Winning on Ballistic Missiles but Losing on Cruise: The Missile Proliferation Battle

By Gormley, Dennis M. | Arms Control Today, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Winning on Ballistic Missiles but Losing on Cruise: The Missile Proliferation Battle


Gormley, Dennis M., Arms Control Today


Because Europe and the U.S. forces based there face a near-term ballistic missile threat. President Barack Obama's decision to abandon a Bush-era missile defense plan makes good sense. In contrast to President George W. Bush's approach, which focused primarily on a few potential ICBMs, Obama's is more suited to Iran's growing arsenal of medium- and intermediaterange ballistic missiles.

The Obama decision also provides an opportunity to reflect on how the ballistic missile threat has evolved over the last 25 years. There is reason to believe that missile nonproliferation policies have contributed to preventing the flow of specialized skills and technologies that are critical to enabling the leap from medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to intercontinental ones. This success has been reinforced by U.S. ballistic missile defenses, which have kept pace with the way the ballistic missile threat from Iran and North Korea has emerged thus far.

Yet, the situation with regard to cruise missile proliferation is different. Cruise missile nonproliferation policies are less potent, and defenses are woefully inadequate, which may explain the sudden outbreak of cruise missile proliferation in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia. Unless the Obama administration focuses on making missile controls, which are the primary focus of this article, and missile defenses function in tandem to address the threats from both ballistic and cruise missiles, the overall missile threat to U.S. interests could severely worsen in the years ahead.

Partial Success

Nearly a decade ago, Richard Speier, one of the principal architects of the now 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), argued cogently that the MTCR and missile defenses were not in fact antithetical pursuits but complementary ones.1 From the outset of the regime, Speier noted, this complementarity was reflected in the MTCR's goal of targeting missile research, development, and production, while missile defenses focused on targeting the missile once it was launched. According to Speier's analysis, effective missile defenses should raise the cost of offensive missiles by compelling nations to seek more-effective offensive missiles, larger inventories, and countermeasures (at least for long-range missiles traveling in space). The MTCR should make the job of missile defense easier to achieve by stretching missiles' development time, lowering their reliability, and reducing their sophistication.

Despite its imperfections, the MTCR - the only existing multilateral arrangement covering the transfer of missiles and missile-related equipment, material, and technology relevant to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - has brought a significant degree of order and predictability to containing the spread of ballistic missiles, especially with regard to a threatening state's development of missiles capable of achieving intercontinental ranges. This was evident in the White House fact sheet issued to support the Obama administration's alternative missile defense plan for Europe, which said, "The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran's shortand medium-range ballistic missiles is developing more rapidly than previously projected, while the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities has been slower to develop than previously estimated."2

There is little doubt that Iran's slower than expected progress toward achieving ICBM capabilities is due to the MTCR's success in blocking the flow of critical technologies and specialized expertise needed for such an achievement.3

Dependence on an intelligence community threat assessment returns the Obama administration to the longstanding notion of "threat-based" planning wherein major defense acquisition programs require a specific explication of the threat in order to justify the expenditure of major resources. The Bush administration's secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had come away from chairing the 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States newly appreciative of the tendency of U. …

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Winning on Ballistic Missiles but Losing on Cruise: The Missile Proliferation Battle
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