Moving Beyond Missile Defence: The Search for Alternatives to the Missile Race

Disarmament Diplomacy
- Issue No 55, March 2001

By Jürgen Scheffran


The US government’s push for missile defence is based on two premises: that missile proliferation can not be prevented by political means, and that missile defences can be effective. This paper seeks to critique both of these assumptions, and to explore alternatives to missile defence.

In the light of technical difficulties, and the lengthy development periods for both ballistic missiles and missile defences, there is a realistic chance for political initiatives to contain the emerging missile race. A global missile threat from states such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq does not exist, and will not materialise in the near term; nor will George W. Bush have a working missile defence to deploy during the current presidency. Instead of panicking, and rushing to join or counter a non-existent missile shield - being rushed towards deployment to meet a non-existent missile threat - the international community would be better advised to take joint action and collaborate on preventing a missile race on earth and in outer space, and promoting the disarmament of nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Diplomatic initiatives are required to reduce the role of ballistic missiles in critical regions (Northeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East) and to develop an international norm against ballistic missiles. This is the only way of countering the US tendency to move away from multilaterally agreed arms control and disarmament towards deterrence based on less, but still significant numbers of, nuclear weapons and more defences, including space weapons. Such a doctrine could create enormous uncertainties, instabilities and risks for international security. Even for the US, the situation might then get out of control, undermining its own national security. [1]

Building an International Norm Against Ballistic Missiles

The preamble to the Non-Proliferation Treaty calls for "the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery". However, ballistic missiles and other delivery systems have been largely ignored in international arms control and disarmament negotiations. This deficit was recently pointed out by Jayantha Dhanapala, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs: "Why is public debate mired today in a duel between deterrence and defence, with scant attention to missile disarmament?" [2] As the dangers of an offense-defence missile race become imminent, the need for an international initiative to control ballistic missiles becomes more urgent.

Previous efforts have been limited to the US-Russian arms control process (the INF and START treaties) and export controls by the major suppliers of missile technology. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) defines the restrictions on the transfer of missile-related technology capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Since 1987, MTCR membership has increased from 7 to 33 states. In addition, 7 countries have declared they will abide by its rules. While some missile programmes have been stopped or delayed, the effectiveness of the regime has been limited. The MTCR is not a binding treaty, there are no specific verification or enforcement mechanisms, and membership is essentially restricted to the suppliers. Existing ballistic missile arsenals are not addressed, the asymmetry between "haves" and "have nots" is ignored, and various shorter-range missiles have been deployed in a number of developing countries. [3]

Notwithstanding this weakness, a number of potentially significant initiatives to improve the situation have recently been launched:

There is an evident need to develop and enhance confidence-building measures (CBMs) among states with missile capabilities. During the 1999 MTCR Plenary in Noordwijk, Netherlands, the missile suppliers committed themselves to "responsible missile behaviour", without publicly explaining their meaning. At the October 2000 MTCR Plenary Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, member states envisaged an outreach to non-members and agreed on a Draft International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, including a set of principles, commitments, CBMs and incentives. A Code of Conduct for responsible missile behaviour could increase openness about development and testing, including voluntary commitments. This could help to avoid the instabilities of secret programmes.

A related initiative is the Russian proposal for a Global Control System (GCS) for the non-proliferation of missiles and missile technology. Launched in 1999 and further explored at expert level meetings in Moscow in March 2000 and February this year, [4] the proposal acknowledges the security concerns raised by missile programmes and the concomitant need for security assurances. A Global Monitoring System (GMS) would increase transparency with regard to missile launches and reduce the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding. Under such a regime, states would have to provide prior notification of test launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles (SLVs). Such a GMS may include controls on missile and missile technology transfers to third countries. In order to discourage proliferation, the GCS would offer security incentives and assistance in the peaceful uses of space for states that completely give up and convert their missile programmes and capabilities.

