The Risks and Challenges of a Cruise Missile Tipping Point

Since 2005 an astonishing number of new missile development programs have been announced, which together suggest that the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and highly accurate conventional payloads is approaching a critical tipping point. The surprising fact is that land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), not ballistic missiles, constitute the primary problem.[2] While India, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan have developed new medium-range ballistic missiles (1,000-3,000km in range) since the end of the Cold War, overall trends show a significant net decrease in worldwide ballistic missile arsenals largely due to U.S.-Soviet arms control treaties. Even though the range of ballistic missiles has slowly increased, their horizontal spread has been generally kept under check. Yet, ballistic missiles, and defenses against them, command virtually the exclusive attention of decisionmakers and analysts. If steps are not taken to stanch the spread of LACMs, they are destined to combine with ballistic missiles to present complex challenges for U.S. and allied missile defenses and growing risks of regional arms races and consequent crisis instability.

Signs of Contagion

In August 2005 Pakistan tested its first land-attack cruise missile, called Babur, in western Baluchistan province. Intended to achieve a range of 700km, the Babur will be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. But Pakistan seemed most proud of its ability to reach its intended target, defenses notwithstanding. Immediately after the successful test, President Pervez Musharraf announced the achievement to a television audience, declaring "the biggest value of this system is [that] it is not detectable. It cannot be intercepted."[3]

Pakistan is not the only new LACM aspirant. India, together with Russia, is developing the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which will have the capability to strike targets at sea or over land to a range of 290km. And in the summer of 2007, India disclosed officially that it had at least two other LACM programs underway, including one similar to the U.S. Tomahawk with a range of 1,000km and another co-developed with Israel's help. Not to be outdone by its rival, Pakistan tested another new LACM, called Raad, in late August 2007. In East Asia, China, Taiwan, and South Korea are rushing to deploy new LACMs with ranges of 1,000km or more, while Japan is contemplating acquiring an LACM for"preemptive" strikes against enemy missile bases. In the Middle East, Israel was once the sole country possessing LACMs, but now Iran appears to be pursuing cruise missile programs for both land and sea attack. Iran has also provided the terrorist group Hezbollah with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles, one of which severely damaged an Israeli vessel and killed four sailors during the 2006 war in Lebanon. In April 2005, Ukraine's export agency unveiled plans to market a new LACM, called Korshun. The design of this new missile appears to be based solely on the Russian Kh-55, a nuclear-capable, 3,000km-range LACM, which Ukrainian and Russian arms dealers had illegally sold to China in 2000 and to Iran in 2001.

Flying under the radar, both literally and figuratively, cruise missiles add a dangerous new dimension to protecting U.S. security interests and preventing regional military instability. Cruise missiles are not destined to supplant ballistic missiles. But when both are employed together, they could severely test even the best missile defenses. Perversely, the U.S. quest to sell ballistic missile defenses may be hastening this eventuality. Knowing that such defenses are not nearly as effective against LACMs as they are against ballistic missiles, some states-including China, Pakistan, and Iran-are now developing new LACM programs to complement their ballistic missile arsenals. Others that are planning to purchase missile defenses, like Taiwan and Japan, have decided to complement them with much cheaper offensive systems that include LACMs. Worse yet, they are linking LACM use to preemptive doctrines. In either case, the unintended by-product is likely to be regional arms races and crisis instability.

For over 15 years, analysts have been arguing that LACMs were likely to proliferate rapidly. In the first authoritative treatment of the subject, published in 1992, Seth Carus concluded: "It now appears inevitable that Third World countries will begin to acquire land-attack cruise missiles during the 1990s."[4] While cautioning that analysts had focused on technology spread at the expense of system integration challenges, K. Scott McMahon and I concluded in early 1995: "Overall, we judge Third World incentives to acquire land-attack cruise missiles to be sufficiently compelling to suggest a threat of some considerable magnitude probably emerging by the end of this decade."[5] Indeed, several LACM development programs probably commenced in the late 1990s, but only now, more than half a decade later, has a series of seemingly small events nudged LACM growth toward a "tipping point" in missile proliferation.

Understanding why an epidemic of cruise missile proliferation only now appears imminent is critically important if policymakers are to deal effectively with this phenomenon. Three factors appear instrumental in shaping the spread of LACMs: access to specialized knowledge; narratives about reasons for acquiring cruise missiles; and norms of state behavior relating to nonproliferation policy and defense doctrine.

