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Striving to Remain: Is Missile Proliferation a Requirement of Self-Determination?

The Falklands War

In 1982, the ruling Argentine military junta decided to invade the British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. In Argentina, the Falkland Islands have been long regarded as Argentine territory and are known as Islas Malvinas. The military regime hoped to mobilize patriotic feelings and with its action divert public attention and criticism away from human rights violations and chronic economic problems. In return, the British government dispatched a naval task force to the other end of the world and carried out an amphibious assault on the islands. The result of the war was a British victory. This negative outcome prompted large protests aimed against the military government, hastened its downfall, and subsequently brought the democratization of Argentina. For the Argentine military, the reasons for its disastrous defeat were soon identified: the war revealed the operational limitations of the Argentinian Air Force. Ill-prepared for operations of more than 600 km, the air force proved incapable of preventing the British Navy from recapturing the Falklands. Although Argentina had since 1979 been engaged in a sophisticated missile program, it had only produced one single-stage missile type, the Condor-1, with a range of 150 km. The Condor-1 ballistic missile proved to be ineffective and could not be used in the Falklands War due to its short range. The development of the missile was the outcome of illegal and quasi-legal international transactions that were conducted through a dummy commercial corporation that was set up in Switzerland. Through a complex business consortium, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Swiss, and Austrian firms were contributing to the Argentine missile project.

It was soon recognized in Argentina that only longer-range ground-based missiles offered valuable combat options, without the cost of having to develop and maintain more expensive combat aircraft, trained air personnel, and logistical infrastructure. Therefore, the Argentine military decided to abandon the Condor-1 program in favor of a Condor-2 missile capable of striking the Falklands from missile bases on the mainland. In addition, alarmed by military equipment embargoes applied during the Falklands War, a sense of urgency and importance emerged in Argentina to develop a domestic, independent missile program. The eventual return of a civilian government in Argentina in 1983 did not end the Argentine missile program. To the contrary, the civilian, democratically elected government supported it and viewed the program as an opportunity for Western European technology transfers to Argentina. Further, the Condor-2 project attracted foreign cash form the Arab World to Argentina.

Missiles Make Strange Bedfellows

The Condor-2 missile program brought together a strange coalition of participating countries – The new democratic Argentine government, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Egypt and Iraq viewed the Condor-2 project as an opportunity to gain more advanced missile technology without attracting international scrutiny. Forming a three-party consortium, Iraq agreed to provide over $3 billion for the funding of the project. Egypt would act as a middleman by exploiting its relationships with Washington. Argentina would provide its European technology networks from the Condor-1 and perform testing of the prototypes while hosting the program. Apart from those three countries, Saudi Arabia also contributed financially and expressed interest in a missile that could be potentially launched at Israel or Iran. Over 150 West European engineers and 20 European firms participated in the Condor-2 program. As the development continued throughout the 1980s, the number of foreign companies continued to increase. In 1984, the first U.S. firm became involved.

The United States became alarmed as there were noticeable design similarities between the Condor-2 and the American Pershing-2 missile. Because several Western European contractors contributed to the Pershing-2, the United States feared that Argentina’s European procurement network might have become a conduit for American missile technology to Argentina, Egypt, and Iraq.

Multilateral Approaches

As a result, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was formed. In April 1987, the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom established the MTCR. Its original stated goal was to curb the spread of missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads. Today, the MTCR has 35 member states that officially declare they want to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. Further, the MTCR seeks to reduce the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by controlling exports of goods and technologies that could contribute to delivery systems (other than manned aircraft) for such weapons; this includes unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These are certainly lofty goals, but how important these goals are for each member state is debatable. The MTCR is not a treaty, and it does not impose any legally binding obligations on any of its members, or any other countries or entities for that matter. MTCR members have been known to violate the rules, and countries that are not members but still agreed to abide by the rules, have done so as well.

Israel and China in particular, both non-members but officially adherents of the MTCR guidelines, have violated MTCR rules multiple times. China continues to export missile technology to Pakistan and the Middle East. Israel should be unable to export its Shavit space launch system to foreign customers, however, the U.S. Clinton administration allowed a waiver for Israel. NATO members argue that they should not have to follow the MTCR rules between NATO members. Applying this logic of NATO, the United States supplies Trident missiles to the United Kingdom for nuclear weapons delivery. Russia is supplying MTCR-restricted missile technology to India and Iran. The United States ensured that exceptions for Ukraine were in place so that it could retain Scud missiles. Washington also agreed to let South Korea develop space launch vehicles and longer-range missiles in such a way that Seoul can now target all of North Korea. These are just a few selected contradictions within the MTCR.

