April 16 is the fourteenth anniversary of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international export control arrangement to hinder the proliferation of missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As the Bush Administration sets a non-proliferation policy agenda, Dr. Richard Speier, consultant on missile proliferation, assesses the MTCR. 



MTCR Basics

The MTCR is based on a policy, not a treaty. It focuses on ballistic and cruise missiles capable of delivering a 500 kilogram payload to a range of 300 kilometers. Any rockets or unmanned air vehicles with this capability, including space launch vehicles (SLV's), which are "peaceful" versions of long-range missiles, are subject to a strong presumption of export denial. The regime imposes more flexible export controls on dual-use items. The 33 member states often coordinate their diplomacy to discourage missile proliferation. Some members (notably the U.S.) back up their diplomacy with sanctions.

The regime has experienced some visible failures, such as missile developments in North Korea, India, and Pakistan. But it has also realized some noteworthy successes such as the suppression of the Argentine, Egyptian and Iraqi Condor II ballistic missile program and South African and Central European missile activities. The MTCR's export denials have yielded quieter successes, such as delays in the Indian and Pakistani programs.

The MTCR provides an international norm for missile non-proliferation. Among major suppliers of missile technology only North Korea refuses to acknowledge this norm.

MTCR Problems

The MTCR faces challenges in at least three areas: the stability of its rules of restraint, the technical coverage of its restrictions, and the continued activities of some missile suppliers.

Rules: Last month South Korea became the 33rd member of the MTCR. The conditions under which they joined allows them to develop longer range missiles than heretofore, and even to resume development of an SLV abandoned under U.S. pressure a decade earlier. After similar concessions to Brazil and Ukraine in the mid-1990's, one may ask: Are governments now joining the MTCR in order to acquire bigger missiles?

MTCR members have often discussed missile export restraint with non-member China. Late last year, the U.S. welcomed China's new formulation of the restraint Beijing will apply. China now says it will not export "nuclear-capable ballistic missiles." This leaves open the question of how it will treat such MTCR-restricted items as cruise missiles or missiles capable of delivering chemical or biological agents - and whether multiple sets of rules are now being established.

The MTCR rules face competition from alternative proposals meant to promote missile restraint among non-members. Last year the MTCR members proposed a "code of conduct" featuring inspections of proscribed missile-related programs. Some observers fear such dealings could lead to acceptance of those programs. Last month Russia held an international conference outside of the MTCR to promote a "Global Control System". And the UN Secretary General and others are proposing global missile non-proliferation treaties, some offering SLV cooperation as an incentive for participation by "have-nots".

Technology: As military systems evolve is the MTCR adequately covering them? Unmanned air vehicles (UAV's) - cruise missiles and systems readily converted to them - are particular concerns. Controls on stealthy cruise missiles, key components such as engines and guidance/control systems, and definitions of range and payload may be falling behind the times.

Moreover, as large UAV's evolve for reconnaissance, missile launching, and even civilian communications - pressures are growing to relax MTCR restrictions. Given the likely importance of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV's) and other UAV's in the Bush Administration's military strategy, these issues will come to the fore very soon.

Suppliers: As an export control regime the MTCR depends on supplier restraint. It has succeeded in restricting many potentially troublesome exports from Western Europe. However, restraint has been lacking in three suppliers.

Reportedly, Russia is leaking or deliberately supplying MTCR-restricted missile technology to India and Iran. China's latest missile restraint proclamation has yet to be fully defined and implemented, and China may be continuing to export missile technology to Pakistan and the Middle East. And North Korea continues to export Scud-based missiles and their technology.

Secondary suppliers such as India and Iran are a growing concern. Some, such as Iran, are under a U.S. embargo. But for others and for China, U.S. sanctions, designed especially to restrict exports from MTCR non-members, have been little used in recent years.


The MTCR is not the only instrument available for missile non-proliferation, but it is the most widespread instrument with the greatest international recognition. If it is allowed to weaken, stronger unilateral approaches will be needed - or there will be a period of more rapid missile proliferation until new restraints can be imposed.

The Bush Administration's commitment to the long-term development of missile defenses would be perfectly complemented by a renewed effort to prevent missile proliferation. Both measures have the same objective - to protect the world from offensive missiles. But missile non-proliferation instruments are available today, if only they will be used with greater determination.