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Cruise missiles: the 'poor man's air force': Bryan Dorn warns that it will be difficult to prevent proliferation of these dangerous weapons.

While the United States concentrates upon the emerging ballistic missile threat from North Korea and Iran to justify its construction of the ground-based midcourse defence, adversaries are constructing cruise missiles to avoid interception and to strike US strategic targets. This article will analyse the emergence of the cruise missile threat and the current inability of the missile technology control regime (MTCR) to halt the proliferation of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The threat from ballistic missiles has dominated US security concerns and non-proliferation efforts. Cruise missiles do not require sophisticated technology for production. As a result, the development of land-attack cruise missiles by hostile regional powers is now considered a significant security threat. The proliferation of military related technologies makes restriction of cruise missiles a more difficult task than restraining ballistic missiles. Furthermore, US military dominance in conventional forms of warfare, such as airpower, means states are abandoning their ambitions to compete against the United States in all forms of warfare and concentrating on cruise missiles for power projection. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz stated:
   It is clear that potential adversaries
   will pursue any means they can
   to exploit the vulnerabilities of a
   free society ... And they most certainly

   will seek to exploit our near
   total vulnerability to ballistic missile
   and cruise missile attack. (1)

Numerous advantages

Remarkably, 70 countries, 40 of them in the Third World, possess 75,000 anti-ship cruise missiles with a range greater than 100 kilometres. (2) Cruise missiles offer numerous advantages over ballistic missiles. For example, they are less susceptible to counterforce targeting, do not require stable launch sites and are more effective at dispersing chemical and biological agents. Export controls on accurate guidance systems have been successful in halting the development of cruise missiles. However, the use of cruise missile technology for civilian and military purposes has aided cruise missile proliferation. The technology required for civilian aircraft can be used for cruise missiles. During 1991, the US National Academy of Sciences argued that the aircraft industry had 'negative implications for control by any single nation of the export of production technology'. (3) A report by the US Congressional Research Service warned:
   In contrast to ballistic missile proliferation,
   cruise missiles present
   a particular challenge for monitoring
   and control because they exploit
   technology that is well understood
   and well established in the
   civil aviation industry. Missile
   airframes, navigation systems, jet
   engines, satellite maps, and mission
   planning computers and software
   all can be purchased on the
   commercial market. Cruise missile
   technology 'hides in plain sight'--making
   it difficult to identify a military
   program. At the same time,
   commercial availability generally
   means relatively low-cost weapons
   for many nations and, potentially,
   non-state actors. (4)

The widespread availability of anti-ship cruise missile or unmanned aerial vehicles could provide the building blocks for a land-attack cruise missile. The Chinese derived anti-ship cruise missile Silkworm can be easily modified to have a range greater than 300 kilometres. The Silkworm costs less than a Scud ballistic missile, US $250,000 compared to US$500,000$1 million. Iran and North Korea, both states of concern, have developed variants of the Silkworm and begun development of more advanced cruise missiles. 'China's Hong Niao family of cruise missiles is armed with both nuclear and conventional warheads, with ranges up to 1500-2000 kilometres (in the case of the HN-2, which entered service in 1996) and 4000 kilometres (in the case of the HN-2000, a supersonic version which is currently in development)'. (5)

The failure to uphold the MTCR has fuelled the proliferation of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. This is exemplified by the recent agreement between India and Russia for co-development of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, capable of striking targets 300 kilometres distant with a 200-kilogram payload. (6) Israel has expanded development of unmanned aerial vehicles, deployed the Popeye air-launched land attack cruise missile, and developed a nuclear-armed submarine launched cruise missile. Iran has also acquired cruise missile technology, most likely from China and Russia.

Strategic implications

Cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles are also ideal vehicles for delivering chemical and biological agents. The stable flight pattern of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles increases their lethal area by a factor of ten in comparison to ballistic missiles. It is for this reason that unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles have gained increasing attention by 'rogue states' and terrorist organisations. (7) One report indicated that 40 countries produce 600 different unmanned aerial vehicles, 80 per cent of which have a range greater than 300 kilometres. (8)

'Rogue states' armed with cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and ballistic missiles could represent a significant deterrent against US intervention. The earth-hugging characteristics of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles reduce detection by groundbased radars. A coordination of attacks involving cruise and ballistic missiles could easily overwhelm defensive systems. Land attack cruise missiles are highly accurate, suggesting that even a conventionally armed missile could strike significant targets, such as airfields. Cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, as previously discussed, are relatively inexpensive. For example, each Patriot PAC-3 missile costs US$2-5 million, compared to US$200,000 for a land attack cruise missile or US $50,000 for a kit aircraft adapted to become an unmanned aerial vehicle. (9) There are limited options available to defend against such an elusive attack. The moderate technical hurdles associated with development of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, difficulty in defending against such weapons, complemented by their relatively inexpensive development in comparison to the cost of defence measures, make cruise missiles a potentially greater threat than ballistic missiles. There appears no easy or affordable technological solution to return the initiative to the defender.

