Time for a missile test ban

For more than 60 years, missiles have been a symbol of international power. Influential nations have them, and others want them. As early as the 1950s, ballistic missiles served as a principal component of European security, with U.S.-made Thor and Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles deployed in NATO countries such as Britain, Italy, and West Germany. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Soviet-made Scud, SS-21, SS-23, and FROG rockets were deployed to nearby Warsaw Pact countries.

Today, in addition to Russia and the United States, China is conducting ballistic missile tests and maneuvering its M-9 missiles against Taiwan to exert political pressure. Iran continues to test intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and North Korea recently launched what it claimed was a rocket bearing a satellite. Even non-state actors have used short-range rockets (e.g., Hamas in its conflict with Israel).

Unlike nuclear weapons, there are no legal structures or taboos against the development, testing, or maintenance of missiles. As such, these complex systems are becoming more dangerous and are being tested with increasing frequency all over the world. Which begs the question: Is it time for a missile test ban?

The idea isn’t new. The concept of a flight-test ban was first explored in the late 1950s during efforts to get international disarmament negotiations underway. It was favored by Britain and France and later the United States, which saw the ban as an opportunity to curb the Soviet missile program. The test ban returned to the agenda in 1986 when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met at the Reykjavik Summit to discuss perhaps the most far-reaching proposal to eliminate ballistic missiles ever. Unfortunately, those negotiations fell apart due to differences on the Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as “Star Wars” or “missile defense,” as we refer to it today).

The following year, the United States and the Group of Seven initiated the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) without the Soviet Union. The MTCR was established as an informal agreement that prohibited the transfer of ballistic and cruise missile technologies to nonmember states. The regime began with seven members in 1987, expanded to 29 members by 1997, and included 34 members by 2004. Over the course of its history, the guidelines and annex have become the international standard for how members do or do not export missile-related technology.

The MTCR limits the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks over a distance of at least 300 kilometers. Furthermore, it has been partially successful in constraining the horizontal proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles, especially in the developing world. This could be attributed to the regime’s impact on the financial costs of missile proliferation–complete ballistic missile systems and key components, subsystems, manufacturing technology, and technical expertise vital to the development and manufacture of ballistic missiles have all become less available. It is also a result of the MTCR promoting the concept of a missile proliferation “norm,” which has helped drive up the political costs of proliferating for those countries determined to acquire a ballistic missile capability or enhance existing systems.

Despite these successes, the MTCR does have some fundamental drawbacks. First, it doesn’t restrain the existing ballistic missile arsenals or programs in nuclear weapon states and other member states. Nor does it establish a commitment by the missile powers to work toward missile disarmament. The MTCR also has no international monitoring or verification measures to detect and forestall interstate transfers of missile systems and production technology, as demonstrated by China’s covert transfers of INF-class M-9 and M-11 missiles to Pakistan. Finally, rigid export control of dual-use goods impedes civilian technology cooperation and the economic interests of suppliers and recipients, particularly in space flight. The technologies for an intercontinental ballistic missile are essentially the same as for a satellite launch vehicle. Due to the potential for dual use, strict export controls on missile components such as guidance or propulsion systems also would restrain technology flow in the civilian sector. Considering these drawbacks, the MTCR only can be considered a preliminary attempt at regulating missile proliferation.

Enter a missile flight test ban. It would take the lessons learned from the MTCR and apply them to comprehensive missile disarmament, building on the proposals at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit. To work, a ban would have to do two things: diminish state confidence in its missile development programs and ease the process of verification.

First and foremost, confidence is perhaps nowhere more necessary than in the flight-testing stage of the missile development process. Put simply, states typically deploy missiles only after a number of developmental tests under varied conditions; they would have much less confidence in an untested missile. A ban on the testing stage of missile development makes subsequent stages–and ultimately, deployment–more difficult. For example, there were reports that the inertial guidance system of the U.S. MX missile performed brilliantly in early development tests in the late 1980s, but its accuracy fell off when the production team took over from the development team.

Such issues demonstrate the importance of flight testing. By undermining confidence that a missile system under development will work as intended, a flight-test ban would be useful in halting, or at least slowing down, missile development. Plus, a test ban would erode confidence in existing systems since flight testing is essential to preserve their reliability.

Of course, regulating testing isn’t enough. A missile test ban must be verifiable and provide for the remote sensing of missile launches combined with provisions to minimize the conversion of space-launch technology into ballistic missile development. Many tracking capabilities are already in place. The most technologically capable states are able to detect and track ballistic missile launches, trajectory, and telemetry. An array of ground-based radar systems would provide reliable launch detection, target acquisition, and tracking. Over-the-horizon and sea-based radars could extend coverage into areas difficult to reach for ground-based radars. Also, the infrasound sensor component of the International Monitoring System of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization could aid in the detection, confirmation, and compliance of a launch. (See “Infrasound Detection of North Korea’s Launch.”)

While these radar systems may not be able to pick up space launchers tested in a ballistic missile mode, the prohibition of high-speed reentry, terminal maneuvers, and the use of radar-emitting reentry vehicles, which are essential for advanced ballistic missiles, would make verifying space launchers easier, as would notification of launches and mutually agreed upon inspections. The encryption of signals from space launches even could be used as an indication of possible interest in using such launches to develop missiles. And violation of the nonencryption principle might provide early indication of intention to break out of a missile flight test ban.

We often forget that the threat posed by weapons are themselves major incentives for weapons proliferation. Thus, an agreement on a missile test ban and a moratorium on ballistic missile testing by influential states could enhance global security by increasing decision-making time, removing the threat of accidental missile launch, and having an immediate positive impact on the most volatile areas of emerging international arms competition. And unlike the MTCR, it would be more conducive to verification and information-sharing, both in missile and space efforts.

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