Specialized Knowledge

The prevailing view is that scientific knowledge spreads steadily, aided by globalization and the Internet, and technology in turn diffuses easily and smoothly into complex systems such as weapons. The Pentagon's Defense Science Board, in a 2006 report on U.S. nuclear capabilities, argued that the desirability of a nuclear-free world was irrelevant because nuclear weapons cannot be "erased from history."[6] In effect, the nuclear genie is out of the bag and can never be put back.

But an alternative view holds that there are actually two kinds of knowledge at work in any complex scientific or technological endeavor: explicit and tacit knowledge.[7] Whereas explicit knowledge consists of information or engineering formulations that can be recorded and passed easily from one place to another, tacit knowledge can't be written down or passed via digital media. Rather, it is acquired through the laborious and lengthy process of apprenticeship. Tacit knowledge, then, is the product of a uniquely fertile social and intellectual environment composed of mentors and protege's.[8] Obtained under these narrowly bounded circumstances, tacit knowledge skills are not widely diffused in the way as explicit knowledge.

To the extent that new design and development work is terminated and tacit skills are not passed on directly to the next generation of designers, it will require a substantial amount of 'reinvention' to recreate any complex weapon system.[9] That states or terrorist groups can easily acquire all the technologies comprising the basic components of a cruise missile does not necessarily mean that they can readily develop militarily useful missile systems. Developing any complex military system depends on a small number of key individuals who possess certain tacit skills, the most important of which involve system engineering or integration. In the case of missile development, system-engineering skills are critical to fabricate, integrate, and produce a turbofan engine, or to integrate all the components of a land-attack navigation-and-guidance system so that it can perform consistently and confidently.

Early assessments of cruise-missile proliferation gave insufficient weight to these specialized skills and concentrated instead on export-control shortcomings and the dual-use technologies flooding the marketplace between 1990 and 2000. Virtually every treatment of missile proliferation that compares ballistic and cruise missiles mentions that because of the relative simplicity of cruise missiles, they are easier to build than ballistic missiles. While this is true in principle, it is not true that LACMs are in practice simple to develop in a brief period of time. Even simpler military systems, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), are relatively complex. Despite the fact that the JDAM is not really a stand-alone weapon system at all, but merely a "bolt-on" adjunct to an unguided bomb, the development program took roughly six years of research, development, and testing before it became operational. The JDAM contains two sub-systems consisting of a tail control system and GPS-aided inertial navigation system, the former to provide aerodynamic stability during the bomb's flight, the latter to autonomously guide the bomb to its intended target.[10]

More complex systems, like LACMs, take considerably longer to develop, and often encounter extraordinary delays due to seemingly simple technical problems. The U.S. Air Force's new stealthy LACM, called the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), is remarkably similar to the Franco-British Storm Shadow, now operational with French and British military units. Started in 1995 to replace another joint LACM program that had collapsed under budgetary and technical problems after nine years, JASSM too has suffered from poor management and technical problems. In July 2007, after spending $5.8 billion on the program, a Pentagon review board decided to spend another $68 million and give Lockheed Martin, the missile's prime contractor, until the spring of 2008 to rectify the reliability problems related to the missile's navigation and guidance system.[11] More often than not, such reliability issues can be traced to poor quality parts, subsystem assembly difficulties, and weaknesses in system engineering skills.

An apt illustration of the kinds of assumptions senior policymakers are prone to make regarding estimates of adversary capabilities occurred in June 1998. Then, a colleague and I presented a study to members of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (the Rumsfeld Commission), showing how a first-generation cruise missile, the Chinese HY-2 Silkworm, could be transformed from a short-range (about 100km) anti-ship missile into a longer-range (about 1,000km) land-attack missile using only commercially available technology.[12] The study was based solely on gathering explicit knowledge; nothing was actually built and tested. Because of this limitation, the study team devoted considerable effort to analyzing how long it might take developing countries to accomplish such a feat, including building a serial production capability and integrating a new missile into the existing force structure. The conclusion was that it would take six to ten years, a time that could conceivably be cut in half depending on the extent and nature of foreign assistance, most notably provision of experienced systems engineers. The commission's chairman, Donald Rumsfeld, disagreed, saying that it would take no more than a year. Fortuitously, in searching for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs after the 2003 invasion, the Iraq Survey Group discovered that Iraq had attempted, beginning in June 2002 in a project called Jinin, to convert the HY-2 anti-ship cruise missile into a 1,000km-range LACM, intending to complete a development cycle in three to five years. Importantly, Iraq was not starting from scratch. Engineers had devoted years of work to an HY-2 project that extended the missile's range from 100 to 150km, which, noted Survey Group inspectors, directly contributed to the Jinin project. In nearly six months of activity, however, little was accomplished aside from computer simulations to test the prospect of integrating a surplus helicopter engine into the missile's airframe. An apparent test of a candidate engine failed to demonstrate sufficient thrust. No work on navigation, guidance, and control was even planned until after successful integration of the engine, which Iraqi engineers admitted would be challenging.[13] In arguably simpler unmanned aerial vehicle programs, Iraqi engineers produced designs that depended heavily on foreign components (including engines and guidance components) but achieved only modest progress in most cases, over as much as seven years of development work.[14]