Furthermore, ballistic missiles require substantial resources and flight-testing for development. During this phase the intelligence community can ascertain the emergence of a ballistic missile threat. However, the ready availability of cruise missile technology makes predicting its emergence as a threat and deployment by so-called 'rogue states' more difficult to determine. Cruise missiles are also easier to modify than ballistic missiles, providing increased accuracy and stealth features with little effort.

Significant implications

Land attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles have significant strategic implications for US homeland defence. US National Intelligence Estimates have warned of the possible conversion of a container ship into a launching pad for a cruise missile. They argue that because cruise missiles are cheaper, easier to acquire, and more reliable than ICBMS, such a strike is more conceivable than a ballistic missile attack.

The effectiveness of US theatre missile defence and the growing threat of cruise missiles were tested during the 2003 deployment to the Persian Gulf. While the US Patriot missile defence system was successful in intercepting all nine of Iraq's ballistic missiles, four or five Iraqi cruise missiles were either undetected or not intercepted. (10) The failure to incorporate Patriot with airborne warning systems reduces the prospect of detecting incoming cruise missiles. The Chief of Staff of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command stated in reference to Iraq's cruise missiles, 'this was glimpse of future threats. It is a poor man's air force. A thinking enemy will use uncommon means such as cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles on multiple fronts'. (11) The above report acknowledged that 'continued [cruise missile] attacks may have forced us to change our tactics'. It was also added that 'the ability of these older cruise missiles to penetrate friendly airspace and reach their targets should serve as a warning ... that the emerging cruise missile threat must be addressed'. (12)

Control regime

The missile technology control regime provides one means to control the proliferation of missile technology. It places heavy restraint upon missiles that carry a 500-kilogram warhead greater than 300 kilometres. Inadequate pressure is placed upon MTCR participants to refrain from supplying cruise missiles. While the regime has enjoyed some success in restricting the proliferation of ballistic missiles, as exemplified by Argentina's dismantlement of its Condor ballistic missile programme, it has failed to halt the spread of unmanned aerial vehicle and land attack cruise missile technology. Determining which cruise missile and unmanned aerial vehicle technologies to restrict was a difficult process.

Imposing restrictions on the export of complete cruise-missile systems and unmanned aerial vehicles has proved a daunting task. States intent on acquiring a cruise missile could purchase one directly from China, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. These nations have exported unmanned aerial vehicles and anti-ship cruise missiles to more than 40 nations. (13) For example, France has developed the 520-kilogram warhead Apache stealth cruise missile that is capable of exceeding the MTCR 300-kilometre limit. The Apache would provide hostile states with a formidable weapon. (14) Israel and China are developing a 400-kilometre-range Delilah unmanned aerial vehicle. China is also developing land-attack cruise missiles for theatre and strategic attack. Beijing's continued export of missile technology places the MTCR under considerable stress. India and Pakistan have also begun development of their own unmanned aerial vehicles that could have significant strategic consequences. India has exported the Lakshya unmanned target drone to Israel. Israel, in tuna, has supplied New Delhi with two Heron long-range reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles. (15)

Difficult problem

Determining whether a cruise missile exceeds the range necessary to justify export restraints is difficult. For example, cruise missiles can be deployed from the ground or via air platforms. A September 2002 announcement at the Warsaw MTCR plenary indicated that cruise missiles would be given the same range-maximising principle as ballistic missiles. Despite the emerging consensus on the need for more stringent measures against cruise missile proliferation within the MTCR, numerous states continue to export cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicle technology, neutralising any improvements in the MTCR. As indicated earlier, Russia's co-development of the Brahmos cruise missile raises serious doubts regarding Moscow's acceptance of the MTCR.

During August 2002, Beijing issued a control list of missile items. In effect this subjected all missile sales to a case-by-case basis. The new control list did not cover missiles with a range greater than 300 kilometres or independent of payload weight. 'Participants in the MTCR added such a provision in 1993 (Category II, Item 19) out of concern that biological and chemical payloads did not require a 500-kilogram payload to produce mass-destruction effects. Chinese intentions regarding land attack cruise missile and unmanned aerial vehicle transfers will therefore remain problematic until China is willing to become a full participant in the regime'. (16)

The ability to convert a legitimate aircraft programme into a cruise missile development system requires strict adherence among the MTCR signatories. The commercial availability of fully autonomous flight-management systems for aircraft reduces the technical hurdles of developing an unmanned aerial vehicle. There are no provisions within the MTCR to restrict the acquisition of these commercial products. The MTCR requires changes to Category II, Item 10 controls on flight management systems. Furthermore, cruise missiles armed with a biological agent do not require a 500-kilogram payload to achieve a strategic effect. The MTCR needs to be prepared to confront new developments in technology and assess the impact of unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be rapidly adapted to carry substantial weapon payloads. The numerous unmanned aerial vehicles capable of exceeding the MTCR 300-kilometre-range threshold requires signatories to 'practice an extraordinary degree of vigilance and informed judgement when specifying which unmanned aerial vehicles should be subject to MTCR controls'. (17)

Numerous advantages

Knowing the background, one can clearly determine the threat that is developing from cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. Cruise missiles offer numerous advantages over ballistic missiles, including less technological difficulties and financial pressure. If equipped with weapons of mass destruction, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles would offer a devastating and elusive delivery system. The failure of the US Patriot system to intercept any Iraqi cruise missiles during the 2003 war indicates the potential strategic and deterrent capability of cruise missiles.

