When nonproliferation is palmed off as disarmament

Non-Proliferation as Disarmament


Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, April 26, 2008


It is the very utility of nuclear weapons that serves as the main proliferation incentive. In the years ahead, it won’t be easy to stop more countries from pursuing nuclear-weapons ambitions if the present nuclear-armed states do not begin to denuke.

Yet, nuclear weapons, as the last U.S. posture review in 2002 stated, will continue to play a “critical role” because they possess “unique properties.” The growing attraction of missiles — which are much cheaper and easier to operate and maintain than manned bomber aircraft — flows from the fact that the attacking nation does not have to bring its forces in harm’s way.

Even as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and terrorism have emerged as the two most pressing issues in international relations, the global strategic environment today is more competitive than ever, with technological advances producing new destructive capacities.


It is against this background that one should examine a joint U.S.-Russia proposal to globalize their 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (the so-called INF Treaty). That proposal raises at least three basic questions:


■ The first issue is whether the U.S. and Russia are seeking to promote non-proliferation or disarmament through their interest in a global treaty outlawing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.


■ The second question is whether such a proposal could actually act as a spur to the development of more deadly weapons by encouraging states to rely completely on long-range systems. Conversely, what is the military or technological logic to make strategic missiles preferable to intermediate-range missiles (IRBMs)?


■ The third question is whether this proposal is an earnest idea, given the new U.S.-Russian tensions over America’s missile-shield plans in Eastern Europe and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 10, 2007, statement that the INF Treaty no longer serves Russian interest. In fact, just four days after Mr. Putin’s statement, the Russian military’s chief of general staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, had warned that Moscow could pull out of the INF Treaty if the U.S. proceeded to install a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.


If the INF Treaty does not mesh with Russian interests today, can Moscow seriously be seeking to globalize it? The proposal was first put forward through a scrappy October 2007 U.S.-Russian joint statement in the UN General Assembly. Earlier this month, the proposal was discussed at a workshop at Reykjavik, Iceland.


            Let us begin with the first question. With disarmament off the international radar screen, the focus of the major powers increasingly has been on more stringent non-proliferation. Too often, we are seeing non-proliferation proposals being speciously packaged as disarmament.


          Historically, technological progress has created the spur to eliminate by bilateral or multilateral treaty a type or class of weapons overtaken by newer discoveries. The Chemical Weapons Convention, for example, became possible only when chemical arms ceased to be militarily relevant for the major powers and instead threatened to become the poor state’s WMD.


         During the Cold War era, the unfettered arms racing, with its action-reaction cycle, led to the build-up of such surplus armaments that many of the weapons in national stockpiles became obsolescent or redundant. That encouraged arms-control efforts from the 1970s.


The INF Treaty was the product of such efforts to slash destabilizing surpluses by eliminating a class of weapons that threatened peace in Europe. Signed during the height of the Reagan-Gorbachev era, the INF Treaty later created misgivings in Moscow, where some saw it as slanted in America’s favour, both in terms of what it did not eliminate on the U.S. side, and the manner in which the American single-warhead Pershing II system got counted as equivalent to every multiple-warhead RSD-10 Pioneer (SS-20) Soviet missile. To be sure, this treaty contained pioneering on-site inspection provisions.


         Tellingly, the INF Treaty was intended not to disturb the most-sophisticated weapon systems held by the two major powers, including long-range missiles and sea- and submarine-launched systems. A globalized INF Treaty, however, would mean decapitation of the nuclear deterrent of India or Israel because neither at present has sophisticated missile assets beyond ground-launched intermediate-range missiles.


            Today, the U.S. and Russian interest in working together to stop the proliferation of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles is understandable, given the potentially adverse consequences of such proliferation for their strategic interests. The spread of missile technology impinges on the capabilities of all the five ICBM-armed major powers (the Permanent Five) to police high seas or to intervene without incurring significant political or military costs.


          Such proliferation concerns are reinforced by the fact that, unlike other weapon systems, missiles, especially cruise missiles, are difficult to defend against. The progressive tightening of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) controls and the inclusion of civilian space and aerospace technologies within their clasp have only made it more difficult to build international consensus against the proliferation of missiles. Now, all delivery systems (other than manned aircraft) are banned for export.


           The MTCR-centred missile non-proliferation regime is actually more inequitable than the NPT due to an absence of any mutuality of obligations between the missile and non-missile states. The MTCR incorporates no commitment on the part of the missile powers — akin to NPT’s Article VI — to work toward complete missile disarmament. Indeed, it facilitates continued missile modernization, with the missile powers now increasingly focusing on advanced submarine-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.


        There are also no international monitoring and verification measures to detect and forestall interstate transfers of missile systems and production technology, as underscored by China’s covert transfers of INF-class M-9s and M-11s to Pakistan and its continuing production assistance to that country.


            The global INF Treaty proposal, in effect, aims to accomplish what the missile non-proliferation regime has failed to thwart. But given that the MTCR remains largely a cartel of supplier states outside the UN framework, the establishment of a globalized INF Treaty before the advent of a global missile non-proliferation regime is like putting the cart before the horse.


