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The ballistic missile threat

In the second nuclear age, we have entered a new and dangerous phase of unchecked proliferation in which the missile competition between the major regional powers is threatening to disrupt the global strategic balance. Several international arms-control agreements and our broader multilateral diplomatic efforts have remained unable to stave off this threat.

The continuous deployment of ballistic missiles in some of the world’s most volatile regions has accentuated the risks of escalation. In 2015, more than 30 nations have operational missile capabilities, often serving as national status symbols. Best suited for delivering not only nuclear but also biological weapons, ballistic missile programs pose significant security threats both regionally and globally.

During the cold-war era, long-range ballistic missiles emerged as an essential part of the development of strategic military capabilities. The number of nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in both the US and the Soviet Union was a measure of their relatively military strengths.

The last decade of the cold war witnessed a surge of diplomatic efforts aimed at curbing the spread of missile technologies. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between the US and the Soviet Union prohibited the possession of longer-range intermediate nuclear forces (LRINF) missiles with operational ranges between 1000 and 5500 kilometres, as well as shorter-range intermediate nuclear forces (SRINF) missiles with a range between 500 and 1000 kilometres. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was also created in the same year, focusing on missiles with ranges greater than 300 kilometres.

However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the relevance of missile technology in the domain of security has remained undiminished. All five legally recognised nuclear weapon states – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China – still have large stockpiles of long-range ballistic missile. These countries have been deploying both intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarined launched ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, while the US and the Russia have eliminated all of their intermediate and medium-range missiles and significantly reduced their arsenals of long-range ballistic missiles, the threat of missile strikes from regional powers remains intact. The US’ prompt global strike programme has showed that missiles will cause heavy damage even if they are used as a limited conventional warfare tactic in the years to come.

The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed an ongoing proliferation race in which India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel and North Korea are major participants. The expert community is now focusing on the ballistic missile threat emanating from hostile WMD-armed nations. What makes these missiles a highly destabilising force is their long range and ability to strike targets across the globe on short notice.

Ballistic missiles follow a ballistic trajectory over most of their flight paths and are generally categorised, according to their range, into four classes: Short-range (SRBM), with range of less than 1000 km; Medium-range (MRBM), which have a operational range of 1000 km-3000 km; Intermediate-range (IRBM) have operational ranges of 3,000 km-5500 km, and Intercontinental-range (ICBM) can travel more than 5500 km. Short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are commonly known as theatre ballistic missiles, whereas IRBMs and ICBMs are referred to as strategic ballistic missiles.

Ballistic missiles are also classified by fuel-type and are described as solid or liquid propellants. Missiles with solid propulsion systems are considered more reliable because they require less preparation. On the other hand, liquid-propellant rocket have to keep oxidizer and fuel separate before deployment. Despite this difficulty, some Third World countries still rely on liquid-propellant technology because of greater access to it.

North Korea, a nuclear-armed rogue state, has a formidable missile capability. According to many nuclear experts, North Korean ballistic missiles are capable of reaching Tokyo and Seoul and have the ability to deliver biological and chemical weapons.

In the Middle East, Israel has a well-developed ballistic missile programme since the late 1970s, serving to aggravate certain existing threats to regional peace and security. The Jericho III is a very advanced Israeli Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with the ability to launch nuclear warheads into almost any location on the Earth’s surface. The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war made it evident that some non-state actors have also acquired missile capability but this development largely went unnoticed.

During the ongoing civil war in Syria, the Syrian military has launched ballistic missile strikes on rebel-controlled areas. This shows the increasing role of ballistic missiles in civil conflicts but no concrete steps by the international community have been taken to prevent the proliferation of missiles and related technologies in the region.

In South Asia, another highly volatile region, India and Pakistan maintain relatively large stockpiles of ballistic missiles. More alarmingly, India’s military establishment has also been working on its ballistic missile defence (BMD) programme, triggering fresh tensions in the region.

In India, over the past decade, support for ballistic missile defence (BMD) has broadened because the public is unaware of new security threats to regional peace due to India’s aggressive approach. Even many well-known Indian journalists have no idea that the success rate of a deployed BMD system is very low.

The Indian BMD does not even provide reliable defence against Pakistani stealth cruise missiles like the Hatf-VII and would surely be unable to provide India’s two cities – New Delhi and Mumbai – a shield against Chinese Dongfeng-41 missile with ‘multiple sub-warheads with separate trajectories.’

The unfortunate fact is that India, Iran, North Korea and some other countries have successfully advanced their missile programmes with foreign assistance. Many countries have even remained involved in selling sensitive missile technology to other members. Yet, because of their voluntary nature, the missile technology control regimes cannot mandate any forceful action against member countries violating its guidelines.

Curbing the spread of missile technology is particularly difficult because of lack of recognition of the threat it poses. The MTCR urgently needs to address all these concerns related to WMD delivery systems if it wants to avoid the fate of becoming totally incapable of mitigating the dangers associated with the global nuclear trade.

Email: rizwanasghar5@unm.edu

Rizwan Asghar, "The ballistic missile threat," The News. 2015-07-31.
Keywords: Science and technology , Missile technology , Nuclear weapons , Nuclear war , Missile capabilities , Nuclear technology , Missile range , Conventional warfare , Chemical weapons , Missile Programme , Nuclear trade