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Anti-ship missiles: a dangerous gateway

9 February 2016
Nolan Fahrenkopf

Nolan Fahrenkopf

Nolan Fahrenkopf is a doctoral candidate in the political science department at the University at Albany, SUNY. His dissertation focuses on the proliferation of conventional...

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With the Iranian nuclear deal complete, attention has shifted from Iran’s nuclear program to its ballistic missile program. Despite the deal, Iran has actively maintained its long-range ballistic missile program, and its leaders clearly recognize the program’s strategic value. Yet for all the attention that the high-profile ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea have received from the nonproliferation community, an equally important aspect of missile proliferation has quietly been changing the way weaker countries respond to the military capabilities of great powers—and providing these weaker countries with a gateway to more advanced missile capabilities.

I am referring to the sale of advanced conventional missile technologies that fall below the Missile Technology Control Regime’s thresholds and do not involve sanctioned pariah states or illicit arms transactions. Anti-ship missiles—guided missiles that typically carry conventional warheads and can be launched from ships, submarines, aircraft, or shore with the purpose of sinking naval or commercial vessels at sea—are the most glaring example of how great powers such as the United States, France, and Russia have proactively sought to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in numerous high-profile cases but are also actively contributing to proliferation with their conventional arms sales. Some security experts have expressed worries about anti-ship cruise missiles that are propelled by air-breathing jet engines, but simpler anti-ship missiles that rely on solid- or liquid-fueled rockets as their only source of propulsion should also be cause for concern.

Anti-ship missiles pose two significant problems for proliferation and international security. First is their equalizing potential: These missiles give states an anti-access and area-denial capability that is disproportionate to their cost and technical requirements. This means that weak states with a large supply of anti-ship missiles can easily disrupt important sea-lanes used by significantly more powerful navies. Put another way, these missiles cheaply magnify the difficulty of moving and supporting armed forces across oceans—“the stopping power of water,” as University of Chicago political scientist John J. Mearsheimer called it—which limits even a powerful navy’s ability to engage in combat and to build up offshore operations.

An even bigger concern regarding the unchecked proliferation of anti-ship missiles and other advanced conventional weapon technologies is their building-block nature. These weapons, which are either wholly unregulated or fall below established non-proliferation regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, can be stepping stones to more advanced weapons. States that seek more advanced missile systems need to start somewhere, and reverse engineering anti-ship missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and other easily available conventional missiles makes a perfect starting point.

Anti-ship missiles in action. The French Exocet is one of the most popular anti-ship missiles in the world, and France is happy to sell it to almost any state that can afford it. This is still a sore spot between France and the United Kingdom, because Argentina used French Exocet missiles to sink British ships during the Falklands War. With only five air-launched Exocets, Argentina was able to do serious damage to the significantly more powerful British Navy. The Exocet increased the anti-access capabilities of Argentina and was the only chance the Argentines had to prevent British naval supremacy.

At the onset of the Falklands War, NATO and the common-market nations agreed to an arms embargo that left Argentina with only five Étendards (the fighter plane that launched the Exocet missiles) and five Exocets. Despite this lack of firepower, Argentina was able to sink the HMS Sheffield, a British destroyer, and the supply ship MV Atlantic Conveyor. Although France observed the arms embargo, specialists who worked for Dassault (the producer of the Étendard fighters and 51 percent owned by the French government) provided technical support in Argentina during the war. Had Argentina acquired more Exocets, this would have made the reclaiming of the Falklands significantly more difficult for the British, despite their overwhelming naval superiority.

Despite the capabilities of anti-ship missiles, their strategic implications have been overshadowed in the academic and policy literature by more traditional concepts of proliferation. While the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and advanced ballistic missiles is a major strategic concern, numerous difficulties in their acquisition make them a less common threat. Anti-ship missiles and other inexpensive equalizing weapons have benefited from increasingly globalized arms production, making them cheaper and more available than ever.

Six decades of development. Their equalizing capability is why anti-ship missiles were developed in the first place. These missiles, as we know them today, originated in the Soviet Union during the 1950s. The Soviet Union was greatly outmatched at sea by the massive US surface fleet. Knowing that they could not compete with the United States in the way that Japan had attempted to in World War II, the Soviets focused on developing stand-off weapons that would challenge the dominance of US aircraft carriers, which remains unmatched by any other navy.

