Missile Proliferation and International Security

Kapil Kak, Senior Fellow, IDSA



Recent weeks have seen international news headlines aflame with dramatic details on NATO cruise missiles raining down on targets in Yugoslavia .The unilateral and barbaric air campaign against the Serbs, in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, as also the half century long raison d' etre of NATO has turned out to be counter productive for the Americans. While the eventual outcome of the avoidable military conflict in Kosovo is difficult to forecast, a diplomatic rather than a military option alone stands the chance of ending the tragedy of the Kosovars and the Serbs. In any event, the key role of guided missiles in military operations for the future has been validated yet again. The intense missile attacks on Yugoslavia are proof "that missiles would be standard equipment for war and deterrence in future and therefore, are as much a part of a country's defence as aircraft, tanks and guns.1 Beginning as crude terror weapons of the V1 and V2 class in World War II, guided missiles have had a slow but sure techno-operational evolution to emerge as highly effective offensive weapon systems in both conventional and nuclear fields. As a weapon of coercion in limited interventions it could have a persuasive impact; on the other hand, its possession undoubtedly provides a defensive capability by raising the costs against intervention.

Since Germany first used missiles in attacks on London in 1944, more than 17,000 have been fired in wars. The experience of wars in Afghanistan, and the Gulf Region in 1980-88 and 1990-91 proved the high effectiveness of relatively inaccurate missiles. Nearly 1500 missile tests have been undertaken world-wide since 1991. As brought out by a RAND study, today 33 countries have the capability to deploy ballistic missiles in war. While doctrines and technologies for use of missiles may vary from nation to nation, inability of the existing air defence systems to intercept missiles leaves the target country virtually at the mercy of the attacker. It is the appreciation of this vulnerability that has impelled major powers to restrict transfer of technology to potential missile powers. But today's concerns arise not from ambitious ballistic programmes but from relatively crude missiles incorporating low-cost manageable technologies. This paper endeavours to highlight salient issues relating to missile proliferation and its technological and security underpinnings, ballistic missile defences and the way ahead.

Missile Proliferation

Proliferation of missile technology has for long been a matter of concern for the international community, more so in the post-Cold War period as nations seek to search world-wide for technology and talent to upgrade and modernise their missile forces. General industrial progress, advances in information technology, spread of internet, low cost computing power and the global mobility of technologically sophisticated personnel make it less of a technological burden for aspiring powers to develop missile systems. The technology for development of missiles in the 300-1,000 km range appears too basic to deter any resolute aspiring country. The examples of Iran, Iraq and North Korea are often cited in this context. Even the most strict enforcement of technology-control regimes would only impose time and cost penalties, and that too marginally. A point that needs to be underscored here is that the criticality of attaining a threshold of high-technology regimes would apply only to countries that aspire for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities.

Significantly, early years of the missile debate provide interesting examples of the gap between precept and practice relating to proliferation concerns. Policies binding transfer of missile technology with restrictive national laws or international regimes were often countervailed. Egypt started her programme in mid-1950s initially with German assistance and later with Soviet acquisitions. At the height of the Cold War, American generosity with technological assistance in sounding rocket programmes, from which most truly indigenous missile systems evolved, was matched by Moscow providing Scud missiles and associated technologies for conventional operation to its Warsaw Pact allies.

It was South Korea's test of a surface-to-surface missile in 1978 and later Iraq's attempt to purchase rocket stages from Italy and revelations on Libya's availing German technology assistance in testing (unsuccessfully) a rocket stage in 1981 that set everyone by the ears. President Reagan's National Security Directive 70 calling for means to control missile proliferation and the eventual establishment of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) were a cry in the wilderness. Europe and Russia reportedly continued their sales even as two countries, China and North Korea provided off-the-shelf missiles from very short range to intermediate ranges. The US for example took no action whatsoever when China supplied the 2,700 km range CSS-2 ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in 1988 when the MTCR was operative. This transfer does not feature in any of the American official and unofficial commentaries. The 'spin' for some years has been that Saudi Arabia is about to scrap the CSS-2 missiles!

There is need to press for a more comprehensive approach to the management of missile proliferation than the one offered by the MTCR. India's security predicament merits a brief mention. Asia has 13 missile capable sates with ranges from 150 km to 5,000 km. Today eight countries have the capability to target India's heartland with missiles. Of these, five possess a primarily submarine launch capability. India's compulsion to evolve appropriate responses to counter strategic imbalances that may arise from adversarial impulses appears undeniable. The larger question of whether nuclear weapons and missiles make India really secure is a matter of philosophical debate. But acquiring these capabilities is geared towards safeguarding its national security and ensuring full autonomy in decision making relating to not just strategic issues but the vital economic policies as well. An anarchic and amoral world order and an international security environment dominated by a single superpower and its constellations, with pronounced proclivities for aggressive interventionist actions, lends a sharper edge to the perceived vulnerabilities.

India's missile programme of Prithvi 1 (150 km), Prithvi 2 (250 km) and Agni (2,500 km) which began in the 1980s has evolved on a solitary, slow and indigenous path. For India, prudence demands that while she continues to build good relations with China, she must also ensure possession of capabilities to cater for reversal in the relationship at a future date. The development of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) upto 5,500 km range and their operationalisation, therefore, is part of an "insurance" policy so essential to strategic defence. This is also in keeping with the declared nuclear doctrine of no-first -use and minimum credible deterrence.2

India has adhered strictly to non-proliferation norms and has never been accused of seeking diplomatic or commercial gains from its missile capabilities and technologies. Export control regulations have been unilaterally and strictly instituted and enforced so that even unconsciously the cause of proliferation does not get furthered in any way. This inspite of India not being a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It would be worthwhile recalling that in the late seventies, reports of Libyan President, Mr.Gadaffi's offer to write off India's entire external debt in exchange for assistance in the nuclear field circulated widely. Similar inducements by Iraq's President Saddam Hussein some years later also appear to have received media attention. Notwithstanding the effectiveness or otherwise of international missile technology control regimes, India's policy of strict unilateral self restraint on this count would be unwavering in the future as well.

Missile and Technology Transfers in Asia

Looking at the ballistic missile and missile technology market in Asia, it appears to be completely dominated by China and North Korea. But the diffusion of Russian technologies into China, Chinese technologies into Pakistan and reports on movement of sensitive American technologies, including advanced missile guidance systems, considered China's Achilles heel, are not without reason perceived by some as selective proliferation. The motivation for such missile technology transport is quite simply commercial benefit, and what is often referred to as "strategic considerations."

Reported leakage of secret Western technologies whether from Aberdeen, New Mexico or the more celebrated Los Alamos case of China having clandestinely acquired design information on the state-of-the-art W 88 warhead from the US makes another point. The W 88 warhead goes into missiles fitted with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles. What does one make of Russian display of various short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) for export at various defence exhibitions? Or, media reports on China having signed defence technology contracts with 52 countries, and absorption of technologies not only from the US and China, but also from France, Spain, Austria and Israel. The developing world's model for ballistic missile growth is not only shaped by perceived threats but also through what has been variously described as "self-sustaining technological momentum." As the physicist Ralph Lapp once said "when technology beckons, men are helpers." It does appear that regional missile programmes are thus perceived to develop along a predictable path towards eventual possession of long-range ballistic missiles.

The Chinese and North Koreans have played a stellar role in missile development in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and until recent years in Iraq as well. In Pakistan's case, one of the common threads running through all the missiles, the 300 km M11, 600 km M9, 1,700 km Ghauri 1, 2,000 km Ghauri 2 and the 600 km Shaheen (the last two having been fired just over a month back in response to India's Agni test) is the Chinese connection. Pakistan has confirmed receipt of missiles from China and in early 1991, China too attested to this development. As per media reports, the North Korean linkage in Pakistan's missile development programmes also cannot be ruled out. China's supply of missile technology seems to have begun in the 1980s concurrently with assistance in the nuclear field. The objective can only be partly traced to the motivation to keep India strategically engaged and neutralise its preponderant superiority in conventional forces. Pakistan's IRBM capability, sought to be increased further, enables it to have its missile reach extend to most countries in Central and West Asia, notably Israel. This is a significant development and goes well beyond the ostensible India-centricity of its nuclear option because Indian population centres and major economic targets are mostly within range of the M9. Looking at current trends from the stand point of missile proliferation, it does seem that the Sino-Pak nuclear and missile cooperation is expected to continue as before and perhaps increase in the future. Pakistan's quest for leadership as a regional influential will be more likely along the missile path since she lacks a strong techo-economic and investment orientation that could provide her more stable and long term clout.

China and North Korea are also known to have supplied missile technology to Iran which has developed the Shahab 3 and Shahab 4 IRBMs. Syria, with North Korean assistance is now in a position to improve upon the Scud C. Israel's 2,000 km Jericho 2 IRBM, which forms the core of its deterrence lifeline, has reach to cover the Arab world and Iran. The proliferation of ballistic missiles in West Asia is changing military doctrine rapidly as missiles render the traditional distance, secure borders and air defences meaningless. Israel's strategic review appears to have recommended setting up of a strategic command that will assess distant threats and conduct long-range missions to counter the same.3