The specialized knowledge that Iraq would have needed help explain the recent spike in cruise missile proliferation. For example, Chinese fingerprints are all over Pakistan's Babur LACM, while Russian engineering is known to have enabled China to produce a workable propulsion system for its own new LACMs. Russian technical assistance, formalized in a joint production agreement, has helped India to produce and deploy its first cruise missile, the supersonic BrahMos, which can fulfill both anti-ship and land-attack missions. And Israeli assistance is manifest in New Delhi's quest to produce subsonic LACMs. Iran's three new cruise missile programs depend heavily on foreign-trained engineers who honed their skills in France, Germany, Russia, China, and North Korea.[15] And even though the United States has thus far sought to forestall Taiwan's cruise missile ambitions, Taiwan is working to convince its patron to provide a more advanced turbofan engine to extend its missile's range. Thus, while the flow of technology components is necessary, it is not sufficient to enable cruise missile proliferation without the critical support of a small and exceptionally skilled group of engineering practitioners in an equally small number of industrial countries. This is the good news. If states can more effectively control the spread of these "black arts," there is hope that the worst features of the contagion can be checked.

Proliferation Narrative

Just as the specialized knowledge of a small number of engineers can help foster the spread of LACMs, a seemingly inconsequential event can embellish the narrative message associated with LACMs and their consequent appeal. During the Iraq war, five crude Iraqi LACMs managed to evade otherwise successful U.S. missile defenses. Because they did not produce any casualties, or derail coalition military operations, Iraq's surprise use of LACMs was generally viewed as a footnote to an otherwise swift and successful military campaign. But to specialists within the U.S. government and elsewhere, the chief lesson became that ballistic missile defenses alone cannot address the threat of low-flying cruise missiles. And because they are significantly less expensive than missile defenses, LACMs, alongside existing ballistic missile arsenals, will make defending against all types of missile threats an increasingly daunting and costly challenge.

Since the launch of the first operational German V-2 rocket in 1944, ballistic missiles have given their owners the cachet of military sophistication-not to mention the confidence that comes with possessing a delivery means capable of arriving reasonably close to their targets without prospect of interception. Against Germany's slow, high-flying V-1, the progenitor of today's LACMs, Britain had managed by war's end to greatly improve its defenses. By the last week of V-1 attacks, Britain's air defenses intercepted 79 percent of incoming V-1s. Still, roughly 21,000 V-1s were launched against the Allies during the war, causing more than 18,000 casualties in London alone.[16]

Modern low-flying LACMs offer more attractive offensive options. Compared with ballistic missiles, LACMs are expected to be much more accurate (by a factor of at least ten), less costly (by at least half) and, because of their aerodynamic stability and larger footprint, substantially more effective in delivering chemical and biological agents (conservatively, enlarging the lethal area for biological attacks by at least ten times).[17] They provide more flexible and survivable launch options from air, land, and sea platforms than larger ballistic missiles, while offering easier maintenance in harsher environments. And surely the success of American Tomahawk cruise missiles in both the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq burnished their appeal. Nevertheless, until recently the symbolic and psychological power of ballistic missiles trumped LACMs' superior efficiency and effectiveness. As long as ballistic missiles were not seriously threatened by effective missile defenses, they maintained this apparent advantage over cruise missiles no matter how problematic their true military utility proved to be.

By 2003, circumstances had changed. U.S. missile defenses performed poorly against Iraq's ballistic missiles during the 1991 Gulf War (the Government Accountability Office generously attributed a 9 percent interception rate to them), but greatly improved Patriot missile defenses intercepted all nine of the ballistic missiles Iraq launched in 2003. That the Patriot batteries failed to detect or intercept any of the five primitive Iraqi LACMs only bolstered their value as a difficult-to-defeat delivery system. In fact, the addition of LACMs to the Iraqi missile threat sowed such confusion among U.S. forces that it contributed to a series of friendly fire casualties: Patriot batteries erroneously shot down two friendly aircraft, killing three crew members, while an American F-15 crew destroyed a Patriot radar, in the belief they were being targeted.[18] That a mere handful of primitive LACMs could achieve such an impact seems to have sunk in quickly. "This was a glimpse of future threats. It is a poor man's air force," the chief of staff of the 32nd U.S. Army Air and Missile Defense Command told the New York Times shortly after the fall of Baghdad. "A thinking enemy will use uncommon means such as cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles on multiple fronts."[19]

