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Experts at Briefing Co-Sponsored by AAAS Express Concern about Cruise Missile Proliferation
Dennis Gormley and Brian Jackson
While U.S. and allied military planners have continued to focus on the potential threats from ballistic missiles, there has been a worrisome proliferation of cruise missile programs around the world since 2004, a leading missile specialist told a 13 November news briefing co-sponsored by AAAS.
Countries such as China, Pakistan and Iran are developing land-attack cruise missiles as a complement to their ballistic missiles because it is generally assumed that even the best missile defenses are less capable of stopping the infiltration of the low-flying, maneuverable cruise missiles, according to Dennis Gormley, a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute's James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Cruise missiles have been dubbed "the poor man's air force" and there have been concerns that terrorist groups might try to acquire the weapons for direct attack on a target or to disperse chemical, biological or radiological agents. Brian Jackson, associate director of the RAND Corporation's Homeland Security Research Program, said that while terrorists may have an interest in acquiring the weapons, they probably would use them only if other, easier modes of attack were unavailable.
Looked at from the perspective of a pragmatic planner, he said, a terrorist with easy access to willing suicide bombers and lots of explosives will continue to choose that method of attack rather than trying to develop the expertise required for obtaining and using cruise missiles. A dedicated suicide bomber can usually find a target of interest and wreak havoc. "It's hard to match the precision of that guidance system," Jackson said.
Gormley and Jackson spoke at a briefing arranged by the Center for Media and Security in cooperation with the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
Cruise missiles pose a significant security threat, both alone and in conjunction with ballistic missiles, Gormley said. Summarizing from his new book, Missile Contagion, Gormley attributed the recent proliferation of cruise missile programs to three factors:
Access to specialized knowledge. Most of the emerging programs are being carried out with the help of outsiders, such as technicians from Russia with knowledge of systems engineering and systems integration. Iran's cruise missile programs depend on foreign-trained engineers who developed their skills in France, Germany, Russia, China, and North Korea.
A shift in the narrative on the reasons for acquiring the missiles. States have come to the conclusion that cruise missiles can penetrate an enemy's defenses more easily than ballistic missiles (which have more predictable trajectories and, in theory, are more vulnerable to interception). During the Iraq war in 2003, five crude Iraqi cruise missiles managed to evade U.S. Patriot missile defenses. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf touted his country's new cruise missiles as incapable of being intercepted.
A change in the norms of state behavior regarding missile proliferation. Despite some recent attempts to strengthen legal conventions regarding cruise missile proliferation, many nations do not regard the issue with the same sense of urgency as ballistic missile proliferation, Gormley said. States such as India, South Korea, and Japan have expressed a right to use cruise missiles in preemptive "first strike" attacks against foes. The United States has allowed allies such as South Korea and Taiwan to develop cruise missile programs, and Taiwanese military analysts, too, have been talking about the right to "preventive self-defense" using cruise missiles.
Gormley said the increasing tendency to link land-attack cruise missiles to preemptive strike doctrines has been fueling regional arms races and promoting instability in areas such as South Asia, where both India and Pakistan have been developing cruise missiles that could be used in a war over the disputed Kashmir region.
Looking to the future, Gormley argues that it is time to end the second-class treatment of cruise missiles in nonproliferation policies. He cites the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, adopted in 2002 and subscribed to by 128 nations so far. The Code does not discuss cruise missiles. Gormley also calls for more emphasis under the Missile Technology Control Regime on monitoring illicit activities by skilled engineers who can transfer invaluable knowledge to those seeking to acquire cruise missiles. Taking a more evenhanded approach to spending on ballistic and cruise missile defense programs also would help alleviate the second-class treatment of the cruise missile threat, Gormley said.
While Jackson believes that terrorists will likely continue to choose tried-and-true methods of attack, he said cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) cannot be dismissed as possible threats. The open literature on what terrorist groups are exploring suggests they are "looking for alternative ways to move a bomb to a target," Jackson said. Cruise missiles and UAVs could allow groups to attack across perimeter defenses and national borders, carry out multiple attacks at once or over time, or disperse payloads, such as biological agents, over a target area.
"We certainly have seen groups experimenting with these kinds of technologies," said Jackson, who co-authored a recently published RAND study, "Evaluating Novel Threats to the Homeland." According to the study, Hezbollah has used a limited number of anti-ship cruise missiles, including one that successfully hit an Israeli naval vessel. The group also has used UAVs in at least two overflights of Israel. Hamas has tried to acquire UAV technology. The FARC, an insurgent group in Colombia, retrofitted model airplanes with explosives (though it did not use them). Terrorist forums on the Internet have discussed the use of unmanned aerial attack modes.
Still, Jackson noted that non-state groups have had difficulty using technology well. The Irish Republican Army had problems using even rocket-propelled grenades initially, as did terror groups that have used mortars in Iraq and elsewhere. Cruise missile technology is much more demanding. Gormley said that United States has spent an enormous amount of time and money improving the effectiveness of its Tomahawk cruise missiles. The effectiveness of the weapon in the 1991 Gulf War proved to be substantially lower than the 85% initially claimed. It has taken a lot of forensic engineering—careful collection and evaluation of data on peacetime tests and wartime use of the Tomahawk—in order to improve that performance of the weapon, he said.
For states and groups without such expertise, "it's going to be clumsy," Gormley said. "There is going to be a significant amount of time that passes before they become proficient at dealing with these systems."
When it comes to homeland security, the RAND study does not recommend investing in expensive anti-missile defense systems meant to knock out cruise missiles as they approach their targets. Such systems can defend only small areas and have limitations even within those constraints.
"It is our conclusion that investments in defenses at the point of attack will take away resources from other more productive defense investments focused on preventing a much wider range of attacks before they occur," the study said. It recommends paying attention to intelligence gathering on groups seeking to acquire missile or UAV technology in the first place. Investments in counterterrorism and law enforcement "will increase security against not only cruise missile and UAV attacks but also against all potential terrorist attacks," the study says.
25 November 2008