The trend of development in Asia points towards greater emphasis on technologies for short range (500 km) and intermediate range (1,500-1,800 km) missiles. These are useable war fighting weapons and would need to be factored into the calculus of regional adversaries. At another plane, missiles of major powers are overwhelmingly moving towards the sea-based component of the nuclear delivery triad. Developments in the West point towards resumption of interventionist strategies. Under NATO's new strategic concept, unilateral military forces, outside the scope of the UN Charter are envisaged to be applied in areas outside NATO's geographical limits to address regional and ethnic conflicts.4 Such a globally destabilising path to unipolar hegemomy may well characterise the security environment in the foreseeable future unless the opponents of the new dispensation orchestrate their initiatives with vigour and resoluteness. It would be instructive to recall that a reported 1988 recommendation on long-term American strategy, put out by such thinkers as Kissinger, Brzezinski, Ikle and Wohlstetter, had indeed advocated use of long range missiles in interventionist operations against developing nations.5 It is therefore, no surprise that developing countries tend to perceive indigenous missile research and development and in the alternative, acquisition of such weapons as a means of strategic empowerment to reduce their vulnerabilities. On the other hand, developed countries, with far advanced technological wherewithal are seriously looking at defences against the threat posed by ballistic missiles of 'new missile entrants' on the block.

Ballistic Missile Defences (BMDs): A New Arms Race?

In the latter half of 1993, ballistic missile defences appear to have been brought on board the arms control agenda. The American administration sought to test the waters and persuade Russia towards a reinterpretation of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty to clarify the dividing line between strategic BMDs addressed in the treaty and tactical defences which were not. The real issue was the testing and deployment of a new family of advanced capability theatre missile defences (TMDs) or anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) systems. Since the United States perceives missile proliferation and regional conflicts as its two major threats in the post-Cold War period, the focus of its current American technological effort is to develop TMDs to defend their troops in forward deployed positions. This has obvious salience during interventionist operations.

Justification for TMDs is sought largely on the plea of threats arising from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in various regions, notably from the so-called "rogue states". Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Libya seem to fuel much of the US congressional concern. For many years now, the US has been working on a BMD system and may expend over 35 billion dollars before a deployable system is available. This despite serious reservations on the efficacy of such defences and their potential for exacerbating insecurities and escalating nuclear technological proliferation.

From information available publicly, it is known that the American TMD comprises three high technology programmes including Advanced Capability 3 Patriot, Aegis Navy Area Defence System and the Theatre High Attitude Area Defence (THAAD) which has borrowed concepts from the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI). A number of long-term space and missile tracking system projects are also on the anvil. Little is known about the Russian TMD programmes. Their military source claim systems superior to the Patriot who can track and intercept aircraft, theatre missiles and cruise missiles. No details on Russian TMD modernisation plans are forthcoming. But not surprisingly, the consequences of introduction of any BMD systems are perceived differently by other countries. China sees TMDs as eventually undermining the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. Public articulation of such fears has been going on for over five years. The essential rationale of the Chinese argument is that should a major adversarial power with nuclear weapons also acquire a high technology defensive shield, Beijing would be subjected to political blackmail. The concern is exacerbated by the consideration that TMDs are envisaged to be deployed in collaboration with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and other East Asian nations.

Analysts in India argue that the deployment of TMDs would trigger an arms race in outer space that would be violative of international treaties, serve to destabilise regions and push politico-military establishments into rethinking concepts of war fighting. There are fears that TMDs could lead to revival of the Cold War. Plans to introduce TMDs in Asia, spearheaded by the US and Japan, could provide China the doctrinal incentive to accelerate the technological upgradation of its nuclear forces. She may also be compelled to enhance the size and sophistication of its nuclear arsenal, possibly through accelerated technology transfer from Russia and step up its R&D efforts in anti-missile defences.The net result is bound to be increased insecurity of the US, tension in East Asia and the possibility of China using missile and nuclear proliferation to countervail the US. The US has a consistent record of initiating arms races under the assumption that other nations connot catch up with it technologically. But this is to ignore the inevitable spread of technology.6

As the analyst Alastair Johnston warned in a pioneering study "opposition to ballistic missile control or decisions to test and deploy TMDs that undermine the ABM treaty will not only ensure that the expansive arms control agenda gets nowhere but may well have the unintended consequence of dramatically reducing Chinese incentives to participate in the extant agenda in the CD. Certainly it will provide added incentive for China to speed up its nuclear modernisation programme."7 China's nuclear posture under such circumstances would doubtless arouse new concerns amongst its Asian neighbours. The unleashing of anti-missile defence arms race will have very serious adverse repercussions on peace and stability in Asia. Possible Russian and Chinese responses could adversely impact India's security. For example, India too may be compelled to revise its doctrine of minimum deterrence. The imperative to sustain credibility 'may well demand increased size of the nuclear arsenal possibly as part of a swamping option' in a TMD scenario. Deployment of such missile defences in Asia would thus undermine the nuclear deterrents of others and render them vulnerable to the offensive might of the single superpower.

