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Sitki Egeli

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Trends in Ballistic Missile Proliferation: Addressing the Security Issue

Summary: The current export control system does not have the necessary safeguards to adequately regulate ballistic missile proliferation. Dual-use technology, “tactfully-useful” ballistic missiles, and evolving delivery vehicles are evading the antiquated export controls. The international community must seek to increase transparency and construct norms that fit the current missile technology presence. 

A paper by:  Sitki Egeli

Ballistic missiles continue to proliferate due to the outdated status of the export controls system; they are being undermined by the passage of time. The spread of dual-use knowledge and items continues to exploit antiquated export controls, and ulterior agendas might be pushed forward. Ever-expanding global trade increases access to parties willing to proliferate missile technology; mass amounts of data can now be stored and disseminated which further undermines export controls. The advanced industrialization of many more nations increases their technical capabilities so domestic missile development programs are becoming feasible.

Vertical proliferation – meaning building up stockpiles, increasing sophistication, and developing new technology – did not reduce the speed of ballistic missiles proliferation across the world. In fact, some experts argue that vertical proliferation should slow horizontal proliferation – i.e. proliferation  across states -  because deterrence theory is based in threat policy; proliferating the capability even to allies is inherently dangerous.      

Having said that, there are reports referring to Russia's deployment of the Iskander-M ballistic missile system in Armenia to balance Azerbaijan's superior air power (Iskander-M ballistic missile known of their ability of carrying nuclear warheads). Saudi Arabia purchased DF-21 ballistic missiles from China in 2007 with the approval of the Bush administration. Iran has reportedly been developing its ballistic missile program for a couple of decades and recently conducted strikes against Daesh in Deir AzZor province. Syria. Turkey and North Korea have both developed their own ballistic missile programs within the past couple of years thus illustrating greater horizontal proliferation.

There is a clear trend of systematic use of ballistic missiles in global conflicts including in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Ukraine, Georgia, and others. Ballistic missiles have also fallen into the hands of non-state actors like ISIS and Hamas, which poses a great threat to civilians and militaries alike. The psychological (or) political barrier is evaporating as ballistic missiles are used more and more, and have become common place. The launching of a ballistic missile might not even spell the beginning of a conflict which speaks to how ubiquitous they have become.

The emergence of “tactically-useful” ballistic missiles is a dangerous development because they are becoming more lethal. Miniaturization of electronics and sensors, great strides in data processing, and advanced materials all contribute to the increased lethality of ballistic missiles. They have become more accurate, reliable, and affordable, leading them to challenge combat aircraft in efficiency because they do not risk the pilot’s life. What is becoming particularly worrying is that the psychological/political barrier for using missiles is diminishing.

On a different track, the development of missile defense is creating a whole new fault line between the haves and the have-nots. This thwarts Deterrence theory and adds a new dimension to the spiraling arms race because the haves are building up their missile defense capabilities. This would even  complicate alliances with foreign allies that have ballistic missile defense capabilities because they are taking part in an arms race that brings into question the security of the whole alliance.

The threat posed by ballistic missile proliferation is clear since it might be linked to WMD delivery capabilities; this is particularly concerning in North Korea and Syria. Yet, the motivation of acquiring ballistic missiles takes a new dimension in different countries. For Iran, Armenia, Syria, and others, ballistic missile systems prove to be a strategic equalizer to balance superior air power of their enemies. For North Korea, Iran, Turkey, and others, non guided missiles are instruments to boost prestige – both domestically and internationally. For South Korea, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, and others, ballistic missiles offer deterrence (or)asymmetric response while their increased tactical utility enables strikes on high value targets.  

Components of a multi-stage ballistic  missile

To address the proliferation of ballistic missiles, we must establish political and cost barriers “i.e. export controls” as well as extending the timeframes of those already in place. Export controls must be updated to focus on the current threat – e.g. longer-range missiles and multistage ballistic missiles.

Sanctions were predominantly used as a tool to curb ballistic missiles proliferation. Yet, the efficacy of sanctions is dubious, and there are moral (or) philosophical question marks against a rationality and dogmatic mindset. Hypocrisy is the greatest challenge, countries possessing ballistic missiles frequently place sanctions on other nations trying to acquire missiles. China and the U.S. are said to be testing Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) which essentially cannot be intercepted; these actions point to even greater hypocrisy as HGC could be the most destabilizing delivery vehicle at all.

Trajectory of a hypersonic glide missile

Missile defense capabilities are good for risk reduction to the host nation but they create a crisis of stability and deterrence to the surrounding nations, this is valid as much of the current international stability is based on deterrence theory. Missile defense is also not attainable for most countries which encourage vertical proliferation. Developing political and diplomatic initiatives is difficult because it is hard to eradicate motivations and technological patterns. Arms control and disarmament measure can be supplemented by agreements on increased transparency, confidence building measures, and risk reduction measures like regulation and curbs on ballistic missile testing. These efforts should seek to build norms, constraints, and responsible behavior. The international community must realize that there is no magical formula to achieve this. Negotiators must take into account diverse motivations, technical skills and national interests.


* Paper presented at the HCOC Regional Seminar held by the Arab Institute for Security Studies and HCOC (2017). Paper transcribed by Sam Hickey (ACSIS). 

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