With the development of missile systems and technologies, it’s no surprise that more countries aspire to have them — and this leads to proliferation. In the Asia-Pacific region, the situation has become more complex and unstable, with the involvement of three major nuclear powers and other actors.
When the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty expired in August last year, the region entered a new era. Emerging technologies have given states a “post-ballistic” capability that can be deployed and employed in response to conflicts in the regional theater range.
Asia-Pacific missile renaissance
The world has seen an increasingly clear picture of nuclear modernization and missile proliferation. The United States and Russia, which hold most of the nuclear weapons in the world, have recently accelerated the pace of modernizing their arsenals.
In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review of the U.S. and subsequent policy and budget decisions by President Donald Trump, the U.S. abandoned its past promise to stop research and deployment of new kinds of nuclear warheads. It rolled out a low-yield warhead (the W76-2) as a submarine-launched ballistic missile late last year and began to refine a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, the SLCM-N, as another vital component of its comprehensive nuclear modernization.
The Trump administration also tested a ground-based cruise missile in August and ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles in December. The weapons were conventional but could be modified for nuclear capability.
All these are considered effective measures to counter a limited nuclear attack. As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced the country’s plan for new nuclear weapons capabilities in a speech in March 2018. These included a new hypersonic glide vehicle (the Avangard), a new nuclear-powered anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile (the Tsirkon) and a nuclear-powered unmanned underwater delivery vehicle (the Poseidon), which carries a nuclear warhead.
As for China, there are also speculations about the existing or potential scale of its nuclear arsenal. An alleged consensus on the increasing number of China’s land-based and anti-ship cruise missiles or ballistic missiles became one of the excuses for the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty.
In addition, other states have acquired the scientific, technological and industrial capability to produce ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, which undermines any effort to restrain the proliferation of both.
North Korea, India and Pakistan have admitted to possessing nuclear weapons and their intent to use ballistic missiles. North Korea has demonstrated a continental range ballistic missile that can reach at least to the West Coast of America, some 8,000 kilometers distant. India has flight-tested a system with a range of 3,500 to 5,000 kilometers. Pakistan also has intermediate-range ballistic missiles that are able to carry nuclear warheads 2,750 kilometers.
All this reminds us that states will continue developing or acquiring missiles and related technologies despite interdiction, international condemnation, sanctions or efforts to limit them asymmetrically.
Developments in technology
Emerging technologies such as advanced guidance and stealth technology have given more countries missile capability. A new generation of cruise missiles and shorter-range tactical ballistic missiles have greater accuracy, reliability and affordability. Modern cruise missiles can fly at low altitudes below radar coverage, which makes them less visible to radar and thus more difficult to detect. The shorter-range ballistic missiles, with their accuracy measured in dozens of meters, are seen as effective tools for taking out high-value, well-defended targets inside an adversary’s territory.
Such attributes in the new generation of missiles leave a target nation with very limited reaction time. The growing popularity of dual-capability missiles that can be armed with either a conventional or non-conventional warhead could be destabilizing and devastating. The ambiguity of warheads brings about more dangers because of the extremely high cost of uncertainty in a crisis.
In a deteriorated bilateral relationship such as that of the U.S. with China or Russia, any conventional missile test or activity in a disputed region could be perceived as a nuclear decapitation strike by the other. In this way, Beijing’s low-alert nuclear posture could be beneficial in decreasing accidental nuclear risks, as about 1,300 American and Russian warheads are deployed and remain on high alert — a posture known as “launch on warning.” China is believed to have reserve nuclear weapons at central storage facilities. Its retaliatory strike capabilities are based on the principle of “launch under attack.”
Complicating matters are hypersonic vehicles capable of flight speeds of Mach 5 and above that drastically reduce the timelines for any retaliatory response. The further proliferation of hypersonic missiles and related technologies may cause more miscalculations and misperceptions.
Because nuclear-armed cruise missiles could play a role in deterring a regional conflict, and winning it should deterrence fail, a new priority in favor of nuclear-armed cruise missiles has seemed to arise in the military planning of Russia and the United States. Russia has been testing and fielding a new ground-launched cruise missile system since May 2013 that the U.S. said violated the INF Treaty. As for the United States, the Trump administration intended to bring back nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles, as well as ground-launched conventional cruise missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. After the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from the INF Treaty in 2019, it began to accelerate the development of ground-launched cruise missiles and announced a test in August 2019. China, too, has deployed several new models of land-attack and anti-ship conventional cruise missiles whose capabilities the U.S. refers to as “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD).
Dim prospects for control
A worsening global security environment has led to several missile control treaties or agreements being abandoned or facing an uncertain future. The termination of the INF Treaty has been worrisome. The 2010 New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), the only remaining treaty on limiting strategic offensive weapons, is set to expire in February 2021. The U.S. and Russia have negotiated several times about extending it, but uncertainty was added when Washington insisted that Beijing should be involved.
Apart from the bilateral missile control treaties, relevant mechanisms include unilateral export controls, coordinated by exporting states under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the multilateral (but not legally binding and far from universal) Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC). However, there has been no universal norm, treaty or agreement that contains the development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, transfer, deployment or use of missiles. The existing regulations covering missiles are far from sufficient to save the world from a costly, dangerous and potentially deadly arms competition. For concerned and responsible states, now is the time to act; otherwise we will find ourselves in a destabilizing missile-related arms race.
China has offered its own contributions toward the non-proliferation of missiles and their technologies. Because of some political and technological considerations, China has not participated in any of the world’s major export control mechanisms, except for joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2004. But as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear-weapon state, China supports any effort to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles and technologies and has pledged several times to halt missile exports (in 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2000). In August 2002, China released its missile export control regulations and lists that corresponded closely with the MTCR guidelines. Since 2003, China has applied to join in the MTCR but was rejected by the U.S.
From the Chinese perspective, the situation could be improved by the following measures:
First, strengthen and enlarge existing missile-control arrangements. Despite its imperfections, the MTCR — the only existing multilateral rules covering the transfer of missiles and missile-related equipment, material and technology relevant to weapons of mass destruction — has brought a significant degree of order to the task containing the spread of ballistic missiles. The HCOC, an offspring of the MTCR and a useful set of voluntary confidence-building measures, refers only to one category of missiles. These existing instruments should give proper priority to cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles, and even to missile defense.
Second, ensure that the principle of risk-avoidance is accepted, especially by the major nuclear states. It is the responsibility of states with nuclear-tipped missile to ensure that no accident or incident ever happens. The major powers should diminish the role of nuclear weapons in their military doctrines by pledging no preemptive nuclear strike and identifying nuclear weapons as the last resort in defending national security.
The deterioration of major power relationships has increased the possibility of an arms race in missiles. Their negative attitudes toward arms control has become the major barrier to the progress of nonproliferation. Major nuclear powers should take the idea that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought as a common understanding and restrain themselves in developing and deploying nuclear-capable ballistic or cruise missiles.
Last but not least, factors that could increase the risks of an accidental nuclear conflict must be taken into account. With the widespread application of emerging technologies, non-nuclear military facilities and platforms may add difficulty to nuclear decision-making and increase the risks of an accidental nuclear war. China had proposed an agreement on no first use of nuclear weapons in the P5 back in 1994, which could lay the foundation for developing codes of conduct to decrease the risks.