Some countries outside the MTCR view the regime as a syndicate formed by developed nations to monopolize lucrative missile and space launch technology. Pakistan, for example, criticized that the MTCR is not a negotiated multilateral treaty, but a cartel formed by some industrialized countries for the purpose of placing controls on the transfer of technology that could contribute to the manufacture of ballistic missiles without any real commitment on the part of the originators of the MTCR to engage in good faith efforts to eliminate ballistic missiles globally. In their view, the MTCR is essentially an arrangement for promoting the security interests of the original MTCR countries only.

Despite the criticism, the MCTR often claims success by pointing to the MTCR’s involvement in the abandonment of the joint ballistic missile program between Argentina, Egypt, and Iraq for the development of the Condor-2 missile. Undeniably, the MTCR played a positive role in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the process of denying the success of the Condor-2. However, it was eventually the direct political pressure from the United States on Argentina, simultaneously paired with the U.S. offer of American transfer of advanced technology, retrofitting of aircraft, sale of American advanced computer equipment, nuclear technology, and aeronautical guidance systems that ensured the discontinuation of the program. Regardless of the MTCR, the project continued without Argentina under a different name in Iraq (for some time with Egyptian involvement).

Similarly, the idea that South Africa after the Apartheid era under Nelson Mandela discontinued its missile program because of the MTCR, as is often claimed, is a rather daring claim. Likewise is the claim that many former Warsaw Pact countries destroyed their Soviet-era ballistic missiles when joining NATO because of the MTCR. But even if credit is given to the MTCR for all these decisions to abandon missile programs and destroy ballistic missiles, all these victories occurred more than 25 years ago. Ever since, MTCR success stories have become rare, if not completely absent. This should not come as any surprise to any realistic consideration of a non-binding, informal, non-enforceable understanding between 35 states.

In 2002, the MTCR was supplemented by the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (ICOC), better known as the Hague Code of Conduct. It calls for restraint and care in the proliferation of ballistic missile systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction and works in parallel to the MTCR. Although the Hague Code of Conduct has 143 member countries, the restrictions are even less specific than those of the MTCR. It is also non-enforceable, and it only appeals to its member countries for restraint in production, testing, and export. How successful this appeal for restraint has been can be seen in the massive and ongoing global growth in the proliferation, testing, and production of ballistic missiles since the establishment of the Hague Code of Conduct.

Sanctions, Kidnappings, Killings, Sabotage and Cyber

Independently from these international and rather idealistic approaches, since the end of the Cold War, missile proliferation has been a major focus on the agenda of every U.S. administration. For decades, the United States has identified especially North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran as the originators of emerging missile threats. With the stated goal of restraining global missile proliferation and the spread of missile technology, the United States has actively been on the forefront of imposing international sanctions on both countries. Further, it has very likely even engaged clandestinely in actions to hamper the missile programs of both countries.

After decades of international and U.S. measures to limit missile proliferation, it is time to take an honest assessment at the results and evaluate how the methods have worked. Unfortunately, this honest look is hardly taking place. It almost seems as if analysts are not able to see the forest for the trees. Whatever Western, and particularly U.S., policy makers and politicians are trying to hold on to, support, or further implement when it comes to controlling global missile proliferation, it is clearly not effective. Whatever the public and the politicians themselves believe to be necessary and correct approach to counter the international production of missiles and restrain North Korea and Iran has not produced any results. This goes for sanctions as well as clandestine operations that include kidnapping and killing of scientists, cyber operations, and sabotage.

North Korea, a dark spot on a global satellite image of the world at night, an economic basket case with the constant danger of mass starvation and famine, was able to develop its own space program and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program that could reach the United States with nuclear warheads. In addition, it has become one of the largest missile proliferators and exporters in the world and even sells its missiles to supposed U.S. allies. Egypt has purchased North Korean weapons and allowed North Korean diplomats to use their Cairo embassy as a base for international missile sales. The United Arab Emirates, viewed by many U.S. defense analysts as Washington’s most reliable ally in the Gulf, is among the countries that have purchased missiles from North Korea. Further, North Korea was instrumental in helping Pakistan to develop longer range missiles. Every year, Pyongyang shows off at least one new missile type, demonstrating the steady and rapid development of new capabilities. U.S. analysts are now claiming that North Korea may also be engaged in working on such technologies such as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV). This is all despite strict U.S. and international sanctions and constant surveillance by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

Concerning Iran, the world is now learning that Iran not only has a functioning ballistic missile, space, and ICBM program, but that Iran has several such programs that are carried out independently and successfully by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian military, and civilian authorities. All this despite sanctions and direct measures imposed on Iran. In addition, Iran has been able to export its missiles and technology to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen and has expanded its capabilities successfully to include cruise missiles and drones.

