The Link Between Space Launch and Missile Technology

Presentation at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies

Honolulu, Hawaii

Introduction – History

The nuclear and missile arms race in South Asia is getting a lot of attention since the test explosions in 1998. The history of missile development there illustrates the close connection between space launch and missile technology.

In 1963, NASA began the Indian rocket program. NASA launched a U.S. sounding rocket from India’s first test range, which the United States helped design. We also trained the first groups of Indian rocket scientists. NASA invited them to NASA’s Wallops Island test site located southeast of Washington, DC in Virginia.

While at NASA, Mr. A.P. Kalam, a member of the Indian delegation, learned about the U.S. Scout rocket, which was being flown at Wallops Island. The Scout was the only four-stage, solid-fueled, small payload space launcher in the world. Indian engineers saw the Scout’s blueprints during their visit. Two years later, the head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission asked NASA for design information about the Scout. Mr. Kalam then proceeded to build India’s first big rocket, the SLV-3, which became the only other four-stage, solid-fueled, small payload space launcher in the world. It was an exact copy of the Scout. The first stage of the Scout then became the first stage of India’s first large ballistic missile, the Agni-I. The Agni-I’s second stage was liquid-fueled, and was based on a surface-to-air missile called the SA-2 that India bought from Russia.

France also helped India master liquid-fuel technology by selling India the technology used to build the “Viking” engine used on the Ariane space launcher. India calls its version the “Vikas.” The Agni also needed a guidance system. The German Space Agency obliged with a long tutorial in rocket guidance, which allowed India to develop a guidance system and learn how to produce its components (gyroscopes, accelerometers and so forth). The German Space Agency also tested a model of the first stage of the SLV-3 in one of its wind tunnels in Cologne and helped India build its own rocket test facilities. Germany also trained Indians in how to make composite materials.

Thus, India’s biggest nuclear-capable missile is an international product. Under the mantle of peaceful space cooperation, the United States, France and Germany all helped create the most advanced nuclear missile in South Asia.

The story in Pakistan is similar. NASA launched Pakistan’s first rocket in 1962. Pakistan’s project was also led by the head of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission. We must wonder what was going through NASA’s mind at this time – it keeps getting requests for space cooperation from the heads of atomic energy commissions. Apparently NASA thought this was normal. NASA also trained Pakistani rocket scientists at Wallops Island, and launched rockets in Pakistan until 1970.

Interchangeability: launchers being turned into missiles and missiles being turned into launchers

What did India learn from its foreign helpers?

– Manufacture of rocket propellant (solid and liquid);
– Manufacture of rocket engines (solid and liquid);
– Manufacture of air frames, motor cases, liners, and insulation;
– Manufacture of thrust vector control systems;
– Manufacture of exhaust nozzles;
– Manufacture of staging mechanisms;
– Manufacture of payload separation mechanisms;
– Manufacture of strap-on boosters;
– Manufacture of ground support and launch equipment;
– How to conduct system integration;
– How to conduct failure analysis and testing of components.

All of this is identical to the knowledge needed for building a missile. The same technology is used in both. In effect, the West taught India how to do just about everything necessary to build a big rocket and put a payload into orbit. It has been said that an ICBM is a space launcher whose orbit intersects the earth. Once a country is able to deploy a large satellite in a precise orbit, it has mastered the technologies needed to hit a major city with a ballistic missile.

Guidance is the main difference, but even here there are great similarities. According to the study on U.S. high-tech assistance to China published last year by the Cox Committee, most launcher guidance systems would be accurate enough to deliver a nuclear weapon to a large city. The committee noted that:

– the guidance system used on China’s Long March 2 and 3 space rockets is also used on China’s CSS-4 (DF-5) ballistic missile, which is targeted on the United States;
– the guidance system used on China’s “Smart Dispenser” to deploy two Iridium communication satellites is also used on the M-9 (CSS-6) and M-11 (CSS-X-7) missiles targeted on Taiwan;

– the lessons China has learned in improving the guidance of its space launchers will also help it improve the guidance of its next generation of ballistic missiles. The same people design both systems. The speed, direction, and altitude at which you release a ballistic warhead determines where it lands. The same factors determine the orbit in which you insert a satellite.

Re-entry is also a challenge. You must, of course, design and produce a re-entry vehicle capable of surviving the stress of passing through the atmosphere.

U.S. assistance to China

It might be worthwhile to consider the question of U.S. aid to China’s launch program.