During the 1990s, when many of the cruise missile development programs were launched, the LACM narrative rarely, if ever, fixed on the appeal of surviving missile defenses. But in the aftermath of 2003's events, a new narrative began to adhere to virtually every new cruise missile program. President Musharraf's characterization of Pakistan's new cruise missile as undetectable and incapable of intercept seemed destined for Indian ears. It came less than a month after Washington reportedly had agreed to permit New Delhi to acquire Israel's Arrow missile defense system.[20] Pakistan repeated this emphasis in the aftermath of its March 22, 2007 test launch of its Babur LACM, when it released the following press statement: "Babur ... is a terrain hugging, radar-avoiding cruise missile, whose range has now been enhanced to 700km. It is a highly maneuverable missile with pinpoint accuracy."[21] Iran, too, appears to view a cruise missile arsenal as an efficient way to increase the return on investment in its Shihab ballistic missile program.[22] China, on the other hand, has steered clear of boasting about using its cruise missiles to penetrate missile defenses. Instead, the low cost of cruise missiles relative to defending against them (Chinese planners believe that a 9:1 cost-ratio advantage applies here) figures heavily in the Chinese narrative.[23] This may explain a report from the People's Liberation Army Military Digest in May 2007 that China is transforming more than 1,000 retired Jian-5 fighters into cruise missiles, the cost of which, according to a Taiwanese analyst, would be roughly $100,000 each.[24] The assured penetration narrative has even crept into South Korea's otherwise reticent discussion of its four new LACM programs, where Seoul has begun to refer to its cruise missiles as difficult to defend against-despite the absence of any notable North Korean defenses.[25]

Shifting Norms

Norms against missile proliferation do not have nearly the robustness or legal standing of those pertaining to the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, yet there have been recent attempts to strengthen them.[26] In 1999, the 34-nation Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a supplier cartel launched in 1987 by the United States and its the Group of Seven (G7) partners to curb missile proliferation, initiated work that eventually led, in November 2002, to the adoption of the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. Open to all states and meant to complement the MTCR's supply-side restrictions on the transfer of technology and missiles, the Hague Code established a broad international norm against the spread of ballistic missiles. As of February 2008, 128 nations had subscribed. Despite the fact that the MTCR covers both ballistic and cruise missiles, its members regrettably left cruise missiles out of the Hague code's normative content. In so doing, they have inadvertently contributed to an epidemic of LACMs.

Three months prior to the launch of the Hague Code, the Bush administration issued a new national security strategy emphasizing preemption. The doctrine moved policy away from deterrence and containment toward attacking enemies before they could attack the United States. From the purely military point of view, there are obvious advantages to decisive and successful preemption, but from the policy point of view there is equally the danger that brandishing such an aggressive strategy will establish a precedent for others to follow and generate unwanted instability during regional crises.[27] Indeed, it is worrisome to see the emulation of the U.S. preemption doctrine interact with weak missile nonproliferation norms to make cruise missiles the "first strike" weapon of choice in several volatile regions.

Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President Vladimir Putin said Russia retained the right to launch preemptive strikes to defend its interests. Israel, too, cited U.S. preemption doctrine when it attacked an alleged terrorist camp in Syria in October 2003. North Korea announced that "a preemptive strike is not the monopoly of the United States."[28] The Indian external affairs minister avowed that India had a more persuasive case to launch preemptive strikes against Pakistan than did the United States against Iraq.[29] In October 2004, a Japanese Defense Agency panel report stipulated a requirement for launching preemptive strikes against enemy ballistic missile launch installations with a ballistic missile of its own.[30] Under pressure from its coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party decided to drop the ballistic missile study plan, but it was later revealed that Japanese planners had turned instead to considering LACMs. According to Japanese defense officials, they anticipate fewer obstacles, both inside and outside Japan, to acquiring cruise missiles rather than ballistic missiles.[31] Further, the high cost of purchasing U.S. land- and sea-based missile defenses, particularly in light of the ever-growing size of Chinese and North Korean offensive missile arsenals, furnishes economic and strategic logic for LACM acquisition. Cheaper offensive missile options allow the Japanese to mimic the U.S. military's doctrinal preference for "attack operations," or counterforce strikes to reduce the enemy's capacity to overwhelm missile defenses.[32]