Decentralization of Deep Strike Capability

The U.S. has spent billions of dollars and diverted its focus on Iran and North Korea for years to prevent exactly what has happened and is currently happening. If such achievements can occur in countries that have the full attention of the United States, which countries under less surveillance have missile programs under development or are exporting arms clandestinely?

Some may ask what the alternative may be and what else the United States or world community can do. The answer likely can’t consistently be the military destruction of missile facilities in those countries, as the retaliatory risks are too high (To say nothing of legal and moral/ethical considerations). This dilemma, a relatively ineffective multilateral regime on the one hand and the inadvisable use of targeted military strikes on the other hand, demonstrates the difficult reality of modern warfare. Missiles are revolutionary and especially destabilizing because they have decentralized deep strike capability. The United States traditionally had this monopoly through its Air Force. But now, with extended ranges and precision missiles, many countries (and even non-state actors) have or can acquire this capability. Even North Korea (again, one of the poorest countries on Earth) has the capability to reach the U.S. homeland within minutes. The shrinking gap in military capabilities that missiles provide has necessitated a dramatic reconsideration of both military and political strategy.

Western military planners must accept the criticism that they did not adequately react to this clearly developing phenomenon as it unfolded over decades. Their inability or unwillingness to consider such implications in the early stages of development has amplified the consequences. Additionally, the heavy reliance on global contractors and sub-contractors in the development of key weapons systems should have had greater controls or monitoring mechanisms in place. The lack of early action in proliferation and missile development and not recognizing the potential risks of a loosely controlled and monitored global, private supply chain must be understood from an organizational perspective as it showcases a strategic weakness that will continue no matter what threat is under discussion.

Why are Missiles in Demand?

Although it is easy to identify weaknesses of certain actions in hindsight, it must be emphasized that the overwhelming demand for such missile systems make any non-proliferation strategy a near impossible task. Historically, the beginning of the development of rockets as long-range weapons in World War II is a brainchild of the identical thought and logic that prevails to this day in militaries that view themselves at a strategic disadvantage. The V2, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile became operational in WWII for the same reasons and rationale that many non-Western military thinkers are applying today. The difference, however, is that the V2 was not a very precise weapon; today, there are precision guided missiles that have far overcome the shortfalls of the V2, and thus make missiles even more attractive.

At the start of WWII, the German rocket program dropped to a relatively low priority. It was not until after the historic Battle of Britain, in which the German Luftwaffe had promised to dominate and crush Britain but then could not deliver, that rockets moved up on the German agenda. When it became apparent that the German plans of air dominance over England had to be abandoned as hopeless, and with Britain gaining air superiority, Hitler made the rocket program his top priority. Germany was not in need of air superiority to launch missiles at London from a far and safe distance. In addition, Hitler then came to recognize the power of deterrence that originated from missile arsenals and regretted not having invested more into his missile program before the war. Later Hitler would say, “if we had these rockets in 1939, we’d never have had this war.” Hitler believed that the sheer capability of the V2 rocket was so powerful and dissuasive that the Allies would have not dared to fight a war against Germany in 1939.

The same logic is prevalent today in North Korea or Iran, and understandably so, judging from their overall military disadvantage. Since WWII, air dominance has been the cornerstone of U.S. military superiority and every country in the world understands that it cannot compete with the U.S. Air Force. The key to balance this military disparity is missile technology. Just as Hitler focused on his missile program after he had to accept that Allied air forces dominated the skies, America’s adversaries today focus on missile technology and capabilities. From the U.S. perspective, missile importance and reliance may not always be fully understood due to American aircraft-centric thinking and approaches, as well as infrastructure and technology. The U.S. has always had the financial means and resources to maintain vast amounts of modern fighter aircraft and strategic bombers, as well as trained pilots. This has influenced U.S. military thinking and perception. For many other countries however, a functioning pilot program alone may present challenges, not to mention the financial and technical burden of purchasing and maintaining a modern air force. Missiles can circumvent all of this, and therefore have become essential in the military planning of many countries.

