there should be across the full spectrum of opportunities,” he said.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan called the attack on Yeongpyeong a violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which formally ended hostilities between North and South Korea. The two countries technically remain in a state of war.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a Dec. 6 press conference with the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers that the attack was “the latest in a series of provocations” by North Korea in 2010, citing the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March and the public disclosure of a uranium-enrichment facility in November in defiance of UN sanctions. (See ACT, December 2010.)

In response to North Korea’s actions, China urged “restraint” by all parties and called for an emergency session of the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Wu Dawei, Chinese special representative on Korean peninsular affairs, told reporters in Beijing Nov. 28 that, “after careful studies,” Beijing proposed such talks “to exchange views on major issues of concern to the parties at present.” The six-party talks have been held intermittently since 2003 to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo rebuffed the Chinese call for talks, calling for changes in North Korean behavior first.

“We remain committed to seeking opportunities for dialogue,” Clinton said alongside her counterparts, “but we will not reward North Korea for shattering the peace or defying the international community.”

She added that the three countries agreed that relations between the two Koreas must improve and Pyongyang must take steps to implement prior denuclearization commitments before the six-party talks could resume.

Sanctions Enforcement

Although the three allies outlined steps that they expected North Korea to take prior to the resumption of negotiations, they also called for the full implementation of UN sanctions against Pyongyang, highlighting China’s role in that effort.

Citing China in particular, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice told reporters Nov. 29 that implementing the UN sanctions is “in the interest of the countries in the region, and we expect them to take steps that are consistent with their obligations and all of our obligations under UN Security Council resolutions, and to work, as we all must, to uphold them and implement them.”

Since the Security Council first adopted nonproliferation sanctions against North Korea and Iran in 2006, U.S. officials have often stressed the need for Chinese efforts to enforce them. Robert Einhorn, the Department of State coordinator for Iran and North Korea sanctions, traveled to China in September to press for Chinese implementation of the UN sanctions and to raise concerns about Chinese firms exporting illicit goods and technologies to the two countries.

“We did provide some information to China on specific concerns about individual Chinese companies, and the Chinese assured us that they will investigate,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said of Einhorn’s visit during an Oct. 19 press briefing.

An April 15 Congressional Research Service report on the implementation of the UN sanctions against North Korea said that the Obama administration “may have to calculate the degree of pressure to apply to China if Beijing does little to enforce the Security Council sanctions.” The report noted in particular that Pyongyang relies on North Korean companies with offices in China for its illicit nonconventional weapons trafficking.

Chinese officials have often claimed that although Beijing is willing to respond to any activities of proliferation concern in its territory raised by the United States, Washington does not provide enough information for Chinese authorities to act.

However, a 2007 cable released by the group WikiLeaks and published by the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper Nov. 28 appears to detail efforts by the United States to provide Beijing with specific information regarding North Korean proliferation to Iran. The cable says that the United States provided Chinese officials with detailed information, including the airway bill and flight number, on a November 2007 air shipment of North Korean missile-related goods to Iran transiting through Beijing’s airport.

The cable further says that the United States believed that at least 10 such air shipments had traveled to Iran via Beijing and expected the number to grow in the future. The cable adds that Chinese action was necessary to “make the Beijing airport a less hospitable transfer point.” The shipments were believed to have assisted Iran’s development of solid-fuel missile technology.

The cable also notes that the provision of such details followed a pledge by President George W. Bush during a September 2007 meeting in Sydney to respond to Chinese President Hu Jintao’s request for additional information on suspected illicit transfers.

Former State Department officials interviewed by Arms Control Today said that the level of information provided to the Chinese was not unusual. “It shows the falseness of China’s claims that the US didn’t provide enough information to take action,” one former official said in a Dec. 17 e-mail.

Another former official said China’s response to such cases was “inconsistent” and that the information would only sometimes result in Chinese action. “We would give them what we could and sometimes they’d surprise us” by acting on the information, the former official said.

China’s response to the concerns raised by the United States in the cable is unclear.


The United States, Japan, and South Korea called on China to place added pressure on North Korea following a series of provocative actions by Pyongyang and said six-party negotiations could not begin before the North-South relationship improved.


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