            Actually, greater inequities in the international security order risk undermining both nuclear and missile non-proliferation. Concerns are already growing in the developing world that the existing technology controls, through their progressive tightening and extension, are throttling legitimate civilian activities by the “have-nots.”


         These concerns centre on the manner key technologies and sensitive commerce are monopolized by a few. Civil nuclear trade today constitutes the world’s most politically-regulated and cartelized commerce, with a tiny syndicate of state-guided firms controlling all reactor, fuel and component sales — a monopoly sought to be only reinforced by the proposed creation of an international fuel bank.


       At the same time, MTCR controls are constraining civilian space cooperation, even as space assets are becoming critical for meteorology, civil communications, navigation, mapping of underground water resources, national defence and reconnaissance. Current export controls on inertial navigation system (INS) technology for commercial aircraft are just one example of the extension of controls to civilian fields.


            The MTCR guidelines require members-states to consider the “capabilities and objectives of the missile and space programmes of the recipient state” before agreeing to export any item or technology. Since an indigenous space-launch vehicle (SLV) arms its possessor with potential IRBM capability, the civilian space programme of a non-member seeking to independently place satellites in orbit automatically becomes a target of MTCR controls.


Against this background, caution should be exercised in promoting yet another layer of discrimination in the international security rules.


With nuclear disarmament looking a utopian idea, the world faces fundamental challenges relating to the preservation of norms on non-proliferation in an era marked by major shifts in global economic and political power. Such challenges are accentuated by the fact that surpluses from the past arms racing continue to be glaring. Almost two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, America and Russia together still have nearly 25,000 nuclear weapons, including 6,000 long-range weapons on hair-trigger alert.


The growing proliferation and use of missiles does carry serious implications for regional and global security. But a global INF Treaty has to be weighed against some grim realities:


♦ First, missiles have come to symbolize power and coercion in international relations. They are useful not only to achieve military objectives, but also to realize aims through political intimidation and coercion.


♦ Second, there is no international legal structure to control missiles nor any taboo related to their use. While nuclear weapons have not been employed for more than 62 years, missiles have been used with increasing frequency. The role of cruise missiles is growing the fastest. The low-flying, slower cruise missiles, unlike the much-faster ballistic missiles, strike with a high degree of accuracy.


♦ Third, conflicts and interventions since the last decade are a vivid reminder of the high costs of being defenceless against a foe firing missiles and other high-tech, remotely-fired conventional weapons.


♦ Fourth, only nations without the capability to hit back are falling victim to missile strikes. In some cases, such states — as the history of the past two decades testifies — have been targeted as guinea pigs to test out new missile systems or to help correct flaws in existing ones.


♦ Fifth, there is only one effective way to deter missile terror and blackmail — a reliable missile-deterrent capability to ensure a calibrated but proportional response. Without the capacity to effectively strike back with missiles, a state would be vulnerable to the type of blackmail China mounted against Taiwan in 1996 or the kind of missile warfare that has been waged one-sidedly in other theatres.


♦ Sixth, a missile-defence shield is a far more expensive, complex and dubious scheme than a missile deterrent. Such a shield makes sense only for states that are already armed with a robust missile deterrent. Indeed, the institution of missile defences is likely to compel states to build more-sophisticated missiles that can foil defences of any kind, including by arming ballistic missiles with decoys and other countermeasures.


In that light, how realistic is the idea of globalizing the INF Treaty?


Firstly, a global INF Treaty would be a spur to the development of, and reliance on, intercontinental-range weaponry, even when a state’s security threats emanate from the immediate neighbourhood. What may be a proposal to preserve the technological superiority of a few may actually help speed up a challenge to such ascendancy. 


ICBMs are already an idiom of big-power status, playing a primary role in power-projection strategies. But with a global INF Treaty, the attraction of ICBMs would multiply.


Secondly, a global INF Treaty proposal runs counter to Russian threats to renew interest in intermediate-range missile forces if the U.S. installs a missile shield in Eastern Europe.


Would a globalized INF Treaty, as an incentive, sell surplus U.S. and Russian ICBMs to other states in lieu of the shorter-range missiles they eliminate? Such a trade-off might be a good way both to bring down the “overkill” arsenals that the U.S. and Russia still maintain, and to promote international cooperation and peace on the based of shared capabilities.


In the absence of tangible, compensatory incentives, the seriousness of the proposal is open to question. India, for example, has modest deterrent capabilities against a multitude of missile threats that few other countries face. Why would it accept decapitation under a globalized INF Treaty?


To effectively tackle proliferation challenges, the world needs genuine disarmament. However, what a globalized INF Treaty would offer is the reinforcement of the present power and prerogatives of the P-5, armed as they are with intercontinental missile-strike capabilities and other power-projection assets, such as naval forces that patrol far from their shores, instruments of precision strike in the form of cruise missiles, and space-based information systems.


Those who cite hypothetical threats to justify continued WMD modernization should not be seen as seeking to disarm those that confront real threats. A central tenet of international law and the UN Charter is that it is the sovereign right of every nation to defend its security by appropriate means.


Today, it has become more difficult than ever to palm off non-proliferation as disarmament, or to label a cutback of surpluses as disarmament. What the world seeks today are concrete measures that would turn growing concerns about rearmament into new hopes for common security.


(c) Asian Age, 2008

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