Nevertheless, to this day, there is reluctance in some Western military circles to fully acknowledge the revolutionary application of conventional long-range precision missiles. China transformed its Second Artillery Corps in 2016 into a separate military branch and named it the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, which includes both nuclear and conventional missiles. The Western discourse that followed about the Chinese military service that operates most of China’s land-based precision strike systems focused almost exclusively on strategic nuclear command and control. Further discussions regarding the conventional land-based ballistic and cruise missile systems were limited and made only vague references as to how the Chinese Rocket Force was working to integrate units into the tactical theater command structure, using its conventional missiles in a role for precision strikes, a Western concept strictly reserved for manned aircraft. The prevailing Western reaction was disbelief and even ridicule. In 2019, Turkey launched its Bora tactical ballistic missiles, a product of Turkish-Chinese defense cooperation, against PKK facilities in northern Iraq in a high-precision function, traditionally carried out by air forces. Many Western experts discharged this as an international sales pitch and dismissed any operational value of the Turkish strike. Then, in January 2020, Iran showed off its ability to carry out precision strikes with ballistic missiles by the precise targeting of facilities on air bases when it attacked coalition installations in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iranian General Soleimani. Also, in 2020, in its recent conflict with Armenia, Azerbaijan did not have to risk its pilots or aircraft to successfully carry out a precision strike on a bridge it deemed as a tactical target. It simply used an Israel Aerospace Industries’ Long-Range Attack (LORA) ballistic missile.

The U.S. Army has now also understood the value of such ground-launched ballistic missiles in an offensive strike role and has begun to develop this capability. In Russia on the other hand, tactical ballistic missiles have always been an integral part of Soviet and Russian military doctrine. Neither the Soviet Union nor Russia ever had an air force comparable to the United States or NATO; with this background, their traditional focus on missiles is comprehensive. Developing American interest for land-based, long-range precision missiles is certainly the result of the growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities of U.S. adversaries, which no longer guarantee uncontested air space for the U.S. Air Force. Nevertheless, this new U.S. interest triggered a discussion and even friction between the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. Air Force traditionalists are not keen on giving up their exclusive role of providing long-range precision strike capability. Other countries, however, do not have the luxury of this discussion. For them, missiles, not air forces, are a fundamental matter of military power projection, capability, and for some, even survival.

Neither Iran nor North Korea have capable air forces and their regular ground forces are mostly reliant on antiquated equipment. They both possess effective special operations units to carry out sabotage and terrorist operations, but most of all, they have their missile arsenals. Missiles give them the capability to punch way above their weight class and prevents even highly sophisticated military powers from military action against them. Direct military attacks would not be able to destroy their entire missile capability and would lead to retaliation and military escalation.

This of course has not gone unnoticed by other countries, resulting in the increasing allure to acquire missiles internationally or develop domestic programs. In order to potentially limit missile proliferation, the international community must first acknowledge that nothing has worked until now. Arms control attempts, economic sanctions, and sabotage operations are just a few of the implemented strategies that have been a failure. It seems that these failures have not sunk in, because after decades of futility, the same measures are implemented over and over again with the expectation of different results. Who was it that said such a scenario is the definition of ‘insanity’?

Missile Proliferation

Missiles will not go away; they will not lose their appeal for militaries worldwide. They have and will even further change the geopolitical landscape. Even more and more U.S. allies see so much value in them that they are willing to invest in their own secret missile programs and procurement. Saudi Arabia, for example, purchased different Chinese ballistic missile types and in 2019 it was revealed that the kingdom constructed a secret facility for its own domestic ballistic missile production with Chinese assistance. Equally, Qatar surprised its neighbors when it displayed a previously unseen Chinese ballistic missile system at a military parade in 2017. (An in-depth analysis on how two of America’s biggest regional allies surreptitiously cooperated with America’s biggest global rival will not be discussed here. Though, their actions perfectly illustrate the intense value countries place on acquiring effective missile capability and reveals the risks they are willing to take to obtain them.)

Proliferation of missile technology will likely continue to rise with the growth of private commercial space companies that are in possession of relevant technology for application in military missiles. This may happen through the mishandling of data by companies and cyber espionage, but history also shows other, more mundane, dangers. OTRAG, a German company, was the world’s first commercial developer and producer of space launch vehicles. In the 1980s, the company got heavily involved in Libya’s missile program when Muammar Gaddafi offered a testing facility and financial support for their commercial space project.