Elsewhere in Northeast Asia, the United States has long sought to curb the missile ambitions of South Korea and Taiwan. Worried about a North-South arms race as well as sowing suspicion in Tokyo and Beijing if South Korea commenced a missile buildup, Washington persuaded Seoul to accept a 300km range/500kg payload limit on ballistic as a condition of South Korea's entry into the MTCR in 2001. Yet, despite the MTCR's equal treatment of ballistic and cruise missiles, Washington gave Seoul the go-ahead to develop LACMs no matter the range, as long as the payload was under 500kg.[33] Shortly after Pyongyang's October 2006 nuclear test, South Korean military authorities leaked the existence of four LACM programs, with ranges between 500 and 1,500km. The South Korean press took immediate note of the fact that not just all of North Korea would be within range of these missiles, but also neighboring countries, including Japan and China.[34] The South Korean military nearly simultaneously rolled out a new defense plan, involving preemptive use of "surgical strike" weapons, including its LACMs, against enemy missile batteries.[35] For cost reasons, South Korea has also rejected America's wish to sell them its Patriot missile defense system.[36] Offensive solutions are clearly winning out over missile defense in South Korea.

A similar story is unfolding in Taiwan. Since the mid-1970s, Washington has pressured Taiwan to steer clear of ballistic missile development, while allowing Taipei to pursue a short-range anti-ship cruise missile. To cope with China's relentless build-up of ballistic missiles facing Taiwan, Washington preferred that Taipei purchase Patriot missile defenses. Taiwan finally did so in the mid-1990s, but has thus far balked against purchasing the latest American "hit-to-kill" missile defenses due to their extraordinarily high cost and the realization that they won't alone suffice against China's new LACM developments. Taiwan now appears headed, increasingly openly, toward emphasizing offensive missiles as its best option. In early 2005, Taiwan test-fired its first LACM, initially to a range of 500km, but with intentions to expand to 1,000km and to deploy 500 of them on mobile launchers.[37] Taiwanese military analysts also spoke of a "preventive self-defense" strike option, entailing early preemptive use of cruise missiles to sow confusion in China's strike plans.[38] The U.S. State Department has pressured Taiwan to terminate its LACM program, but with few signs of success. In fact, Washington's longstanding policy against Taiwan's acquisition of ballistic missiles is showing signs of failure, too. Taiwan told a visiting U.S. delegation in April 2007 that it is converting its Tien Kung air defense interceptor into a ballistic missile to complement its growing LACM ambitions.[39]

Nor is South Asia immune to the contagion. In early 2004, the Indian military rolled out a new offensive strategy, called "Cold Start," involving the capacity to conduct lightning strikes across the Line of Control in Kashmir followed by withdrawal before Pakistan had a chance to react.[40] Precision, long-range strikes would play a featured role in such a strategy, including India's new BrahMos LACM slated for deployment with Indian army units. But Indian strategists have reacted to Pakistan's Babur LACM, which has a substantial range advantage over BrahMos (initially by 200km, now 400km, achieved in Pakistan's March 2007 test), by suggesting that India approach its missile partner, Russia, to obtain certain "restrictive technologies" to match, or even greatly exceed, Babur's range. Such an expansion of BrahMos' capabilities is seen as feasible because, unlike Indian ballistic missile programs, the BrahMos cruise missile is "not under the global scanner."[41] The discrepancy in missile norms also came into play after Pakistan's surprise test launch of its Babur cruise missile in August 2005. Only a few days earlier, Pakistan and India had agreed in principle to notify each other before missile tests. But the agreement-like the Hague Code-dealt only with ballistic missiles.

The Challenges Ahead

Ballistic missiles have dominated the missile proliferation scene thus far. They emblematized ultimate military power during the Cold War. Iraq's use of modified Scud ballistic missiles during the 1991 Gulf War mesmerized the public with lasting images of duels between Iraqi ballistic Scuds and U.S. Patriot missile defenses. Ballistic missiles based on Scud technology have spread widely to potential American adversaries and, as a potential means of WMD delivery, they represent significant impediments to U.S. force projection and a potent means of future coercive diplomacy. An epidemic of cruise missile proliferation would aggravate matters gravely. If the use of large numbers of LACMs becomes a major feature of military operations in the next decade, a combination of cruise and ballistic missile attacks, even with conventional payloads, could make early entry into regional bases of operation increasingly problematic. Nuclear, and possibly biological, payloads would produce catastrophic consequences.

