• Carlo Trezza

The role of missiles in achieving nuclear disarmament


Missiles, be they ballistic, cruise, hypersonic, strategic, medium or short range, are the delivery means of choice for nuclear weapons. They save the precious lives of military pilots and are increasingly efficient, precise and fast. Because they can be used only once, missiles are expensive and are therefore preferably used to deliver payloads with great destructive capabilities such as nuclear weapons.


Despite their increasing military use starting with the Second World War and their evident centrality in relation to nuclear weapons, international norms regarding missile control, reduction or elimination are still few and weak. There is as yet no multilateral treaty that globally regulates missiles. One of the main obstacles disciplining missiles is their dual use, military and civilian. Nobody wishes to prevent the launch of missiles that put into orbit satellites which have become an essential tool of our daily lives in fields such as communication, meteorology, of space missions, research and exploration. How to distinguish a weapon launch from a civilian mission and how to control the spread of the former without hindering the promotion of the latter is one of the great dilemmas of the missile issue. Moreover, some military missile missions, for example launching of observation and verification of military activities satellites are stabilizing and confidence-building.


An additional source of concern is the growing introduction of dual capable missiles able to deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads. The introduction of this “hybrid” capacity is greatly destabilizing and risky. Until the very last moment of an explosion, a targeted country will not know whether it is attacked by a nuclear or a conventional weapon. Should it have access to nuclear weapons, this attacked country would most probably react with a nuclear response thus initiating - possibly by mistake- a catastrophic nuclear spiral. If countries are genuinely committed to missile arms control, abandoning the dual capable practice for missiles and other delivery means must become a priority.


The main efforts in the field of missile control and reduction have so far occurred bilaterally between the United States and Russia (or the former Soviet Union). The most recent example is the New Start treaty whose validity was extended by the Americans and Russians in January 2021. The treaty provides for the simultaneous reduction of both nuclear warheads (1550) and strategic missiles (700) belonging to the two countries. In 1987 the US and the Soviet Union adopted the Intermediate - range Nuclear Forces (INF) which prohibited the two countries from possessing the entire category of intermediate-range nuclear missiles. This treaty, unlike the New Start, only referred to missiles without including nuclear warheads. Unfortunately, in 2019 both sides withdrew from this treaty, accusing each other of having violated it.


The legislation on missiles is particularly lacking at the multilateral level and there is no global agreement for missiles comparable to the treaties that totally prohibit chemical weapons (CWC), biological weapons (BWC), nuclear proliferation (NPT), nor is there any international organization globally dealing with the issue of missiles.


The only multilateral rules applying to missiles are measures of transparency such as the United Nations Registry on the transfer of conventional weapons of 1991 which requires states to inform the UN on the transfers of their main offensive conventional weapons, including missiles. The Register is a purely informative tool that is irregularly implemented by members of the international community.

The 2002 Hague Code of conduct (HCOC) adopted by 140 countries, belongs to the category of confidence building measures in the missile field. It only refers to ballistic missiles, either military or civil. It provides for measures such as pre-launch notifications, annual declarations and warning of missile launches. It does not address cruise missiles and hypersonic vehicles and its implementation is rather lax.


The most significant results in the missile field were achieved in countering missile proliferation. As early as in 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, considered a pillar of international peace and security, while only relating to nuclear energy and weapons mentioned in its preamble the objective of the “elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery”. This concept was reiterated in 1995 on the occasion of the NPT Review and Extension Conference at the historical moment in which this treaty was extended indefinitely. A resolution on the Middle East was simultaneously approved indicating the objective of establishing a Zone free of weapons of mass destruction including their “delivery systems”.


An early expression of the link between weapons of mass destruction and their delivery means and an instrument to prevent missile proliferation was the establishment in 1987 of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). This plurilateral arrangement originally formed by Western countries but subsequently joined by Russia and by other major players such as South Africa, Brazil and India, established an export control regime voluntarily accepted by 35 likeminded countries. Its guidelines seek to “limit the risks of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by controlling transfers that could make a contribution to delivery systems for such weapons”. The accomplishments and experience acquired by the MTCR during over three decades have made its guidelines a generally accepted criterion to counter the dissemination of missiles, their components, materials and even their technology. By subjecting to licensing and eventually denying the export of missiles capable to deliver weapons of mass destruction, the MTCR has become a valid instrument to prevent and curb missile proliferation.


In 2003 the comprehensive concept, placing weapons and their delivery means in the same basket, was also adopted by European Union in its Strategy against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which remains -to this day - at the heart of EU’s efforts in the field of non - proliferation.


A year later, in 2004, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1540 which is today the principal UN document establishing not only a direct link between nuclear weapons and their delivery means but also acknowledging, for the first time, the principle that their proliferation constitutes a threat to international peace and security. This controversial resolution was adopted under Chapter 7 of the UN charter and is therefore considered legally binding. Moreover it contains a definition of the term “means of delivery”, not found in other texts, namely “missiles, rockets and other unmanned systems capable of delivering nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, that are specially designed for such use”.


In addition to UNSC Resolution 1540, other resolutions by the same UN body, imposing ad hoc sanctions to countries having acquired or tried to acquire nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, refer to missiles and are legally binding. A case in point was Iraq. Missiles were part and parcel of the list of weapons subject to verification and eventual destruction by the two UN mechanisms, UNSCOM and UNMOVIC established by the UN Security Council to deal with the Iraq's weapons programs under Saddam Hussein. The sanctioning resolutions of the Security Council against Iran and North Korea also envisage specific measures to counter their missile activities. However, the subsequent 2015 controversial JCPOA arrangement on the Iranian nuclear issue contains no reference to missiles.


A new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) entered into force this year. It is a significant step forward on the nuclear disarmament process as it establishes for the first time the illegality of nuclear weapons. It does not contain references to missiles or other delivery means probably due to the assumption that with the disappearance of nuclear weapons the problem of their delivery means would also disappear. However, until the states possessing nuclear weapons do not adhere to the TPNW treaty the issue of nuclear weapons will remain as an open wound. So far, none of the nuclear weapons states has expressed the intention of joining the TPNW. On the contrary, some have expressly stated that they will never do so. Recently the United Kingdom has defiantly announced an increase of its nuclear warheads reversing a previous commitment to reduce them. The principal goal that TPNW members and NGOs supporting the Treaty must pursue will be to convince nuclear states to adhere to this treaty. This campaign cannot only aim at influencing the more open and easily approachable Western countries but also to reach less accommodating authoritarian regimes. Without the participation of nuclear states, be they NPT members or not, the TPNW will lose most of its meaning.


While pursuing this objective, the international community cannot remain idle. Many additional paths can be followed to reach the objective of nuclear disarmament whilepromoting the TPNW: bilateral, multilateral, plurilateral, humanitarian, ethical, environmentaland even doctrinal. Approaching nuclear disarmament through the control, reduction and prohibition of delivery means - and in particular missiles - is one of them.




Carlo Trezza

was Italy’s Ambassador for Disarmament in Geneva. He also served as Ambassador to Korea and chaired the Conference on Disarmament, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board for Disarmament Affairs.



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