The Missile Technology Control Regime

Lora Lumpe, Federation of American Scientists

Published in Ballistic Missile Defense in Perspective
Edited by Joseph Cirincione and Frank von Hippel
Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers


Fear that a hostile government---or even a terrorist group---might be able to buy an ICBM has led some U.S. policy makers to support the rapid development and deployment of national missile defenses. According to these fears, a country might by-pass the slow and observable process of developing a long range missile and pose a near-term and surprise threat to the United States.

Such a scenario, however, is highly unlikely. Over the past decade, the United States and its closest economic allies have established a highly effective and widely accepted norm against missile sales in general, and against sales to "rogue" states in particular. A country selling an ICBM or space launch vehicle to an irresponsible actor would do so at tremendous cost that would over-ride any imaginable economic gains.

Global anti-missile proliferation efforts center around the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Formed in 1987 by the G-7 governments (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States), the regime comprises "Guidelines for Sensitive Missile-Relevant Transfers" and an annex of controlled equipment and technologies. The stated goal of the regime is to impede the development and spread of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

The MTCR guidelines call for a strong presumption of denial for exports of so-called "Category I" technologies---full up ballistic or cruise missile systems capable of traveling 300 km or more with a 500 kg payload, and complete subsystems for such missiles. The guidelines do permit transfers "on rare occasions" if adequate assurances are obtained that the end-use is for acceptable purposes (i.e., space launch or conventionally armed missile). Transfer of production capabilities for these items, however, is expressly prohibited. "Category II" includes technologies commonly used in manned as well as unmanned aerospace. Exports of these items are to be carefully scrutinized and controlled, although less stringently restricted than Category I items. Each member implements the regime through its own national export control mechanisms.

The MTCR is not a binding treaty but, rather, a voluntary arrangement. As such, it is open to differing interpretations and subject to varying levels of compliance and enforcement. Nevertheless, the regime and associated national legislation have been extremely effective in curbing missile proliferation. Before the MTCR, governments and corporations exported short and medium-range missiles as freely as they do combat aircraft, armor or naval equipment. But by 1992, former CIA Director Bob Gates testified that North Korea was the only remaining exporter of ballistic missiles (although allegations persist four years later of Chinese exports). In addition to curbing exports, the MTCR has curbed indigenous missile production by several developing countries.

Membership in the regime has now quadrupled to 28 partners, with the most recent additions being Argentina, Brazil, Hungary, Russia, and South Africa. New membership is at the discretion of current members, but the basic requirement is effective national export control policies and procedures. In the case of developing countries, MTCR membership also requires a pledge to forgo ballistic missile development, but not necessarily space launcher development. (The developed-country members of the regime are not required to renounce missile development or to decommission existing missiles.) In May 1995, Hungary destroyed its Cold War-era stock of Soviet-made short range "Scud" missiles in order to enter the regime. Several other countries---including China and Israel---have pledged to adhere to the export control regime but have not been invited or do not seek to become full members.

The regime is expanding in scope as well as size. MTCR partners agreed in October 1994 to a "no undercut" policy on license denials; if one member denies a missile technology export to a country, other MTCR partners must do the same. And at the October 1995 MTCR plenary, participants for the first time considered region-specific approaches to curbing missile proliferation, including promotion of ballistic-missile free zones and missile flight testing restrictions or notification.

In addition, a 1990 U.S. law initiated by Congress forces the administration to levy stringent economic sanctions against countries that export any Category I or II technologies to non-MTCR members. Since 1991 the United States has imposed MTCR-related import/export sanctions on seven different occasions against companies or government agencies in China, India, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa and Syria. In most of these cases, the charges involved short-range missiles, posing no direct threat to the United States. The imposition of MTCR sanctions by the U.S. has generated a great deal of diplomatic and economic pressure, as well as negative press and public opinion. Most nations are quite concerned that they not be branded as violators of this non-proliferation norm because of the associated costs.

A sale of an ICBM would fly in the face of these normative trends, laws and procedures. It would also be nearly unprecedented. Only nine states (Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Japan, Russia, the Ukraine and the U.S.) and the European Space Agency currently possess intercontinental range missiles or space launchers. The United States is the only country that has ever sold ICBMs---Polaris and Trident II SLBMs to Britain. The only other missile sale to even approach this transaction occurred in 1988, when China sold Saudi Arabia fifty of its intermediate-range CSS-2 missiles (2,800 km range). This sale contributed greatly to concerns about missile proliferation and to the establishment of the MTCR. Since then, there have been no long range missile sales to developing countries.

A 1987 State Department fact sheet on the MTCR says the guidelines "are not designed to impede national space programs or international cooperation in such programs as long as such programs could not contribute to nuclear weapons delivery systems." This is an inherently contradictory statement, since any space launch vehicle (SLV) could by definition contribute to a ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear or chemical payload. But, as stated above, the MTCR is not an iron-clad legal prohibition against selling SLVs to MTCR partners if adequate end use assurances are guaranteed. (This would likely mean that the missile remained under physical control of the selling country in the purchasing country.) Some critics argue that countries are now joining the regime so that they can procure SLV technology and covertly develop ICBMs. In particular, this claim has been made in reference to Brazil, which has negotiated a bilateral space cooperation agreement with Russia possibly to include the transfer of ICBMs for space launch. Brazil straddles the equator, an ideal location for a launch site. This hypothetical future transaction is at this point still highly controversial, even though Brazil is a responsible member of the world community and an MTCR partner.

A Russian or Ukrainian or Chinese ICBM/SLV sale to a pariah state like Libya or Iraq would cause an unparalleled uproar and would undoubtedly have grave consequences. It is inconceivable that a missile sale to a rogue government or terrorist cell could be more lucrative than access to western launch markets, cooperative space projects, bilateral aid and access to funds from the international financial institutions. These and other benefits would be lost when the transfer was discovered, and the transfer would quickly be discovered: ICBMs are large objects easily tracked by satellite. Moreover, if any country exported an ICBM/SLV to any non-MTCR government---pariah or not---the U.S. administration would be forced to levy stringent import/export sanctions.

Clandestine ICBM sales to a despotic government are the stuff of a James Bond movie, not a real life threat. In the real world, governments have developed an extremely high degree of consensus over the past ten years that the spread of long-range missiles to dangerous governments ought not occur. The most powerful governments in the world have built up an impressive system of incentives and disincentives to head off missile development and exports. Unless this focus is abandoned, these economic and political carrots and sticks will prevent any current or near term possessor of ICBMs from acting outside of the ever-strengthening missile non-proliferation norm.


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