The developed world has an absolute mania about the proliferation of ballistic
missile technology. Iraq's shoddily manufactured Scuds were viewed as a principal
threat against both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration uses the
spread of nascent missile technology as one of the primary justifications for
spending billions of dollars on ballistic missile defenses in the post-cold war period.
This report will illustrate, however, that the spread of sophisticated attack aircraft
poses a far greater threat to the security of the United States and its allies than
In marked contrast to ballistic missiles, combat aircraft with equivalent capabilities
are widely distributed across the globe. There are only a few hundred, certainly
fewer than 1000, ballistic missiles with ranges beyond the 300 kilometer MTCR
(Missile Technology Control Regime) limit in the hands of Third World states.(1) But
the MTCR standard of a 300 kilometer range with a 500 kilogram payload covers
the entire range of military combat aircraft, down to the smallest jet trainers. Of
the over 40,000 military aircraft operational in the world today with range and
payload capabilities in excess of those of the MTCR threshold, over 8000 of these
are deployed in Third World countries. And most of these aircraft can carry
warloads significantly greater than 500 Kg over ranges greatly in excess of 300 Km.
The presumed ascendancy of stealth aircraft and ballistic missiles is predicated on
extreme estimates of the effectiveness of air defenses. But combat experience
suggests that per-sortie attrition rate may be rather low, typically on the order of
only a few percent. The probability of an attack aircraft not reaching its target due
to air defenses is of the same order as the probability of a missile not reaching its
target due to mechanical failure, since at least 10% of missiles launched fail in
flight. Air defense systems such as the Patriot surface-to-air missile will
increasingly be capable of intercepting medium range missiles such as the Scud.
Missiles do not seem to offer significant advantages for surprise attack or delivery
of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, for the delivery of conventional munitions,
aircraft can offer distinct advantages. This offensive potential of counter-airfield
operations by attack aircraft may pose greater threats of crisis instability than
missiles. And dual-role combat aircraft certainly offer greater operational flexibility
than single-mission missiles. But the military potential of combat aircraft is much
more highly dependent on the number and quality of support personnel and pilots.
This broad range of capabilities is matched by equally diverse means of acquiring
combat aircraft. A growing number of countries have indigenous design and
production capabilities. A range of first-rate aircraft are for sale in the international
market-place. A secondary market exists for used or refurbished aircraft, and some
entrepreneurs are offering their skills for hire.
Despite the marked military effectiveness, de-stabilizing potential and rampant
proliferation of attack aircraft, the Bush administration has largely ignored this
problem. The Arms Export Control Act, which regulates US arms transfers,
specifically prohibits only the transfer of missile and missile related technology.
US policy is to allow, or even to promote, all non-missile arms exports that are
perceived to increase US or allied security.
While the United States is actively discouraging missile proliferation through its
membership in the MTCR, the only international arms transfer control organization
is CoCom, the members of which are not bound by treaty. Since this organization's
raison d'etre is to prohibit exports to Communist countries, CoCom is something of
a Cold War relic, and is not focussed on most of the developing countries that
present the greatest proliferation and stability risks.
Representatives of the "Big 5" arms exporters -- US, USSR, PRC, France, and UK --
agreed on 18 October 1991 to inform each other of transfers of certain conventional
arms to the Middle East, as a means of increasing transparency in the region and
decreasing tension. While the Big 5 recognized that aircraft were among the
technologies that merited closer attention, they did not give it a priority
commensurate with its potential for destruction and de-stabilization. In order of
priority, tanks, armored combat vehicles and artillery were all deemed more
important than aircraft. Only naval vessels and certain missile systems were
deemed less important.(2)
All in all, US perceptions of, and policies toward, attack aircraft versus ballistic
missile proliferation require a thorough re-orientation.
1. Karp, Aaron, "Ballistic Missile Proliferation," Chapter 9 in SIPRI Yearbook 1990, (Oxford University Press, London, 1990).
2. World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1990, The US Arms
Control and Disarmament Agency, (Washington, DC, 11 November 1992,