Ballistic Missiles: Who Are the Future Suppliers?

Paper presented at the CSIS/NIC Conference on the Alternative Futures for Missile Proliferation

I have been asked to predict how the spread of ballistic missiles might be fueled by exports. In particular, I have been asked to concentrate my attention on exports from countries other than Russia and China.

North Korea

The first country that springs to mind, of course, is North Korea. In February, the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, told Congress that North Korea is on the verge of developing ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental United States. Tenet said that the Taepo-Dong I missile that North Korea tested last August “demonstrated technology that with the resolution of some important technical issues would give North Korea the ability to deliver a very small payload to intercontinental ranges, including parts of the United States, although not very accurately.”

He also said that North Korea was working on a more advanced two-stage missile, the Taepo-Dong 2, which “would be able to deliver significantly larger payloads to mainland Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands and smaller payloads to other parts of the United States.” He added a prediction that if North Korea can convert the TD-2 into a three-stage missile like the TD-1, it could “deliver large payloads to the rest of the United States.” He also said that he was “deeply concerned that North Korea has a covert [nuclear weapons] program” and he cited North Korea’s secret underground facility as a “key target for us to watch.” (George J. Tenet, Testimony, Senate Committee on Armed Services, 2-2-99.)

The history of North Korea’s missile effort program is probably a good predictor of what we are likely to see other countries do in the future. First, North Korea imported missiles made by others; then it became an exporter in its own right.

In return for the military aid North Korea provided to Egypt during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Cairo shipped at least two of its Soviet-supplied Scud-B missiles to North Korea in 1976. In exchange for the missiles, Pyongyang agreed to help Cairo build Scuds on its own. North Korea first reverse-engineered the missiles and then improved them by incorporating Chinese know-how, particularly in rocket engine design, production and metallurgy. After successfully producing its own version of the Scud, North Korea passed along its technical documents and drawings to Egypt.

Then North Korea’s effort got a boost in 1985. Iran, under missile attack from Iraq, had only a small supply of Soviet-made Scuds. In search of a new supplier, Iran turned to North Korea. Tehran agreed to help finance Pyongyang’s missile effort in exchange for technology transfer and an option to buy North Korean missiles once they became available.

Iran’s financial help was indispensable. By January 1987, the Koreans were able complete and test-fire their new Scud missile at a site north of Wonsan. The successful test was followed in June 1987 by a $500 million arms deal that included the sale of approximately 100 missiles to Tehran. Pyongyang shipped the first Scud-Bs in July 1987 and helped Iran set up a Scud production factory. Iranian financing was so important that Iran received the first Scuds North Korea produced, even before they were deployed in Korea itself. The first 90-100 missiles had been delivered by February 1988. By late 1990, Tehran also had agreed to buy North Korea’s production of extended-range Scud-C missiles, which could fly 500 kilometers. Press reports in 1991 claimed that Iran had ordered an additional 200 Scud-Bs and Scud-Cs.

North Korea successfully flight-tested the Scud-C in May 1991 at Qom in Iran and again in July 1991 off North Korea’s eastern coast. A report in Jane’s estimated in 1994 that Pyongyang was able to build up to eight Scud-C missiles per month.

Since then, North Korea has built the Nodong-I with a range of over 1,000 kilometers. The Nodong was first tested in May 1993. It brings all of South Korea and parts of Japan, China and the former Soviet Union within reach. The more recently-tested Taepo Dong I reaches much farther than that.

Although the subject of this conference is proliferation through exports, we should remember that North Korea’s missiles themselves are major proliferation events. If we look into the future, we have to expect that North Korea will be able to target Japanese cities fairly accurately. Targeting Tokyo would be a strategy for deterring the United States from coming to South Korea’s aid during a war on the peninsula.

Would the missiles carry nuclear warheads? We don’t know. We do know that North Korea has enough plutonium for at least one or two warheads, and we know it has carried out a series of hydrodynamic tests. But we don’t know whether a successful warhead has been assembled. We also don’t know whether North Korea may have enough plutonium for three, four or five warheads. The fact that we don’t know these things is one of the major weaknesses of the nuclear framework agreement that we made with North Korea in 1994. We accepted the status of remaining in the dark about a possible nuclear threat to our troops and to Japan, despite our agreement to provide two large reactors and oil deliveries.

In November, the Washington Post, citing U.S. intelligence reports, reported that North Korea is building at least two new launch facilities for its long-range Taepo-dong I, and has stepped up production of its medium-range Nodong missiles. North Korea appears to be building a launch facility that could be ready this year.