Ballistic Missiles—The Way Ahead

In the offensive scenario, there appears to be nothing obvious in the future of ballistic missiles. Political circumstances and not technological determinism would decide the path the world would take. The two scenarios at the opposite ends of the spectrum are: negotiated universal missile disarmament, or massive missile proliferation. Efforts to restrain ballistic missile forces through either unilateral reductions, export controls or ballistic missile centred arms control agreements may take long to fruition. In course of time, public pressure on the international community to redouble its efforts to limit the spread not only of nuclear weapons but the missile delivery systems also, through time-bound disarmament, may well increase.

Alton Frye's proposal to place nuclear warheads in a "strategic escrow" and banning ballistic missiles8 is the short answer for security in the 21st Century. In fairness to Ronald Reagan, a fierce advocate of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), the credit for espousing the concept of a ban on ballistic missile must also go to him. Advanced monitoring and inspection technologies make the plan practicable, there being security pay offs for one and all.

A non-discriminatory and comprehensive treaty prohibiting development, production and acquisition of ballistic missiles would need to be pursued single-mindedly along an incremental time-bound route. Russia, the US, China and perhaps even Pakistan and some other countries may not find a zero ballistic missile regime acceptable. A global anti-missile crusade for a multi-nationally negotiated treaty may not constitute starry-eyed idealism but be an idea whose time has come. The UN Secretary General's appeal in April 1999 for a missile ban accord could not have been more timely.

Significantly, India has been at the forefront of such initiatives. After she proposed negotiations for an international convention that would prohibit the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, another initiative in 1982 (before India's missile programme was established) called for a nuclear freeze. The envisaged prohibition was on producton of fissile materials for weapons, on production of nuclear weapons and related delivery systems. Since the wake up call invited a stony silence then, India was compelled to embark on the integrated guided missile development programme.

As an interim step to banning missiles, universalisation of the Intermediate range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty which removed IRBMs and ground launched missiles from superpower inventories in Europe, with the lower range criteria reduced to 50 km, could be considered. Such a measure would eliminate all ballistic missiles except the ICBMs. Admittedly, disarmament measures like these, even when accepted in principle, would take a long time to implement. In the meantime, countries may have no alternative to developing and sustaining missile capabilities to provide defence through deterrence.


Missile proliferation and vulnerability of nations to missile attacks (without any worthwhile defences) have been of immense anxiety to the international community. Yet selective proliferation has occurred at the very hands of the concerned countries when their strategic-commercial interests solicited. China's consistent nuclear-missile assistance to Pakistan serves as an outstanding example. In contrast, India's self-restraint on this count has been unwavering. Technology controls do not deter countries aspiring to acquire missiles; they possibly suffer only time and cost delays. Trends here point towards developing countries perceiving indigenous missile research and development and, in the alternative, acquisition of such systems in the 300-1,000 km range as their ultimate security panacea.

Initiatives on testing and possible deployment of TMDs or ATBMs by the Americans in Asia to counter regional threats and missile proliferation are raising new fears, particularly in China. She may see in this a compulsion to enhance the size and technological sophistication of its nuclear arsenal, raising in turn, yet greater concerns for India's minimum deterrent. The TMD/ATBM issue would need to be thought through carefully lest precipitate actions serve only to enhance vulnerabilities and insecurities all around.

Looking at the future of ballistic missiles as offensive weapons, a comprehensive and non-discriminatory treaty prohibiting these along an incremental time-bound route can serve the interests of security in the 21st Century. As an interim measure, universalisation of the INF treaty with the lower range criteria reduced to 50 km could be one option. In the absence of any such measures, the world has no alternative to witnessing countries develop and sustain missile capabilities to meet the compulsions of deterrence and safeguard their security.



1. K. Subrahmanyam, Agni-Ghauri Tests No Cause for Alarm," The Times of India, April 14, 1999, p. 12.

2. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh "Agni-II was a Logical Progression", The Pioneer, April 13, 1999.

3. Jane's Defence Weekly, March 10, 1999 p. 60.

4. For an analysis of NATO's future roles see V.R. Raghavan "NATO's New Strategic Concept," The Hindu, April 17, 1999.

5. See Kapil Kak "Pakistan's Missile Capabilities", Asian Strategic Review 1997-1998, p. 285.

6. K. Subhrahamanyam, "Offense as Defence", The Times of India, March 24, 1999, p. 12.

7. Alastair Iain Johnston, "Prospects for Chinese Nuclear Force Modernisation: Limited Deterrence Versus Arms control", China Quarterly 1996, p. 575.

8. Alton Frye "Banning Ballistic Missiles," Foregin Affairs, Novermber/December 1996, p. 99.