This aid has two aspects – technical and financial. The Cox Committee took a hard look at the question, and so did the Defense Department. It may be useful to remind everyone of the main conclusions.

In 1995, a Chinese rocket (LM-2E) carrying a satellite manufactured by Hughes Space and Communications Company blew up. After the failure, Hughes performed an investigation to find out what went wrong. The failure was apparently caused by excessive loads on the fairing (or shroud). This crushed the satellite and caused its burning fuel to leak into the engines, which exploded.

Hughes determined that the Chinese method of analyzing loads on the fairing was deficient. The Chinese did not understand how to analyze these loads sufficiently. Also, Hughes identified flaws in the fairing and other components that had caused this and a previous launch in 1992 to fail, and also identified Chinese deficiencies in accident analysis and the interpretation of telemetry.

Hughes communicated its findings to the Chinese, with the result that, according to the Committee, China gained a “significant improvement” in its space launch program. The committee also found that what China learned would inevitably benefit its missile program.

The Pentagon found that the help Hughes gave China was a “defense service” under U.S. export laws (the ITAR) and required an export licence from the State Department. According to the Pentagon’s report on the subject, there was “no reasonable basis to conclude” that an export licence from State was not required. The Cox Committee found that the export was unlawful.

The case has been before a grand jury for almost two years, and the Justice Department still has not indicted anybody. We will probably have to wait for a new attorney general before anything happens.


In June 1998, the House Science Committee held an interesting hearing on China and dual-use missile technology. A representative of Alliant Techsystems, Mr. Paul Ross, testified that his company, one of the two main makers of solid rocket motors, had shifted mainly from being dependent on defense for its propulsion business to having 80% of its propulsion business devoted now to commercial satellite launches. Those launches are sustaining the engineering staffs that must build new solid rocket motors for the nations defense.

Also at the hearing was Mr. Oren Phillips of Thiokol Propulsion, the other principal maker of solid rocket motors. His testimony was similar. Three quarters of Thiokol’s propulsion business is now commercial. As he put it, “every dollar of profit [that our former adversaries gain from launching U.S. satellites] is one less dollar they would have to spend on their defense program.” He argued that by launching U.S. satellites in non-market economies, we are “indirectly strengthening their strategic missile capability while damaging our own.”

It is always difficult to accept industry claims at face value, but these witnesses had two valid points. U.S. launch contracts are undoubtedly sustaining China’s rocket industry, and that industry is producing missiles aimed at the United States.

Chinese proliferation

The same companies that benefit from U.S. launch contracts are proliferating missile technology to countries we are worried about. China Aerospace Corporation and its various subsidiaries are still supplying missile gear and technology to Iran and Pakistan – the latter more than the former. The State Department has basically given up trying to stop this activity. Our diplomacy has hit a dead end.

By continuing our space cooperation however, we are putting money directly into the pockets of the Chinese companies that are undermining our non-proliferation policies.

As a matter of principle we should restrict space cooperation to countries that share our commitment to non-proliferation and our general values. That now excludes China, India, Israel, and Pakistan and may soon include Russia. We can see that our cooperation with India and Pakistan was a mistake. Both countries are now making nuclear missiles.

We may one day decide that we made the same mistake with Russia and China. It is becoming more difficult every day to see what benefit there is from our cooperation. U.S. space cooperation should be a reward for countries that share our foreign policy objectives and countries that are a part of the solution to the proliferation problem. Cooperation should not be a bribe to countries that are a part of the problem.

The Future: What can we expect?

South Korea plans to spend $500 million to $1 billion to develop a small satellite launcher over the next five years. This will be a way around the existing agreement with the U.S. not to develop long-range missiles. South Korea’s program bears watching because South Korea will someday inherit North Korea’s nuclear weapon experience, materials, and facilities.

North Korea will continue to outfit Iran, Syria, Egypt, and probably Libya.

Russia and China will continue to proliferate missile technology to Iran and Pakistan and probably Iraq as well (as the embargo against Iraq weakens). U.S. efforts to halt this assistance have failed and will no doubt continue to fail during the Clinton administration.

India and Israel probably will not become new suppliers. India’s program is all about prestige, not making money; Israel’s best potential customers are the Islamic countries, which are arrayed against it.

The Middle East

If we look out five to ten years into the future, it seems likely that at least hundreds and probably thousands of missiles will be targeted on civilian populations in the Middle East. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Israel will all be a part of this missile stand-off. The missiles could carry non-conventional warheads as well as high explosives. This would put many civilians lives at risk if war broke out.