By fixating on the familiar threat of ballistic missiles, strategic planners and nonproliferation specialists are in danger of overlooking the broader implications of cruise and ballistic missile proliferation. As far back as December 1996, a congressionally mandated independent review panel chaired by Robert Gates, former director of the CIA and current Secretary of Defense, chided the intelligence community and, by implication, policymakers for "an inconsistency in ... its treatment of ballistic and cruise missiles."[42] While the Gates panel found ample reason for concern about cruise missile threats to the American homeland, it disclosed that the intelligence community had dismissed LACMs, despite their technological feasibility, largely because it could not imagine reasons and scenarios for their use. The intelligence community has since sought to treat missile threats with greater balance, but evenhandedness is far less evident in nonproliferation policy and missile defense planning.

Faulty nonproliferation policies need urgent attention. The second-class treatment of cruise missiles will not change until the Hague Code gives equal normative status to both ballistic and cruise missiles. A more progressive approach to addressing missile proliferation within the MTCR is also required to stanch the LACM epidemic. Given the cardinal importance of specialized knowledge in enabling indigenous development of LACMs-particularly those skills transferred through direct, face-to-face engagement between skilled practitioners and novice engineers-much better thinking is needed on ways and means of preventing, or interfering with, intangible technology transfers.

The transfer of explicit knowledge via the Internet or fax machine is virtually impossible to detect unless intelligence services are tipped off in advance to suspicious activity. On the other hand, the nature of tacit knowledge transfer as well as the physical and social circumstances under which such transfer takes place suggest that a fairly specific set of observables probably exist to detect evidence of illicit activities. There is reason to believe that the pool of highly skilled missile specialists is not unmanageably large. Repeated defense industry restructurings in the United States since 1991 have contributed to an acute shortage of highly skilled systems engineers remaining in today's defense industry. Russia's key design bureaus specializing in cruise missile development may be more flush with financial support today than they were when circumstances led many apparently to retreat to Shanghai to train China's engineers in the 1990s. But the names of key individuals are knowable and conceivably the Russian government and perhaps other governments too ought to be able to monitor such activities to stanch their flow. Detecting substantial tacit knowledge transfers is in fact conceivable and therefore risky for the perpetrator. The MTCR should heighten awareness of the importance of monitoring tacit knowledge transfers, and highlight opportunities for intelligence sharing and collaboration among key member states.

The United States correctly points its finger at Russia and China (not a formal regime member but an avowed adherent to its principles) for their inconsistent export practices. Most notably, China's suspected support to Pakistan's new LACM program, if true, egregiously violates MTCR principles. On balance, however, it would be better to have China operating from within the MTCR than as a mere adherent, but only on the condition that Beijing adjust its behavior particularly in regard to accepting changes in the regime incorporated since 1993 that improve its treatment of cruise missile and UAV transfers. MTCR members should also encourage Russia to ignore any Indian requests for technological assistance to help India develop strategic-range LACMs in response to Pakistan's new cruise missile. And Russia should exercise extreme caution in selling the Russo-Indian BrahMos cruise missile to interested countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia, among others.

U.S. export behavior warrants adjustment as well. Unless the United States decides to add cruise missiles to the Hague Code, normative change is doomed. Washington should also reverse course in regard to its reported wish to loosen MTCR rules governing the sale of both large UAVs and missile defense interceptors, and possibly remove interceptors altogether from MTCR consideration. Though the Bush administration has grand plans for global missile defenses and views UAVs as tools that allow for precision delivery of conventional weapons rather than WMD, it is foolish to view interceptors or large UAVs as purely defensive systems, incapable of offensive use. Large UAVs can deliver nuclear payloads or large quantities of biological or chemical agents, and the Soviet-era SA-2 interceptor has been widely used as a basis for building offensive ballistic missiles. In the end, incautious missile defense and UAV exports could accelerate rather than abate the LACM epidemic.

While improved defenses against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles have made LACMs more attractive offensive options for several states, cruise missile defense programs remain stalled. Fighters equipped with advanced detection and tracking radars will eventually possess some modest capability to deal with low-volume attacks. But existing U.S. programs are underfunded, while interoperability, doctrinal, and organizational issues discourage the military services from producing joint and effective systems for defending U.S. forces and allies in regional military campaigns. Homeland defense is even more sadly lacking: an August 2006 Pentagon assessment identified nine "capability gaps" that may not be rectified until 2015.[43]

Looming large in any missile defense debate is the question of affordability. During the height of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, defense strategist Paul Nitze, no critic of missile defenses, argued that they should be "cost effective at the margin," meaning that it should be less expensive to make incremental improvements to missile defenses than it would be to achieve offensive gains. Whereas such a proposition always seemed dubious with respect to ballistic missiles, it appears inconceivable when large arsenals of relatively cheap cruise missiles are added to the mix. In a new era in which denying one's adversaries their military objectives has superseded mutual assured nuclear destruction as a strategic imperative, the missile defense challenge will stiffen immeasurably if LACMs spread. At the very least, the United States, as the predominant if not exclusive purveyor of missile defenses globally, should carefully remind its friends and allies of what its missile defenses can-and cannot-be expected to accomplish against current and prospective missile threats, ballistic and cruise missiles alike.