A breakthrough in transparency arrangements was recently achieved with the establishment of the Joint Data Exchange Centre (JDEC) in Moscow, staffed by military personnel from the US and Russia. Signed on December 16, 2000, the US-Russian ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Notification of Missile Launches’ provides for pre- and post-launch notification of all ballistic missile tests and space launches, as well as notification of failed satellite launches. Other countries can join the agreement.

In Canada, experts from several countries were consulted in March 2000 and February 2001 to examine options and alternatives to respond to US missile defence. [5] The first meeting discussed multilateral approaches to more effective ballistic missile control, international monitoring, and early warning. Participants emphasized the need to prevent instabilities and accidents, to implement risk-reduction and confidence-building measures, such as de-alerting, improved ballistic missile early warning and launch notification. The monitoring and surveillance of missile and space-related activities and the exchange of technical data were identified as the keys to an effective missile-control verification system. The report of the second meeting recommended a major effort to modernize international space law to deal with the dangers of space weapons and warfare, to expand the JDEC, and to multilateralise GCS co-operation. It also suggested directly engaging countries like North Korea and Iran, India and Pakistan, to encourage a halt to nuclear and missile proliferation. Participants were also of the view that Canada should push the MTCR’s Draft Code of Conduct at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament (CD), and as a first step support a moratorium on test-flights of ballistic missiles.

On October 4, 2000, Iran introduced a resolution on missiles to the 55th session of the UN First Committee. The resolution was adopted (A/C.1/55/L.1/Rev.1) by the Committee on October 31 by 90 votes to 0 with 60 abstentions, and by the General Assembly on November 20 by 97 votes to 0 with 65 abstentions. The resolution emphasizes the "need for a comprehensive approach towards missiles, in a balanced and non-discriminatory manner, as a contribution to international peace and security." It requests the Secretary-General, with the assistance of a panel of governmental experts, to prepare a report on missiles in all its aspects.

From Missile Control to Missile Disarmament

A missile control regime needs to take into account the various stages of missile development, and any asymmetries among missile owners. As missile development advances, the perceived threat increases. Once a missile has been tested, bans on deployment will be more difficult - since rapid breakout from an agreement remains possible - and will require stricter controls.

Strengthening international ballistic missile controls will be a long-term process necessarily involving the adoption and evolution of a wide range of measures, from the comparatively modest - i.e. a Code of Conduct, bolstered export controls, and missile monitoring and launch-notification agreements - to far-reaching disarmament treaties establishing global missile bans. Intermediate options would include restrictions on missile testing, and the creation of missile-free zones. Obvious candidates for such areas would be Latin America and Africa, both of which have already established nuclear-weapon-free zones.

A missile non-proliferation regime, however, allowing missile owners to keep their arsenals, would have limited efficiency compared to non-discriminatory missile disarmament. The only way to deal with asymmetries between countries would be to set up an international norm against ballistic missiles that entitles all countries to equal rights. Even though the prospects for such a comprehensive disarmament regime based on multilateral agreements currently seems remote, particularly given the attitude of the new US administration, this should not exclude conceptual thinking and diplomatic initiatives that broaden political support for such a regime.

To build momentum for a comprehensive alternative, a step-by-step approach is appropriate. Test restrictions would effectively prevent new missile designs and limit modification of traditional technology, although unsophisticated indigenous missile systems could still be developed and deployed with minimal testing. A ballistic missile test-flight ban would preclude the testing of new missiles and reduce the chance of accidental or intentional war.

In order to prevent a missile race and buy more time for political initiatives, it would be particularly helpful to institute a moratorium on the further development, testing and deployment of ballistic missiles. To address concerns about asymmetries and discrimination, a "missile freeze" could cover both offensive and defensive missiles and be designed as a temporary measure while countries negotiated disarmament steps for missiles and other delivery systems. Simultaneous regional security initiatives would be crucial to diminish incentives for missile development.

