Thu, 25 Aug 1994

Nuclear missiles easier to control than nuclear bombs

By Jonathan Power

LONDON (JP): Five years ago the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report in which it commented on the unannounced discovery the year before by the CIA that China had supplied Saudi Arabia with 50 or 60 second hand missiles with a range of 2,200 kilometers.

"Missiles of such a range", it observed "are difficult to justify unless they carry nuclear weapons." These long range missiles were too expensive and too elaborate to make sense for anything else. Controllable thrust engines, inertial guidance systems and heat shielding put up the cost to astronomical levels.

This report was a moment of honesty in the western arms control industry which had long tended to bite its tongue on what Saudi Arabia was up to -- partly because western policy had been to give the Saudis the benefit of any doubt and partly it appeared that there was no way the Saudis could acquire nuclear warheads even if they wanted them.

Now the New York Times' Paul Lewis has broken the story of the former number two in the Saudi mission to the UN, Muhammad Khilewi, in 1989 Saudi Arabia apparently tried to buy a nuclear research reactor from China and from an American company as part of a secret effort to develop nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia also, Khilewi says, contributed about US$5 billion to Iraq's covert nuclear program before relations were broken after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

For reasons unclear the Saudis never realized their ambition. If they had we could well have seen nuclear war in the Middle East. Even as it was, Israel was nervous enough in 1988 to warn the Saudis that it would engage in a preemptive strike if it ever had cause for suspicion that the missiles would be used against it. Some observers were convinced that only U.S. pressure stayed the Israeli hand in the very nervous March and April of 1988. One can be excused, perhaps, for overlooking this slice of history in the changed circumstances of post Gulf War and post Israeli-PLO reconciliation. At the time, however, it really was a dice with death.

Imagine if the break-up of the Soviet Union had happened a few years earlier and the nuclear fissile material now turning up in Germany in the black market had been available to a purchaser like Saudi Arabia. But now we have to seriously worry who it is going to, probably Iran and Libya. The recent seizure at Munich airport was part of a deal large enough to make a half a bomb.

Policing the ex-Soviet Union's nuclear industry is now a nightmare enough for Chancellor Helmut Kohl to break off his annual holiday in Austria and return home. The genie is now so far out of the bottle that it will take a Herculean effort by both the West and Russia to set it back under control and even that may not be enough.

Meanwhile an equal effort should be applied to controlling the spread of missiles that could deliver a bomb on target. This is both more doable and more relevant. The development of missiles can be controlled more expeditiously than bomb building because the technology of an accurate missile is much more demanding than that for building a bomb. (If accurate, they remain the only sure delivery system because of their ability to penetrate air defenses).

Yet the focus of attention on the proliferation of missile technology is less than adequate. Back in 1987 the U.S., the UK, Canada, West Germany, France and Italy established the so-called "Missile Technology Control Regime" in an attempt to place constraints on the exports of missiles and missile components. Over twenty other states have now signed on, but it remains an weak instrument. China, for example, when taken to task for selling missile components to Pakistan replied that the particular components did not fall within the strictures of the regime. The regime has had somewhat more success with Russia. Washington threatened to impose sanctions against a Russian company unless it halted the transfer of cryogenic rocket engines to the Indian space agency. In return Washington offered to cooperate with Moscow on space ventures.

All in all, however, the regime does not get the political attention that is necessary -- of the kind that used to be given routinely to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) negotiations.

It is time for another look at ZBM. In a landmark article in the January 1992 issue of Foreign Policy; Alton Frye, the Washington director of the Council on Foreign Relations, spelt out the case for Zero Ballistic Missiles. He won the support of long-time hawks like Richard Perle and Paul Nitze. ZBM would be universal and therefore more easily enforceable since if the big powers gave up their missiles the new comers would have little justification, less incentive and less political tolerance to build their own missiles.

An anti-rocket regime would be much easier to enforce than the now threatened Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Unlike bomb- builders, it is impossible to be a missile power in secret. An international regime with a ban on flight tests could be the most enforceable of all arms control treaties.