One of the first steps toward modern anti-ship missiles was the P-15 Termit, better known as the Styx missile. This class of missiles has been widely exported and saw its first combat in the sinking of an Israeli warship, the INS Eilat, by two Egyptian missile boats in 1967. Richard Fieldhouse and Shunji Taoka argued in their 1989 book Superpowers at Sea that the sinking of the Eilat demonstrated that the Soviet Union’s focus on anti-ship missiles was a revolutionary event in naval history. Anti-ship missiles might also be seen as a counter-revolution of sorts: a response to the revolutionary military power of aircraft carriers, as University of Pennsylvania political scientist Michael C. Horowitz explains in his 2010 book The Diffusion of Military Power. The success of these weapons when used against more powerful naval fleets, and their wide proliferation, helped to reinforce this point.

More than 80 states now possess these weapons, according to an unpublished dataset that I am developing—along with Bryan Early, an associate professor of political science at SUNY Albany, and James Igoe Walsh, a professor of political science at UNC Charlotte—as part of my dissertation work. There are 22 states that build their own anti-ship missile systems, five of which developed these weapons through indigenous means, while 17 had previously imported other versions of the technology. The most common missiles on the market are the US Harpoon, the Russian Styx and its multiple variants, Chinese Silkworm variants, and the French Exocet.

Reverse engineering. A strong export market and high profit margins stimulate the production and proliferation of these weapons. The generally lax attitude toward anti-ship missiles poses serious problems, because, as W. Seth Carus of the National Defense University points out in his 1992 book Cruise Missile Proliferation in the 1990s, most states that seek land-attack cruise missiles start by reverse engineering anti-ship missiles. Dennis M. Gormley of the University of Pittsburgh, in his 2008 book Missile Contagion, echoes this important point, while also highlighting the ease with which states can hide the development of long-range land-attack cruise missiles. Anti-ship missiles are easily converted into land-attack cruise missiles, which are hard to detect and intercept and can be used to accurately deliver conventional or nuclear munitions from a long distance (keeping the delivery platform out of combat).

Direct purchases of highly advanced, long-range missile systems have been rare—Saudi Arabia’s purchase of 36 Chinese Dongfeng-3 intermediate range ballistic missiles and the US Trident missiles leased by the United Kingdom being exceptions. Instead, missile proliferators typically start from the ground up. The North Korean missile program is an excellent example: Its now-quite-advanced missile program began by reverse engineering several types of Soviet and Chinese missile systems, such as coastal defense anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and the 50-to-70-kilometer-range Soviet FROG missiles—all systems that are readily available from multiple sources. After reverse engineering, these missiles were domestically produced, and this, according to Dinshaw Mistry’s 2003 book Containing Missile Proliferation, paved the way for the development of larger, more sophisticated weapons. This made North Korea not only self-sufficient, but also a new competitor in the international arms market and a source of missile systems and technology for future “pariah” proliferators.

The path to proliferation. The reverse engineering of increasingly sophisticated anti-ship missiles such as the supersonic Chinese CX-1 (which can carry a 260-kilogram payload as far as 280 kilometers) or the US Harpoon Block II (with a payload capacity of 224 kilograms at 124 kilometers)—along with the technical help, equipment, and parts that come with these sales—lays the framework for creating the all-important scientific and technical capital that future proliferators need. The path to strategic proliferation—whether it involves long-range ballistic missiles, advanced land-attack cruise missiles, or advanced anti-ship missiles—relies on the scientific and technical capital, tacit knowledge, and organizational competence that importing and reverse engineering any of these lower-level conventional weapons can bring.

The equalizing and enabling characteristics of advanced anti-ship missiles are in dire need of attention from the nonproliferation community. These weapons are cheap, uncontrolled, and readily available. They have a power to destroy and deter that is disproportionate to their cost and technical requirements, and represent perfect starter kits for future proliferators. If the United States is concerned about its ability to project power, or to confront future missile proliferators like Iran, it first needs to address the unfettered sale of advanced anti-ship missiles throughout the world.