When planning next steps, long-term perspectives should be taken into account. In 1992, expanding the proposal discussed between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) developed a model for the elimination of ballistic missiles (ZBM: Zero Ballistic Missiles). [6] Such a regime would aim at the complete elimination of offensive ballistic missiles and combine unilateral declarations with regional and global multilateral agreements. The ZBM proposal - which the FAS backed up with a complete draft treaty - combined a comprehensive framework with a step-wise approach, including bilateral cuts between the USA and Russia, ballistic-missile-free zones , an international Missile Conference, the creation of an International Agency for Ballistic Missile Disarmament, and finally agreement on the varying schedules necessary to reach zero ballistic missile capability.


A crucial aspect of missile control is verification, not least the effective matching of verification tasks to available technology. [7] National or international technical means of verification could focus on observable rocket characteristics (number, size, range, payload, deployment mode, launch preparations, flight trajectory), which provide indications of rocket type and performance. Much missile-programme infrastructure - such as production facilities, test ranges, tracking and communication facilities, missile containers and missile-carrying vehicles - is highly visible. The biggest complication might be the dual-use of ballistic missiles and SLVs. Differentiating between both rocket types is difficult, since much of the technology is easily convertible. However, some functional differences and operational characteristics could be used to improve distinction, such as differences in the basing mode, the testing procedures, the payload, flight trajectory, guidance systems and re-entry. [8]

A variety of technical and non-technical means of verification exist to monitor ballistic missiles and their elimination. Remote sensing in the visible, infra-red or radar spectra, based on satellites, aircraft or on the ground, allows observation of missiles and the related launch and test facilities. Some of the verification tasks can be performed by commercial satellites, which are becoming increasingly cheap and efficient. Reconnaissance overflights (under the Open Skies regime) provide an alternative to satellite monitoring for many countries and can even supply superior information. During testing and training, a rocket communicates with its operators by sending and receiving telemetry signals which can be intercepted by receivers on ground stations, vehicles and satellites. Non-encrypted telemetry provides the necessary information on missile characteristics.

To ensure adequate verification of ballistic missile elimination regimes, technical means of verification need to be accompanied by inspections. As the experiences of the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspections in Iraq have shown, a regime of unimpeded fast access to suspect sites is required to detect evidence of non-compliance. Verification problems are much easier to solve when states cooperate and are willing to exchange information. Systematic inspections of all ballistic-missile-related sites can provide basic information on an initial balance. Random short-notice inspections of declared sites should be augmented by a system of challenge inspections to undeclared sites. Pre-launch inspections would ensure that no undesired payload is used.

To determine the basic payload type - in particular, to detect re-entry vehicles at the front of a rocket - without disclosing proprietory information, non-intrusive devices and techniques can be applied, such as scanning and radiographic devices. Ground-based equipment for different regions of the radiation spectrum could be mutually complementary: nuclear radiation detection could search for alpha, beta and gamma decay, indicating nuclear materials. Neutron detection would exhibit information about the types of materials used, in particular whether they include explosives. X-ray equipment could provide basic design information while preventing violation of commercial interests. In case of suspicion, more precise x-ray detection, computer tomography or - in exceptional cases - the opening of the payload in the presence of inspectors could remove uncertainties about non-compliance.

The efficiency of verification depends on the stage in the missile life-cycle that is to be controlled. Limits on research and development (R&D) would effectively prevent indigenous missile development in its early stages, but dual-use is the biggest verification problem here. With space cooperation and conversion of military R&D facilities, plus inspection of suspected sites, verification could exclude the most relevant developments but would require extensive procedures likely to interfere with legitimate civilian R&D.

Stationary testing can be monitored by remote sensing of ground-based facilities from air and space, thermal detection of missile plumes, and on-site inspection. Since ballistic missile launches can be detected with early warning satellites and ground- or air-based radars, a ballistic missile test-flight ban would be rather easy to verify by remote sensing and interception of telemetry. Potential launch facilities can be inspected by non-destructive measurements.