Missile Defense

With ongoing international missile proliferation and the obvious inability to stop or significantly limit this trend, the United States and its allies will not get around investing in efficient missile defense capabilities on the tactical as well as the strategic level. These investments must include not only upgrades and new air and missile defense systems, but also new sensor networks. This must be understood and appreciated by the public as well as politicians. With more countries having quantitively greater numbers and qualitatively more sophisticated missiles, defense capabilities are growing in importance. Capable missile defense can potentially minimize harm to civilians, military personnel and equipment, as well as strategic infrastructure. But it also maintains governmental and civilian functional continuity by preventing damage to key infrastructure such as oil facilities or international airports. It further gives the political leadership the opportunity to make judicious decisions in response to hostile military or terrorist action, rather than a forced decision as the result of political pressure due to harm of people or key facilities.


In addition, a new geopolitical perception needs to set in. Donald Trump may be rightly criticized for many of his decisions during his presidency, but in all fairness, he should be commended for his alternative approach regarding the North Korean missile program and the willingness for bilateral dialogue with Kim Jung-un. Critics have pointed out that nothing was really achieved, and that North Korea continued with its missile development despite the dialogue. However, as mentioned before, there have not been any achievements through sanctions or military pressure either. Countries like North Korea and Iran, and many others for that matter, will realistically not give up their missile programs. This uneasy truth needs to be recognized. Even if Donald Trump could not present any tangible results, his dialogue with North Korea brought much welcomed de-escalation. This effect and outcome should not be underestimated or dismissed. The goals regarding missile proliferation must be redefined and more realistically classified, since a complete (or even partial) reversal of the existing conditions will not be possible. Appeals and unenforceable, non-binding international charters with member countries will achieve no results. Sanctions will not stop missile proliferation or development, and neither will military pressure short of intervention.

Regime Change

The idea that intervention and regime change is a considerable approach for missile proliferation concerns should immediately be thrown away. After decades of such maneuvers and the primary outcome only being chaos and embarrassment, it should become policy to immediately remove regime change from serious consideration. Aside from the past epic failures, the truth is that missile proliferation is not restricted to so-called rogue regimes. Perceived military vulnerability and the profound enhancement of capabilities are factors that make missile technology appealing to many governments. More often than presumed, geopolitical circumstances, and not the quality of government, are the driving force for missile programs. It was not the Islamic Republic of Iran that started the Iranian missile program, but the Shah of Iran with Israeli help. Many pro-Western countries and even democratic states have started clandestine missile programs or are involved in missile proliferation. Again, the history of missile development reveals context that should not be disregarded. The birth of modern missile warfare is accredited to Germany during WWII. However, it was not Hitler and the Nazi regime that started this trend, but the democratic constitutional German Weimar Republic. After Germany was not allowed an air force and its army was significantly reduced through the Versailles Treaty, democratic German politicians gave the green light for starting and funding a secret military missile program from which eventually the first cruise missile (V1) and first long-range ballistic missile (V2) would result. Missile development is inherently a logical strategic decision for most countries, whether they are dictatorships, democracies, Western allies, or considered rogue states.


A more thorough and pragmatic discussion about missile proliferation must emerge with realistic goals and a general appreciation for international de-escalation. The global expansion of missile technology cannot be consistently prevented. At best, it could probably be delayed in certain cases. But even this is questionable. As unpopular as this may sound to many, we may have to accept the fact that more countries will leapfrog the traditional military development path and achieve rapid deep strike capabilities. Unless the United States wants to be constantly at war or covering the globe with sanctions, this trend cannot be stopped. The appropriate answer to missile proliferation may be a different global approach and a reconsideration of international commitment. Focus must rather be on de-escalation than on threats and a non-achievable prevention or elimination of missile proliferation. However, this does not mean that naivete and bad judgment should prevail either. Applicable and expedient offensive military capabilities must be continued and constantly improved. The United States must credibly maintain that those capabilities will be used if the United States is threatened. Simultaneously, the increasing significance and necessity of viable missile defense and ongoing research and development in this field must be emphasized and politically accepted. The reality of foreign policy in the 21st century is: speak softly and carry a big shield; you will go far.

The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of every individual associated with The Acamar Institute.


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