Missile proliferation: Treat the disease

By Sitki Egeli, August 22, 2016

In discussions of export controls, proliferators are usually the focus. But maybe the focus should fall instead on the hypocrisy of states that set the rules.

My roundtable colleague Masako Ikegami has rightly pointed out that double standards in arms control instruments, by exacerbating insecurity, actually invite proliferation. And I have discussed, taking drones as an example, the way that export controls can be misused to serve ulterior agendas.

Members of the nuclear club, both recognized and de facto, feel little compunction about furthering their own nuclear weapon delivery capabilities. Hypersonic missiles offer a contemporary case in point. An arms race is coming in hypersonic vehicles and it will be wasteful and destabilizing; on this point, there is broad consensus. But the United States, Russia, China, and India—all nations with hypersonic programs—show little inclination to limit their "post-ballistic" capabilities in WMD delivery. It's clearly hypocritical for these nuclear weapon states to demand that others show restraint in their ballistic and cruise missile activity. Meanwhile, certain proliferators that possess both nuclear weapons and advanced missiles—Israel, for example—are allowed comparatively unhindered access to missile know-how and hardware. Under such circumstances, it becomes difficult to defend the strict export controls that are imposed on many states.

Choosing the right tool. My roundtable colleague WPS Sidhu has argued that "missile proliferation is difficult to address partly because proliferators, motivations and capabilities for proliferation, and missiles themselves are all quite diverse." He is correct—and indeed, when proliferators' geostrategic, political, technological, and financial circumstances vary so widely, no single nonproliferation instrument has much chance of addressing every proliferation challenge. That's why, compared to a fixed nonproliferation menu, an a la carte approach is more likely to succeed. So a variety of instruments and measures should be available to constrain proliferation, each making an impact when it is relevant and can be effective.

Roundtable participants have identified a number of promising measures and instruments. Sidhu, for instance, has mentioned political and diplomatic initiatives at the bilateral, regional, and global levels. Existing examples of such initiatives include the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation and the work of UN panels of government experts. These approaches, Sidhu writes, are "crucial to building the norms and instruments that might constrain proliferation, and are also key to encouraging responsible behavior among states that already possess strategic weapons." I couldn't agree more. Still, such initiatives are methodical undertakings that are usually very slow to produce concrete results. Their success requires that most, if not all, states with a stake in missile technology demonstrate goodwill and responsible behavior—a tall order. By all means, political and diplomatic initiatives should proceed. But for nations that are not willing to comply or cooperate, approaches are still needed that can dissuade, contain, or coerce.

That is why export controls, no matter how ineffective they sometimes are, will retain an important place in the missile nonproliferation toolkit. In my opening essay, I argued that export controls most effectively complicate proliferators' lives when they are narrowly focused on critical technology sectors—longer-range missiles, for example. Sidhu is not convinced that focusing on longer-range missiles can work. He points out, correctly, that differentiating multi-stage civilian space launch vehicles from multi-stage missiles can be difficult. Difficult, but not impossible. Some analysts argue, contrary to widely held belief, that certain aspects of programs for satellite launch vehicles do not overlap with ballistic missile development. In fact, quite a few technologies and hardware types are specific to ballistic missiles. Examples include particular types of propellants, and also technologies related to atmospheric re-entry.

A deeper ailment. Missile proliferation is a complex problem whose most worrying aspect, as Ikegami has argued, is the strong link between missiles and WMD. Missile proliferation is really a symptom of a much deeper ailment—nations' keen interest in weapons of mass destruction, which in turn is a ramification of the maladies that characterize inter-state relations. Efforts to curb missile proliferation—as is always the case when treatments address symptoms and not underlying diseases—can hope to achieve no more than limited success.


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