A ban on missile deployment can in general be adequately verified, depending on the missile deployment mode, the degree of information exchanged and the security risk acceptable for the countries. Remote sensing would target rockets, transport vehicles and infrastructure. There is a high probability of detecting deployment in the open-air or in silos, but it is obviously harder to discover concealed deployment.

Detection of production would depend on remote sensing and inspection of suspected production facilities. Routine and challenge inspections would use chokepoint monitoring with non-intrusive devices at portals and the perimeter of assembly plants without entry into the site, comparable to the regulations of the INF and START treaties. Chances for detection increase with the extension of the detection period. No country can be certain that hidden storage would remain undetected by espionage, whistle-blowing or random challenge inspection. Ballistic missile destruction and warhead removal should be also open to inspection.

Under a comprehensive space-launch notification agreement and missile flight test ban, any non-controlled space launch would be prohibited, and the detection of any rockets outside of agreed launch pads would indicate a violation. To limit the risk of undetected activities, it would be particularly important to implement measures that prevent the transformation of space launch technology for ballistic missiles. A safeguards system for space launchers could place some of the "most critical" items under supervision by an international organization. International cooperation in civilian space programmes would also be important for containing the use of space technology for missile development.

Extending the Control Regime

The case for a regime to control and monitor space launchers is greatly strengthened when considered in the context of preventing an arms race in outer space. Such a regime, in fact, could serve the function of verifying a ban on space weapons, in particular anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Since man-made objects in orbit would enter space through space rockets, a monitoring system at space launch facilities could not only search for indications of ballistic missile use, but also for the space-weapon usability of the payload. This would provide increased transparency concerning space activities in general, and would effectively exclude the deployment and testing of space weapons using ground-based space launchers. Other types of space weapons, in particular aircraft launch and ground- or air-based beam weapons, require different verification provisions. A combination of the available technologies would provide quite efficient means for verifying an ASAT ban, including a test ban, and the remaining risk would certainly be no higher than if the situation remained uncontrolled. [9]

A control regime on ballistic missiles and space weapons could be also extended to the international control of ballistic missile defences. In contradistinction to the current US quest to abrogate the ABM Treaty, or at least transform it beyond recognition, the regime could include proposals for strengthening the Treaty by making its general provisions more precise and verifiable, and/or by internationalising the accord. Fourteen years ago, John Pike presented some ideas on how to minimise definition problems and establish verifiable limits for various ABM components. [10] Such limits would relate to the altitude, relative distance and velocity of interceptor tests, and to limits on laser brightness or to the aperture of sensors and mirrors.

Conclusion: the Role of Citizens, Scientists and the Public

Citizens and non-governmental organizations can play an important role in promoting and implementing missile control and disarmament. In order to increase public awareness, a greater public discourse on the missile problem and its resolution is required. By building a network of information exchange and debate, experts, civil society and officials could be jointly engaged in this process. Activities could include meetings and conferences involving scientists and technicians, as well as protests at, and attempts to conduct citizen inspections of, critical facilities. A notable example of collaborative work is the project "Moving Beyond Missile Defense", launched by the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation (INESAP) in collaboration with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) in March 2001. The project assesses the problems posed by missile proliferation and missile defence, and promotes political options to resolve these problems on an international level.

Although comprehensive proposals may currently seem utopian, they may become more, not less, important as a means of preserving stability and reducing uncertainty in a world of dangerous and costly missile defences. If the missile race on earth and in space is not prevented, the situation could soon become unstable, complex and even run out of control. Even the United States may wish to take international measures to reduce uncertainty and prevent damage to its own security interests once ICBMs, ASATs and laser weapons of other countries are fully developed. Whether a control system will work in a hostile environment is questionable. The best chance to prevent the missile race and space warfare exists now; such an opportunity may never come again.

