Delivery Systems for Weapons of Mass Destruction


Delivery Systems for Weapons of Mass Destruction



Today, ballistic missiles are spreading to a rapidly growing number of countries in all regions of the world. Many countries believe that possessing even short-range missiles provides an additional guarantee of their security and sovereignty. This development has shown that the existing non-proliferation regimes for missiles – the Missile Technology Control Regime and the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation – have not been effective enough in preventing the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. Missile equipment and technology is widely available. The spread of missiles and missile technology is having an increasingly negative impact on regional and global security.

The problem of the proliferation of the means of delivery – mainly missiles and aircraft – for weapons of mass destruction is closely connected with the proliferation of the weapons of mass destruction themselves. Most missiles have a longer range than airplanes, and missiles can fly faster than airplanes. Missiles can also be guided even more precisely to their targets than bombs released from aircraft. The proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles and of cruise missiles therefore gives rise to particular concern. The delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons are mostly ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The problem of controlling the proliferation of military missiles is complicated because of their dual uses as space rockets for launching civilian satellites or manned spacecraft, which can be converted and used to deliver weapons of mass destruction.

Missiles are military rockets that are powered by their own engines for propulsion during the flight. Missiles can be guided to their targets either by remote control, using radio signals, or by radar (e.g., anti-aircraft or air-to-air missiles), by auto guidance (e.g., anti-aircraft missiles, which follow the radiation from the target’s heat exhaust), or by programming a certain course, e.g., for intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

Ballistic missiles are missiles that are powered and guided by rockets in the initial part of their flight (boost phase). After the fuel in the rocket motor has been used up, the ballistic missile follows an unpowered free-falling curved orbit trajectory – mostly above the atmosphere – that is determined by gravity and aerodynamic drag. A ballistic missile is only guided during the initial short boost phase, but minor corrections can be made by means of control motors. Ballistic missiles can be launched from land (from silos in fixed sites or mobile launchers on heavy trucks or rails), or from submarines, surface ships, or aircraft.

The development and use of missiles began during the Second World War with the German V-1, which was an aircraft without a pilot, and later the V-2, a ballistic missile first launched in October 1942, and used against Paris and London in September 1944. Approximately 21,000 V-1s were launched against the Allies during the war, causing more than 18,000 casualties in London alone. During the last two years of the Second World War, 4,000 V-2 missiles were launched, mainly against London.

Missiles are classified in categories according to their launch platform (surface, aircraft, or ships), range, and target. There are seven main types of missiles according to launch platform: surface-to-surface, surface-to-air (SAM to target aircraft), surface-to-sea (to target ships), air-to-air (AAM against aircraft), air-to-surface, sea-to-sea, and sea-to-surface. Surface-to-surface missiles can be both long-range strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and small man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS).

The main types of ballistic missiles are:

tactical short-range missiles with ranges up to 300 kilometres (TBM),

short-range missiles with ranges up to 1,000 kilometres (SRBM),

medium-range missiles with ranges between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometres (MRBM),

intermediate-range missiles with ranges between 3,000 and 5,500 kilometres (IRBM),

intercontinental (or long-range) strategic missiles with ranges of over 5,500 kilometres and up to 12,000 kilometres (ICBM),

intercontinental missiles with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV),

submarine-launched missiles with ranges of over 5,500 kilometres (SLBM),

cruise missiles with typical ranges between 100 and 500 kilometres, and

anti-ballistic surface-to-air missiles (ABM) designed to defend against intercontinental missiles.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles are surface-to-surface long-range missiles that can be launched from underground silos on a continent or from submerged submarines many thousands of kilometres from the target, and hit their targets on another continent after approximately thirty minutes. They are primarily designed to deliver nuclear weapons. All five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China – have intercontinental ballistic missiles. The US, Russia, and China have both land-based and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The British and French missiles armed with nuclear weapons are deployed on-board submarines. France also has airborne nuclear weapons. Israel and India also have intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea and Iran already possess medium-range missiles. The Iranian medium-range missiles have a range of 2,000 kilometres. In order to hit targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran would need missiles with ranges of 2,400 kilometres. Iran is developing such missiles. Today, thirty countries possess ballistic missiles. However, nineteen of these countries only have missiles with ranges under 1,000 kilometres, and seventeen countries have missiles with a range of only about 300 kilometres or less. This means that only eleven countries – the nuclear-weapon states, the nuclear-armed states, and Iran and Saudi Arabia – have missiles with long-range capabilities (i.e., ranges of more than 1,000 kilometres). According to the UN secretary general’s 2002 report, The Issue of Missiles in All Its Aspects, the total number of ballistic missiles in the world was estimated to be 120,000 missiles.

Cruise Missiles

Cruise missiles are guided, self-navigating missiles that fly at supersonic or high supersonic speeds at extremely low altitude (as low as 20 metres from the surface). Their trajectory can be programmed to follow ground contours by means of guidance technology known as terrain contour matching (TERCOM). It is therefore much more difficult to detect cruise missiles in radar tracking systems than other types of missiles. Though the range of cruise missiles is normally between 100 and 500 kilometres, some can fly up to 2,500 kilometres. Their accuracy is very high (better than 10 metres), and they can be launched from land, air, or sea, including from submarines. Cruise missiles can be equipped with both conventional warheads and with nuclear weapons. Eighteen countries manufacture their own cruise missiles, and they are included in the weapons arsenals of eighty-one countries. Cruise missiles are therefore considered to be at least as great a threat as ballistic missiles.


Both during the Cold War and in the years following, medium-range missiles and intercontinental missiles for delivering nuclear weapons were the subject of reductions and prohibitions in treaties concluded between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia.

The proliferation of missiles and of missile technology is closely linked to the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and is therefore a growing concern. Without missiles, nuclear weapons have significantly less potential to cause mass destruction because of the vulnerability of bomber aircraft. Despite this, it has not been possible to obtain international agreement on a multilateral accord to regulate missile development, testing, production, acquisition, transfer, deployment, and use. The existing measures to regulate missiles are voluntary and informal, and have not been agreed to in legally binding treaties.

In 1987, however, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded an important bilateral agreement on the total abolition of all their intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles in the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR