To reduce missile threats, think outside the silo

By Waheguru Pal Singh (WPS) Sidhu, August 10, 2016

Establishing international norms and instruments to prevent missile proliferation is unlikely to succeed as long as such efforts are seen as discriminatory and lack near-universal adherence. Attempts will also fail as long as missiles, whether conventional or armed with weapons of mass destruction, remain integral to the security of nations.

On these points, contributors to this roundtable exhibit broad consensus. Yet my colleague Masako Ikegami argues in Round Two for a treaty, styled after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), "that would eliminate the twin threats of missiles and non-strategic nuclear weapons." Clearly, the desire to address missile proliferation through a universal treaty or regime is enduring, no matter how many obstacles stand in the way of achieving this aim.

Ikegami herself spells out some of the reasons that a globalized INF Treaty—or an agreement to eliminate ballistic missiles, or even regional variations on these ideas—would be extremely challenging to establish. Nonetheless, the principles that underlay the INF might be globalized. Those principles included a commitment to reducing the dangers presented by forward-deployed missiles, with very short flight times, on hair-trigger alert. They included recognition of the need to reduce tensions and build trust. And they incorporated a desire to address, at the regional and global levels, the root causes of insecurity among nations.

So for nations with WMD-tipped ballistic missiles, are steps available that—whether undertaken on a unilateral, bilateral, regional, or global level—would accord with these principles and reduce the threats posed by all missiles? The answer is a qualified yes.

One step would be for all nine nuclear-armed states to adopt a nuclear no-first use policy. Two countries—China and India—already maintain such a policy. Now Barack Obama is reportedly contemplating US adoption of a no-first-use policy before he leaves office. Some observers are skeptical of this shift, especially considering its implications for Washington's alliance commitments in Northeast Asia. But no-first-use policies could make a real contribution to global security, particularly if all nine states signed on.

Another step might be to reduce the alert status of missile forces—especially nuclear-tipped missiles—so that they could not be launched instantaneously. De-alerting would provide decision makers more time to react to events and, perhaps, seek diplomatic solutions. A US-Russia de-alerting agreement (also involving China and India, which reportedly do not keep their nuclear forces on alert today), could create momentum to establish a global regime guaranteeing that the nuclear forces of all nine nuclear-armed states are kept off alert.

Yet another idea might be to verifiably eliminate nuclear-capable tactical missiles with ranges of less than 150 kilometers, especially in regions where the flight times are extremely short. Such weapons are invariably forward-deployed and on high alert, with launch authority delegated to local commanders, making them highly dangerous and destabilizing. Since only two nuclear-armed states—North Korea and Pakistan—possess such missiles, the other seven nuclear states could seek to establish a global "no tactical nuclear missile" regime—among themselves, to begin with.

Other ideas were proposed by a 2008 UN Panel of Governmental Experts. The panel suggested, for example, specific efforts to "enhance global and regional security, including peaceful settlement of disputes." This approach could be especially useful in Northeast Asia, a region that has recently witnessed the world's largest number of missile tests, as well as rising tensions. But because a one-size-fits-all approach to missiles is unlikely to work in every region, each regional arrangement would have to be tailor-made, taking into account the historical, geographical, technological, and political context of the area.

In Northeast Asia, for instance, the forum most conducive to reducing missile threats is perhaps the suspended mechanism for six-party talks. If the talks were to resume, their agenda could include a multi-stage "model road map for building a regional missile limitation regime," as proposed by Rikkyo University researcher Akira Kurosaki. This model would inevitably require, early in the process, establishing "a regional organization for missile technology control, the prior notice of missile flight test[s], the exchange of data on missile armaments, and inspections and verification." But for the talks to be revived at all, China and the United States would have to play crucial diplomatic roles.

This point in conclusion: Authors in this roundtable share an understanding that the best way to address missile proliferation is through political and diplomatic means, not through military approaches. Technological efforts such as missile defense will doubtless continue. But their ability to prevent missile proliferation—or missile attacks—remains unproven.