Notes and References

  1. See J.Scheffran, "Missile Defence, International Stability and Preventive Arms Control", Paper presented at a workshop on National and Theater Missile Defences after the US Elections, Berlin, February14-16,2001.

  2. ‘Eliminating Nuclear Arsenals: the NPT Pledge and What It Means,’ speech by Jayantha Dhanapala to the All-Party Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation, House of Commons, London, July 3, 2000. For full text, see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 47, June 2000.

  3. For an early analysis, see J.Scheffran, A.Karp, "The National Implementation of the Missile Technology Control Regime: US and German Experiences", in: H.G.Brauch, H.J. v.d.Graaf, J.Grin, W.Smit (eds.), ‘Controlling the Development and Spread of Military Technology’, Amsterdam: VU University Press 1992, pp.235-255.

  4. For details of the first experts-level meeting, see M.Rice, "Russia Proposes Global Regime On Missile Proliferation", Arms Control Today, May 2000; for the second meeting, see Disarmament Diplomacy No.54, February 2001.

  5. Ballistic Missiles Foreign Experts Roundtable Report, March 30-31, 2000, Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development, April 7, 2000; The Missile Defence Debate: Guiding Canada’s Role, Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues, 2001. For a preliminary report on the Liu Centre consultation, prefaced by a statement from the Centre’s Director, former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, see

  6. "Revisiting Zero Ballistic Missiles - Reagan’s Forgotten Dream", FAS Public Interest Report, May/June 1992; L.Lumpe, "Zero Ballistic Missiles and the Third World", Arms Control, Vol.14 (1), April 1993, pp.218-223; A.Frye, "Zero Ballistic Missiles", Foreign Policy, No.88, Fall 1992, pp.12-17.

  7. See further: J.Scheffran, "Verification of Ballistic Missile Bans and Monitoring of Space Launches", in: W.Liebert, J.Scheffran (eds.), ‘Against Proliferation - Towards General Disarmament’, Münster: Agenda 1995, pp.156-164; J.Scheffran, "Elimination of Ballistic Missiles", in: J.Rotblat, M.Konuma (eds.), ‘Towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World’, World Scientific, 1997, pp.310-326; L.Trost, "Designing Ballistic Missile Control Monitoring Systems" (Excerpts from report of the Cooperative Monitoring Center), INESAP Information Bulletin, No.14, November 1997; M. Smith, "Verifiable Control of Ballistic Missile Proliferation", Trust & Verify, No. 95, January/February 2001.

  8. J.Scheffran, "Dual Use of Missiles and Space Technologies", in: G.Neuneck, O.Ischebeck (eds.), ‘Missile Technologies, Proliferation and Concepts for Arms Control’, Baden-Baden: Nomos 1993, pp.49-68.

  9. For a summary of the basic options and technical problems, see J.Scheffran, "Verification and Risk for an Anti-Satellite-Weapons Ban", Bulletin of Peace Proposals, Vol.17, No.2, 1986, pp.165-174, the analysis for which was conducted in the context of: H.Fischer, R.Labusch, E.Maus, J.Scheffran, "Draft Treaty on the Limitation of the Military Use of Outer Space", reprinted in: J.Holdren, J.Rotblat (eds.), ‘Strategic Defences and the Future of the Arms Race’, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

  10. J.Pike, "Quantitative Limits on Anti-Missile Systems - A Preliminary Assessment", Washington D.C.: FAS, 4th, May22, 1987; a shorter version can be found in: "Scientific Aspects of the Verification of Arms Control Treaties", partII, pp.137- 198, Hamburger Beiträge zur Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik, June 1987.

Dr. Jürgen Scheffran is a physicist and senior researcher with the interdisciplinary research group IANUS at the Technical University Darmstadt, Germany. He is co-founder of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation (INESAP), Editor of the INESAP Information Bulletin, and Chair of the project on ‘Moving Beyond Missile Defense’. He can be contacted by e-mail at

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