None of this makes Japan feel very secure. Last August, North Korea fired the three-stage Taepo-Dong I through Japanese air space. U.S. officials estimated the range at 1,250 miles. After condemning the shot as a provocation, the United States agreed in September to send 300,000 tons of wheat and other grain in emergency food aid to North Korea. Japan said the United States was rewarding North Korea for its bad behavior.

There is now the added risk that the framework agreement may dissolve. North Korea is excavating what seems to be a site for an underground reactor and the associated plutonium production equipment. If the agreement does dissolve, North Korea could extract the five or six bomb’s worth of plutonium from spent reactor fuel that is now sitting in cans. If that happens, Japan could be looking at nuclear threats to several of its cities at once.

In addition to threatening its neighbors, North Korea is an offshore missile production site for its customers. They pay for developing both the missiles and the production plants, which they then import. North Korea’s flight tests can be seen as product demos, like test drives of the latest automobile. Since the late 1980s, North Korea has sold hundreds of Scud-type missiles and Scud production technology to Iran, Syria and Egypt. Pyongyang is now actively marketing its latest missile, the Nodong-I, to these same countries. The Nodong-I has already gone to Iran and Pakistan. The breadth and depth of these sales can be difficult to track. One U.S. official says: “We see Scud and Nodong marketing all the time, but sometimes we don’t know what version of the missiles is being offered.”

Following is a summary of North Korean exports to the present time.

Egypt. It owes almost all of its progress in missiles to North Korea. After more than 15 years of help from Pyongyang, Cairo can now produce its own version of the Soviet Scud-B and Scud-C. The Scud-C can threaten all of Israel and can target cities in Libya, Syria and Sudan. In 1996, U.S. intelligence detected several shipments of North Korean missile supplies to Egypt. According to a CIA report quoted in the Washington Times in June, Pyongyang has made at least seven shipments of ingredients for Scud-C missiles, including steel sheets and other materials and equipment. The transfers took place in March and April 1996 and the CIA was quoted at that time as saying that the imports “could allow Egypt to begin Scud-C series production.”

If Egyptian-North Korean cooperation continues at its present level, Egypt also could gain access to the Nodong. North Korea is already sharing Nodong technology with Iran and Pakistan. If Pyongyang does help Cairo build larger missiles such as the Nodong, the United States may feel more pressure to impose sanctions on the companies involved. But it is easier for Washington to penalize North Korea, as it did in 1992 for selling missiles to Iran, than to punish Egypt, an ally with close U.S. military ties. A U.S. official admits that “it is easier for us to focus on rogue states like Iran, Iraq and North Korea than to talk about our friends like Egypt or Israel.”

Iran. It has been the main customer and financier of North Korea’s missile effort. Iran got its first Scud-Bs in late 1987 and by February 1988, approximately 100 missiles had been delivered. Press reports in 1991 claimed that Iran had then ordered an additional 200 Scud-Bs and Scud-Cs. U.S. intelligence started to discover shipments of Scud-Cs from Pyongyang to Iran in early 1991, and in May 1991, Iran flight-tested what U.S. intelligence identified as a North Korean version of the Scud-C that flew 500 kilometers. In 1995, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released comments by the CIA to the effect that Iran had received at least four Scud TELs from North Korea. In May 1996, the United States sanctioned North Korean and Iranian companies for missile proliferation, but the sanctions did not prevent North Korea from declaring that it would keep on selling missiles for hard currency. Today, we know that Iran has also received the Nodong-I, that Iran’s version is called the Shahab-3, that it was flight tested in July of last year, and that the Shahab may be an improvement over the Nodong. Iran also has the Nodong production technology.

Syria. In the late 1980s, Syria was looking for a partner to supply new surface-to-surface missiles and to help upgrade the Syrian arsenal. Syria first approached the Soviet Union, but was turned down. Damascus then turned to Pyongyang. With hard currency it earned as a reward for participating in Operation Desert Storm, Syria has reportedly contracted to buy more than 150 North Korean Scud-Cs. In 1991, North Korea delivered an estimated 24 Scud-Cs and 20 mobile launchers, and in March 1992 shipped an unknown quantity of additional Scuds to Syria through Iran. Syria flight-tested Scud-C missiles in July 1992, in mid-1994, and in the summer of 1996. Syria is also building its own Scud-C missile factory with North Korean help.

