Ballistic missiles trace their origins to the 13th century and the discovery of gunpowder. While missile technology has advanced considerably since then, the physics involved in using controlled combustion to achieve propulsion remains the same. Modern ballistic missiles combine a propulsive engine (typically a rocket engine) with a guidance system to enable the delivery of a payload to a desired location at immense speed. The ability to accurately deliver a payload over great distances at speed makes ballistic missiles an issue of international concern. The same systems that place satellites into orbit and carry humans into space can deliver nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. When nations react by deploying anti-ballistic missile systems to counter perceived threats, this often spurs further missile development, creating a vicious spiral with grave implications for international peace and security.
Overcoming the challenge posed by ballistic missiles is a daunting task. As the UN’s Office for Disarmament Affairs makes clear, “there is no legally binding multilateral instrument dealing with the issue of missiles.” Instead, past success has come from bilateral arms control agreements that placed limits on missiles and missile-related technologies. Examples include the now defunct Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and its successor known as New START. Some multilateral efforts to regulate ballistic missiles do exist. The most significant of these include the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). In addition to establishing various voluntary commitments, these regimes provide valuable fora for discussion and other confidence-building measures. States party to the HCOC agree on “the need to prevent and curb the proliferation of ballistic missile systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.” The MTCR suggests policies aimed at preventing the transfer of items relevant to ballistic missile production. Both regimes, however, lack binding enforcement mechanisms.
The right to peaceful use of missile technology is a well-established norm. Distinguishing systems with scientific or spacefaring purposes from those intended for military use requires a thorough understanding of ballistic missile technology. Arms control talks often focus on specifics such as payload mass, launch platform, and missile range. Sorting through details is part and parcel of any multilateral discussion. To avoid getting bogged down, delegates will need to come armed with clear objectives and be ready to focus on areas where cooperation is possible. Concentrate on identifying concrete actions to limit the potential for destructive arms races in accordance with the goals set forth in the UN Charter.
Are comprehensive multilateral solutions feasible or should focus be on concluding bilateral and regional agreements? How can nations place meaningful limits on ballistic missile development without impinging on peaceful use? Is it necessary to also consider limits on ballistic missile defense? Why might that be helpful in reducing the potential for so-called security dilemmas?
Resources from the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs: