Cruise Missiles: The 'Poor Man's Air Force': Bryan Dorn Warns That It Will Be Difficult to Prevent Proliferation of These Dangerous Weapons

By Dorn, Bryan | New Zealand International Review, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Cruise Missiles: The 'Poor Man's Air Force': Bryan Dorn Warns That It Will Be Difficult to Prevent Proliferation of These Dangerous Weapons


Dorn, Bryan, New Zealand International Review


While the United States concentrates upon the emerging ballistic missile threat from North Korea and Iran to justify its construction of the ground-based midcourse defence, adversaries are constructing cruise missiles to avoid interception and to strike US strategic targets. This article will analyse the emergence of the cruise missile threat and the current inability of the missile technology control regime (MTCR) to halt the proliferation of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The threat from ballistic missiles has dominated US security concerns and non-proliferation efforts. Cruise missiles do not require sophisticated technology for production. As a result, the development of land-attack cruise missiles by hostile regional powers is now considered a significant security threat. The proliferation of military related technologies makes restriction of cruise missiles a more difficult task than restraining ballistic missiles. Furthermore, US military dominance in conventional forms of warfare, such as airpower, means states are abandoning their ambitions to compete against the United States in all forms of warfare and concentrating on cruise missiles for power projection. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz stated:

   It is clear that potential adversaries
   will pursue any means they can
   to exploit the vulnerabilities of a
   free society ... And they most certainly

   will seek to exploit our near
   total vulnerability to ballistic missile
   and cruise missile attack. (1)

Numerous advantages

Remarkably, 70 countries, 40 of them in the Third World, possess 75,000 anti-ship cruise missiles with a range greater than 100 kilometres. (2) Cruise missiles offer numerous advantages over ballistic missiles. For example, they are less susceptible to counterforce targeting, do not require stable launch sites and are more effective at dispersing chemical and biological agents. Export controls on accurate guidance systems have been successful in halting the development of cruise missiles. However, the use of cruise missile technology for civilian and military purposes has aided cruise missile proliferation. The technology required for civilian aircraft can be used for cruise missiles. During 1991, the US National Academy of Sciences argued that the aircraft industry had 'negative implications for control by any single nation of the export of production technology'. (3) A report by the US Congressional Research Service warned:

   In contrast to ballistic missile proliferation,
   cruise missiles present
   a particular challenge for monitoring
   and control because they exploit
   technology that is well understood
   and well established in the
   civil aviation industry. Missile
   airframes, navigation systems, jet
   engines, satellite maps, and mission
   planning computers and software
   all can be purchased on the
   commercial market. Cruise missile
   technology 'hides in plain sight'--making
   it difficult to identify a military
   program. At the same time,
   commercial availability generally
   means relatively low-cost weapons
   for many nations and, potentially,
   non-state actors. (4)

The widespread availability of anti-ship cruise missile or unmanned aerial vehicles could provide the building blocks for a land-attack cruise missile. The Chinese derived anti-ship cruise missile Silkworm can be easily modified to have a range greater than 300 kilometres. The Silkworm costs less than a Scud ballistic missile, US $250,000 compared to US$500,000$1 million. Iran and North Korea, both states of concern, have developed variants of the Silkworm and begun development of more advanced cruise missiles. 'China's Hong Niao family of cruise missiles is armed with both nuclear and conventional warheads, with ranges up to 1500-2000 kilometres (in the case of the HN-2, which entered service in 1996) and 4000 kilometres (in the case of the HN-2000, a supersonic version which is currently in development)'. …

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