Libya. It too is interested in North Korea as a missile supplier. Libya would like to acquire both Scud-Cs and the Nodong-I. According to press reports, Tripoli has already negotiated to buy the Nodong and is bargaining to buy the technology to produce it in Libya. In return for the imports, Libya would help finance North Korea’s missile effort. U.S. officials say there is “active cooperation” between North Korea and Libya that bears watching closely, but they believe that Libya is still some distance from success. According to a CIA report on proliferation in 1997, Libya continued to “aggressively seek ballistic missile-related equipment, materials and technology from Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Far East” during the second half of 1996. And in early 1998, the CIA told Congress that despite the U.N. embargo, “Libya continues to aggressively seek ballistic missile-related equipment, materials, and technology.” (George Tenet, Testimony, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1-28-99).

In the future, North Korea’s exports are likely to continue. North Korea has, in fact, expressly declared that they will. All of its missiles and the plants to make them are openly for sale. Each time North Korea takes a step forward to improve its missiles, one must expect to see the improvement exported to its customers. As the years go by, North Korean missiles are likely to cast larger and larger shadows over the Middle East and Asia. In 1993, in testimony before Congress, CIA Director James Woolsey warned that with the Nodong, North Korea could reach Japan, Iran could reach Israel, and Libya could reach U.S. bases and allied capitals in the Mediterranean. This new proliferation of missiles will threaten both American and allied security interests.

Possible new suppliers: Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Syria

Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Syria are each capable, in varying degrees, of supplying missiles and missile production technology to other countries. One possible incentive could be to recoup a portion of their investments. Another might be to gain political influence. Each of these exporters would face competition with North Korea and to some extent with Russia and China.

Egypt has nothing but North Korean technology to sell. To sell it, Egypt would have to compete with its supplier. There is the additional consideration that if Egypt did market missiles, its U.S. foreign aid package could be endangered. It seems unlikely that missile sales could bring Egypt anything near the amount of revenue it gets from U.S. aid, even if a buyer could be found.

India has the liquid-fueled Prithvi missile, but the Prithvi appears inferior to the Scud C and is certainly inferior to the Nodong. Buyers for the Prithvi would be hard to find. India also has solid fuel technology in the first stage of its Agni missile, but it does not yet have a marketable solid-fueled missile. If the Agni-II turns out well, and proves to be a good, two-stage solid-fueled missile, India might see some interest from foreign buyers. A successful Agni-II could compete well with the Nodong, which is liquid-fueled and thus slower to launch. It is still too early to tell whether the Agni-II will be more accurate than the Nodong.

India is also developing a series of larger solid-fueled rockets to power its polar and geosynchronous space launchers. Combining these large solid stages could give India a missile more powerful than the Agni-II. Whether such a missile will be fielded soon remains uncertain, and its possible export is even less certain.

Iran and Syria have cooperated in their efforts to import and build Scud-C missiles, so it is possible that improvements that Iran might make in missile technology will become available to Syria. And according to one report, Iranian missile technicians traveled to Libya in 1998 to assist in the Libyan missile program. Some U.S. officials believe Libya is seeking Iran’s help in the use of a wind tunnel Iran recently purchased from Russia. (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, 6-16-98, p. A1). Iran will, of course, be able to export its version of the Nodong as soon as serial production begins.

Israel now produces the highly capable Jericho-II missile, which boasts two solid-fueled stages and a probable range of up to 4,500 kilometers with a one-ton payload. Israel’s nuclear missile warhead is believed to weigh closer to 350 kilograms, about one-third as much, which would enable the missile to reach targets even farther away. The Jericho-II is the same rocket as the Shavit space launcher, minus the upper stage which is replaced by a warhead. The Jericho-II’s inertial guidance system was apparently developed with the help of components smuggled out of the United States, as were elements of the solid fuel propellant and the shell of the missile itself. If it wanted to, Israel could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, assuming that the Jericho-II has not already achieved that status. Israel is now working on an improvement of the Shavit called the “NEXT” launcher. With each improved launcher, Israel will increase the potential range of its missiles. The Jericho-II can already reach any target in the Middle East.

Will the Jericho-II go on the market? Not to any country in the Islamic world. Thus, the most active customers are eliminated. Who is left? Israel has been accused of supplying the Patriot anti-missile system to China, and China is developing long-range, multi-stage, solid-fueled missiles, so Israel could help China if it chose to do so. China’s access to Russian rocket technology, however, probably makes it unnecessary for China to resort to Israel as a supplier.