The dual-use nature of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles indicates that it will be difficult to halt proliferation. The commercial availability of missile technology or unmanned aerial vehicles allows regional powers opportunities to acquire weapons capable of striking at targets of strategic significance. The ability of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to avoid detection, and their suitability for the delivery of weapons of mass destruction, increases the strategic impact of such systems. Furthermore, a combination of ballistic and cruise missiles would represent a significant deterrent against US involvement in regional conflicts. (18)

While ballistic missile threats could he negated by an operationally effective theatre missile defence system, failure to defend against cruise missiles could place US access to regional military facilities under threat. As a result, the construction of missile defence to defeat cruise missile attacks is imperative and should receive even greater emphasis than long-range ballistic missile defence. As US General Peay stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee on 19 March 1996, 'we need a highly mobile missile defensive system that can defend dispersed, rapidly moving Army and Marine ground maneuver forces against cruise and short range tactical ballistic missiles'. (19)

Increased range

The deployment of cruise missiles in tandem with ballistic missiles would increase the probability of penetrating US missile defence. A primitive cruise missile and unmanned aerial vehicle force would be able to overwhelm expensive US missile defence systems. As a result, the integration of missile defence with arms control measures is imperative to ensure the military utility of missile defence is not neutralised. As cruise missile specialist Dennis Gormley has stated: 'In the end, hedging against the cruise missile threat depends as much on developing more effective nonproliferation policies as it does on planning for more versatile missile defenses'. (20)

In conclusion, cruise missiles could become the 'poor man's air force'. It could provide 'rogue states' with the ability to strike targets of strategic significance, thus deterring US intervention, without their having to invest substantial resources in aircraft and other systems that are highly vulnerable to US conventional forces.

The cruise missile threat should not negate the strategic value of theatre missile defence, but it indicates that attention should also be focused upon these asymmetrical threats. Failure to do so will result in the United States being confronted with an even greater threat, including both ballistic and cruise missiles.

The Bush administration's concentration upon the 'rogue state' ballistic missile threat means inadequate attention is being devoted to the threat emerging from cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. While the threat from short and intermediate range ballistic missiles needs to be neutralised to allow intervention in regional conflicts, cruise missiles provide an alternative and more effective means of striking US regional allies or strategic military installations. An analysis of the missile technology control regime indicates that while progress has been made, the capability of commercial technology to also perform military functions makes halting cruise missile proliferation difficult.


(1.) John G. Heidenrich and William S. Murray III, 'Under the Radar Screen'? The Cruise Missile Threat to the U.S. Homeland', Comparative Strategy: An International Journal, vol 23 (2004), p.63.

(2.) Dennis M. Gormley, 'Hedging Against the Cruise-Missile Threat', Survival, vol 40, no 1 (1998), p.95.

(3.) Ibid., p.96.

(4.) Heidenrich and Murray, p.65.

(5.) Desmond Ball, Missile Defence. Trends, Concerns and Remedies (Canberra, 2001), Paper prepared for the 15th Asia Pacific Roundtable, Kuala Lumpur, p. 12.

(6.) Dennis Gormley and Richard Speier, 'Controlling Unmanned Air Vehicles: New Challenges', 19 Mar 2003, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (

(7.) Dennis M. Gormley, 'UAVs and Cruise Missiles as Possible Terrorist Weapons', Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Occasional Paper no 12 (2003), p.5.

(8.) Gormley and Speier, op cit.

(9.) Dennis M. Gormley, 'New developments in unmanned air vehicles and land-attack cruise missiles', SIPRI Yearbook 2003: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (London, 2003), p.411.

(10.) Dennis M. Gormley, 'Missile Defence Myopia: Lessons from the Iraq War', Survival, vol 45, no 4 (2003-04), p.61.

(11.) Testimony of Dennis M. Gormley before the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, 9 Mar 2004, Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies (cns.miis. edu).

(12.) Wade Boese, 'Army Report Details Patriot Record in Iraq War', Nov 2003, Arms Control Today (www.

(13.) Gormley, 'Hedging', p.98.

(14.) Ibid., p.99.

(15.) Gormley, 'New developments', p.412.

(16.) Ibid., p.429.

(17.) Ibid., p.431.

(18.) Joel Wuthnow, The Impact of Missile Threats on the Reliability of U.S. Overseas Bases: A Framework for Analysis (Carlisle, 2005).

(19.) Robert Rudney, 'The Contribution of the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) to U.S. PostCold War Strategy', Comparative Strategy, vol 16, no 3 (1997), p.298.

(20.) Dennis M. Gormley, 'North Korean Cruise Missile Tests--and Iraqi Cruise Missile Attacks--Raise Troubling Questions for Missile Defenses', 8 Apr 2003, Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Bryan Dorn has recently completed an MA in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently completing a masters degree in strategic studies. He has also been employed by the New Zealand Army Simulation Centre as a war-game interactor.
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Author:Dorn, Bryan
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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