Though new weapons do not inherently increase the risk of conflict, when coupled with preemptive doctrines, advanced weapons that are difficult to detect and that could allow for a surprise attack-especially those seen as capable of producing decisive results without recourse to WMD-may tempt states to take risks. Past wars in the Middle East come readily to mind, and so too does China's increasing reliance on a doctrine espousing "actively taking the initiative" to catch the enemy unprepared.[44]

That Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, driven by the high costs of missile defenses and the perceived benefits of cruise missiles, have also turned to preemptive strike notions, ought to be a matter of great concern. By tying precision conventional strike weapons to truly offensive war doctrines, a number of states-including several great powers-may inadvertently be moving closer to lowering the vital threshold between peace and war. These developments suggest the urgent need for the United States to cut a path back to strategic stability by toning down, if not entirely eliminating, the preemption option.


[1] This essay is adapted from the author's book, Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008).
[2] LACMs, like the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile, are to be distinguished from widely proliferated anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), 75,000 of which are now deployed by over 70 countries. LACMs generally have substantially longer ranges (300-3,000km) than ASCMs and fly over land to their intended target, while ASCMs are employed generally against ships at sea from comparatively shorter ranges (75-300km). Unmanned air or aerial vehicles (UAVs) comprise a third category. Relegated, until recently, largely to reconnaissance and target-drone roles, UAVs like the U.S. Predator have been adapted to deliver munitions, notably with some important success in Afghanistan and Yemen to attack Al Qaeda targets. Armed UAVs such as Predator distinguish themselves from LACMs and ASCMs in that they can be reused. Finally, a fourth category consists of unmanned air combat vehicles (UCAVs), which are essentially high-performance aircraft flown by a ground operator (like Predator) and capable of performing various lethal and non-lethal missions. Notably, unlike ballistic missiles, which, for the most part, operate outside the atmosphere, cruise missiles, UAVs, and UCAVs are fitted with aerodynamic surfaces that furnish lift to keep them airborne, within the atmosphere, during their entire flight. See Dennis M. Gormley, "New Developments in Unmanned Air Vehicles and Land-Attack Cruise Missiles," in SIPRI Yearbook 2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for SIPRI, 2003), 409-432.
[3] "President Musharraf Compares Babur Missile with India's BrahMos," Islamabad PTV World in English, August 11, 2005 (Foreign Broadcast Information Services [FBIS] transcribed text).
[4] W. Seth Carus, Cruise Missile Proliferation in the 1990s, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 3.
[5] K. Scott McMahon and Dennis M. Gormley, Controlling the Spread of Land-Attack Cruise Missiles (Marina del Rey, CA: American Institute for Strategic Cooperation, 1995), 26.
[6] Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Nuclear Capabilities, Report Summary (Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, December 2006),
[7] For the classic treatment, see Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958). As it applies to missile technology, see Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990).
[8] Donald MacKenzie, "Theories of Technology and the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons," in Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman, eds., The Social Shaping of Technology (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1999), 425-429.
[9] See Donald MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi, "Tacit Knowledge, Weapons Design, and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons," American Journal of Sociology 101, 1 (July 1995): 44.
[10] For technical details and program-related information,
[11] Amy Butler, "Pentagon to Announce JASSM Decision in 2008," Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 20, 2007,
[12] While the Rumsfeld Commission was formally tasked by Congress only to evaluate the threat of ballistic missiles to the United States, the Commission's final report did note that"cruise missiles have a number of characteristics which could be seen as increasingly valuable in fulfilling the aspirations of emerging ballistic missile states." Besides my and Dr. Gregory DeSantis' unclassified presentation, delivered on June 3, 1998, my separately delivered unclassified working paper, entitled "Transfer Pathways for Cruise Missiles," was also appended to the Commission's full final report. For the Rumsfeld Commission's executive summary, see