Pakistan has a plant for producing the solid-fueled, nuclear-capable M-11 missile it imported from China. Pakistan could conceivably put the output of its new factory on the market. The M-11 would be superior to the Scud B and to India’s Prithvi, but inferior in range to the Nodong, which Pakistan also has and can produce. Pakistan could conceivably sell both M-11s and Nodongs once serial production begins. But like Egypt, Pakistan would have to calculate the impact of such a step on its relations with the United States. Pakistan needs money, and missile sales could provide some, but the income would be far less than the loans from the IMF that Pakistan now requires to keep itself afloat. Dangerous missile exports could easily cause the United States to block such loans. For now, the risks Pakistan would run by making missile sales seem greater than the benefits.

Brazil and South Africa

Brazil continues to develop its space launcher, which will enable it to manufacture long-range, solid-fueled ballistic missiles. According to a knowledgeable U.S. official, the Brazilians have been “good boys” so far on exports. Brazil is not in the rocket supply business at the present time. In the future, Brazil like other countries will have a large investment in its rocket-making infrastructure. It may feel the pressure to recoup part of the investment, which could produce a policy change. For the present, however, Brazil does not appear to be an export threat.

South Africa decided to go out of the large rocket business when it went out of the nuclear weapon business. Its local version of the Jericho-II program has been dismantled and it has developed a strong set of export controls. Barring a drastic change in South Africa’s view of the world, there does not appear to be a missile threat from Pretoria.

The developed world

The developed world has long been a fertile ground for nuclear and missile proliferation. Virtually every major industrial power has been guilty of dangerous exports. Only a decade ago, Western intelligence services were busily watching nuclear- and missile-related exports stream into the hands of Saddam Hussein. Germany led the way by far, but Switzerland, the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Japan were part of the procession. These countries are more careful now, but the pressure to make money from exports is a constant fact of life. The sanctions against Iraq will surely weaken, even if the Clinton Administration tries to shore them up, and exports will eventually resume. Russia and China will probably lead the way, but once the barrier is down the major industrial powers will find it hard to resist. France may be first to yield to temptation, given its present support for Iraq in the U.N. and its evident desire to make money by trading with Saddam. It is likely that the exports will be dual-use items, sent under assurances of peaceful use, but still useful for nuclear or missile manufacture if diverted.

It is important to realize that U.S. export controls have been slashed deeply since the end of the cold war. Under the Clinton administration, the Commerce Department is controlling only about a tenth as much dual-use equipment as was controlled a decade ago. Other Western countries have followed suit. The United States has now made trade its primary foreign policy goal and has defined national security essentially as an increase in exports. Because the United States has always been the world leader in export control, this new policy of favoring trade has meant that dual-use equipment is increasingly available to proliferant countries.

One of India’s leading missile research sites, for example, recently imported American supercomputers from the Digital Equipment Corporation and IBM. India’s next generation of nuclear missiles will be designed with American help. Silicon Graphics also supplied a supercomputer to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, one of China’s leading missile research sites. And the Commerce Department recently approved the sale of computer software for making printed circuit boards to Bharat Dynamics, which manufactures and assembles India’s Prithvi missile. With better electronic circuits, the Prithvi will be a better missile, thanks to Uncle Sam.

Before closing, I should mention the “Black Shaheen.” It is an advanced cruise missile that France and the United Kingdom have decided to sell to United Arab Emirates, despite US protests that the sale would violate the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The missile is a long-range derivative of the Storm Shadow/SCALP EG family of standoff weapons now under development. There is an argument about whether the missile falls into Category 1 under the MTCR-a 500 kg payload and more than 300 km range-which should not be exported, or Category 2-a range of more than 300 km but a payload of less than 500 kg-which governments can export at their own discretion. The British government contends that it falls in the latter. The sale is intended to provide the U.A.E. a package of advanced missiles for 30 Mirage 2000-9 fighters on order.

This case reveals the fact that cruise missiles are becoming customary weapons. The United States uses the “Tomahawk” cruise missile often and openly to deliver conventional payloads. These missiles are popular; they are becoming available; and they are going to bump up against the MTCR guidelines. So may UAVs, as their payloads and ranges increase. One of the main “surprises” (I have been asked to discuss surprises) is that the boundary between conventional and non-conventional missiles may blur during the next decade, and the industrial nations may face difficult questions about their own military exports.