Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 03:19 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 03:19 | SYDNEY

The ballistic missile stigma


Sam Roggeveen


19 August 2009 12:58

There's something of an international stigma attached to balllistic missiles. Although a lot of 'respectable' countries field them, they are also seen as the favoured weapon of rogue regimes, past and present, such as North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya. The test launch of an Iranian or North Korean ballistic missile is a major news and diplomatic event. And when, as is happening today, South Korea launches a satellite onboard a rocket that could easily double as a ballistic missile, people pay attention.

But ballistic missiles are just a means to deliver a warhead to a target. Cruise missiles have exactly the same function but perform it by flying at low altitude through the atmosphere rather than on a ballistic trajectory, yet they seem to carry less stigma and get less attention.

South Korea has just announced the deployment of a cruise missile that could hit targets as far away as Tokyo and Beijing. This is no doubt gaining the attention of defence officials and diplomats around the region, but although it is just as significant as ballistic missile proliferation, it does not seem to capture the imagination in the same way.

There are a few possible reasons for this. One is the way Iraq's Scud missiles entered popular consciousness during the 1991 Gulf War. Another is the focus in the US, and increasingly other countries, on ballistic missiles defence. And a third is the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, a voluntary international agreement that totally ignores cruise missiles.

Ballistic missile stigma seems to have become an international norm that makes no objective sense and could actually be harmful to reducing overall missile proliferation. As Dennis Gormley writes:

Surely, the mere fact that the MTCR member states—who treat in principal if not practice ballistic and cruise missiles without normative or operational differentiation—were responsible for formulating the HCoC's remit as exclusively dealing with ballistic missiles left its unfortunate mark on state perceptions of acceptable and unacceptable missile activity. In effect, in launching the HCoC without addressing cruise missiles, the initiating states, including MTCR members, created the impression that while curbing the spread of ballistic missiles was in the best interests of peace and regional stability, the unbridled spread of cruise missiles somehow would have less pernicious consequences.

Ironically, since the creation of the HCoC, proliferation realities in the Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia suggest that the Code not only failed to address half of the missile threat but also perhaps left out the most worrisome proliferation problem.

 Photo by Flickr user lincolnblues, used under a Creative Commons license.