Making MTCR effective

Different technology control regimes have slowed down the pace of development of missile technology but they have largely failed to prevent its spread to other countries because of the duplicity of approach

Making MTCR effective

The proliferation of missile technology has been cause for growing concern since 1944 when Nazi German forces fired V-1 and V-2 rockets against Allied targets in France, Great Britain and Belgium. Best suited for delivering not only nuclear but also biological and chemical weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles can pose significant security threats both regionally and globally. During the Cold War era, long-range ballistic missiles emerged as an essential part of the development of strategic military capabilities. The number of nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) in both the US and the Soviet Union was a measure of their relative military strengths. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the relevance of missile technology in the domain of security has not diminished. While the US and the Russia have eliminated all of their intermediate and medium-range missiles and significantly reduced their arsenals of long-range ballistic missiles, the threat of missile strikes remains intact. In the post-Cold War period, many other countries have developed short and medium-range missiles. The 2006 Israel-Hizbollah war made it evident that some non-state actors have also acquired missile capability. The US’s prompt global strike programme has showed that missiles will cause heavy damage even if they are used as a limited conventional warfare tactic in the years to come. Curbing the spread of missile technology is particularly difficult because of lack of recognition of the threat it poses. Different technology control regimes have slowed down the pace of development of missile technology but they have largely failed to prevent its spread to other countries because of the duplicity of approach. Presently the international regimes for missile non-proliferation are far more voluntary in nature. In addition, cruise missile technology has generally been ignored in prevention efforts.

In 1985, the world’s seven most industrialised countries — the US, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan — concluded an interim pact to curtail the spread of missile technology but the problem of missile technology proliferation was accentuated further because of the use of ballistic missiles in the Iraq-Iran war and acquisition of missile technology by a number of other states including South Korea, Israel, Brazil and Argentina. These developments raised fears that countries like Pakistan pursuing nuclear weapons at that point in time might also seek long-range delivery capabilities. Two years later in 1987, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) was established, urging all member states to restrict their exports of missile technologies. Over the past two decades, membership of the group has expanded to 34 states and five other countries have unilaterally pledged to adhere to MTCR guidelines. The MTCR regime has a multiple set of criteria for assessing the legality of exports of certain controlled items. More precisely, there are five guidelines: first, the intended recipient must have no ambitions of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Second, the purposes and capabilities of the intended recipient’s missile and space programmes should be clear. Third, the proposed transfer should not make any contribution to the recipient’s development of delivery systems for nuclear weapons. Fourth, the credibility of the intended recipient’s stated purpose for the purchase of controlled goods must be well established. And last, the transfer of goods should not be in conflict with any other multilateral treaty. In addition, the intended recipient must also pledge not to transfer the goods or their replicas to a third country without prior permission from the country originally transferring the goods.

On the nuclear disarmament agenda, the goal of curtailing the spread of ballistic missiles and other delivery systems that could deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is very crucial. Some analysts credit the MTCR for successfully slowing ballistic missile proliferation to a certain extent. After 1987, Iraq, Egypt and Argentina had to abandon their joint Condor II ballistic missile programme, and the Czech Republic and Poland completely eliminated their ballistic missile programmes. But the MTCR has remained unable to garner universal support by initially limiting its goals to containing the proliferation of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and ignoring the potential of cruise missile technology to be used for conventional purposes. Experts opine that MTCR members originally viewed conventionally armed cruise missile technologically too difficult to be acquired by less advanced countries. But media reports over the past decade reveal that this erroneous preference for ballistic missiles was prompted by the highly lucrative export potential of cruise missile technology. Furthermore, the MTCR regime focused only on horizontal proliferation of ballistic missiles among other states rather than vertical proliferation in terms of quantitative and qualitative modernisation of missiles by countries already in possession of ballistic missile technology. This approach not only divided the world into ‘missile haves and have-nots’, it also caused the MTCR to be viewed as discriminatory in nature and hence unacceptable even for a number of countries that agreed with its original principles.

More than 26 years after its establishment, the MTCR faces serious challenges to its relevance in the years to come. The regime has not only totally failed to prevent the spread of cruise missiles but also lacks the required regulatory framework to check the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Pakistan, India, Iran and North Korea have successfully advanced their missile programmes with foreign assistance. Many other countries that are not MTCR members have remained involved in selling sensitive missile technology to other members. In addition, because of its voluntary nature, the MTCR cannot mandate any forceful action against member countries violating its guidelines. The threat of the proliferation of missile technology is rapidly increasing but global export control regimes are not equipped to tackle this challenge. The MTCR urgently needs to address all these concerns related to WMD delivery systems if it wants to avoid the fate of becoming totally incapable of mitigating the dangers associated with the global nuclear trade.


The writer is a research scholar and a former visiting fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California. He can be reached at