[13] Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq's WMD, Vol. II (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, September 30, 2004), 39-41.
[14] Ibid., 42-56.
[15] "Focus on Iran," Geostrategy-Direct, October 18, 2005.
[16] Dennis M. Gormley, Dealing with the Threat of Cruise Missiles, Adelphi Paper 339 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9-10.
[17] Ibid., 9. These advantages notwithstanding, possession of even a short-range ballistic missile puts a country on a path toward developing a much longer range delivery system, including one of intercontinental range. Today's longest range LACMs are limited to roughly a range of 3,000km.
[18] Dennis M. Gormley, "Missile Defence Myopia: Lessons from the Iraq War," Survival 45, 4 (Winter 2003-04): 61-86.
[19] Michael R. Gordon, "A Poor Man's Air Force," New York Times, June 19, 2003, 1.
[20] Dana Milbank and Dafna Linzer,"U.S., India May Share Nuclear Technology," Washington Post, July 19, 2005, A1. Such permission is required because of the significant presence of U.S. technology in the Arrow system.
[21] "Pakistan Test Fires Nuclear-Capable Cruise Missile," March 22, 2007, Agence France-Presse (FBIS in English).
[22] "Iran Seeks Cruise Missile to Support Shihab,"Middle East Newsline, June 10, 2004.
[23] Mark A. Stokes, China's Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 1999), 81.
[24] Minnie Chan, "Old Jets Converted into Cruise Missiles Could Hit U.S. Ships," South China Morning Post, May 12, 2007.
[25] Kim Min-seok, "Seoul Has Longer-range Cruise Missile,"JoongAng Ilbo (Internet Version, in English), September 21, 2006.
[26] For a useful treatment, see Dinshaw Mistry, Containing Missile Proliferation (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 15-40.
[27] Ariel E. Levite and Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, "The Case for Discriminate Force," Survival 44, 4 (Winter 2002-03): 89-90.
[28] Steve Andreasen and Dennis Gormley, "Edging Ever Closer to a Nuclear Death Row," Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 29, 2006, 29.
[29] S. M. Hali, "Exercise Vajra Shakti," The Nation, May 19, 2005.
[30] "Preemptive Strike Ability Said Necessary for Japan," Japan Times, October 2, 2004.
[31] Interviews with Japanese defense officials in Tokyo, March 2005.
[32] Joint Publication 3-01.5, Doctrine for Joint Theater Missile Defense (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1994).
[33] Sources differ over the precise payload weight, with Korean news reports staring for the most part that in regard to cruise missiles there is no restriction on range as long as the payload is under 500kg.
[34] "S. Korea's Cruise Missile Program Revealed," The Chosun IIbo (Internet Version-WWW) in English, October 25, 2006,
[35] Chin Tae-ung, "Military Works on Nuclear Defense Plans," The Korea Herald (Internet Version-WWW in English), October 28, 2006.
[36] Instead of purchasing expensive American Patriot missile defenses, Seoul has turned to Germany to discuss buying a modest number of older, surplus Patriots. See Jin Dae-woong, "Korea, Germany Discuss Patriot Missile Deal," The Korea Herald, (Internet Version-WWW in English), March 13, 2007.
[37] Wendell Minnick, "Taiwan Tests 'Brave Wind' Cruise Missile," Defense News, March 12, 2007,
[38] Chang Li-the, "Taking a Look at Taiwan's Cruise Missile Requirements and Capabilities-A Report on the Successful Test-Firing of the Hsiung-Feng 2E," Defense Technology Monthly, July 2005, (FBIS report in Chinese, October 3, 2005).
[39] Wu Ming-chieh,"Publicizing Cruise Missile Meant to Pressure United States into Exporting Technology," Taipei Chung-Kuo Shih-Pao (Internet Version-WWW in Chinese), April 27, 2007 (FBIS Translated Text].
[40] I am grateful to Sharad Joshi, on whose PhD dissertation committee I served, for drawing my attention to Indian interest in preemptive strategy. See Sharad Joshi, The Practice of Coercive Diplomacy in the Post 9/11 Period, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, December 2006.
[41] "No Time to Lose," New Delhi Force (Internet Version-WWW) in English, March 9, 2005 (FBIS Transcribed Text).
[42] "NIE 95-19: Independent Panel Review of 'Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years,'" December 1996,
[43] John Liang, "DoD Finds Cruise Missile Defense 'Gaps'," NewsStand, August 17, 2006.
[44] James C. Mulvenon, et al., Chinese Responses to U.S. Military Transformation and Implications for the Department of Defense (Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation, 2006), p. 50.

September 1, 2008

Dennis Gormley analyzes the upsurge in land-attack cruise missile proliferation in recent years and the challenges this trend brings to international security.

Dennis Gormley

Senior Fellow, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.