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12. New developments in unmanned air vehicles and land-attack cruise missiles



I. Introduction

II. The strategic context

III. Trends in UAV and LACM developments

IV. Implications for non-proliferation policies

V. Conclusions


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While over 75 000 anti-ship cruise missiles are deployed by more than 70 countries worldwide, only about 12 industrialized countries currently produce land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs)— most notably exemplified by the US Tomahawk. However, this class of cruise missile is expected to proliferate widely by the end of the decade. More readily available now is the unmanned air vehicle (UAV), which seems likely to become a significantly more prominent means of precise weapon delivery. The Predator reconnaissance UAV has been adapted by the USA to carry two Hellfire missiles and was used in Afghanistan and Yemen to attack al-Qaeda targets.


The use of armed Predator UAVs by the USA raises important questions about the kind of expanded roles that UAVs may be adapted to perform in the future and, more immediately, to what extent other countries or terrorist groups might emulate US actions and transform their own unarmed UAVs or piloted light aircraft into unmanned weapon-delivery systems or crude terror weapons. UAV and cruise missile proliferation makes an answer to this question urgent.


The arming of the Predator reconnaissance UAV illustrates the potential for UAVs to become reusable weapon-delivery vehicles. Target drones, employed as air targets for test purposes, are also UAVs that could be converted into weapon-delivery vehicles. Given the explosive growth anticipated in UAV systems over the next decade, there will inevitably be increased pressure—led by the USA—to create more flexible, less restrictive, rules governing the export of unarmed UAVs and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). If adverse inter-national security implications are to be avoided, or at least minimized, effective non-proliferation policy must be elevated to a truly complementary role alongside defence acquisition and security planning. Participants of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) have now agreed precise ground rules for calculating the range of LACMs. However, other problems remain regarding the transfer of complete LACMs and large UAVs, as well as critical component technologies.



Because of their capacity to strike with such great precision and effectiveness without causing significant collateral damage, cruise missiles have been called the paradigmatic weapon of the Revolution in Military Affairs. UAVs, unarmed and armed, have started to play crucial companion roles as key instruments of an evolving military transformation in the USA. However, just as much risk as opportunity accompanies the arrival of cruise missiles and UAVs as powerful military instruments. If UAV and LACM proliferation proceeds unimpeded, it could combine with the further spread of ballistic missiles to give multidimensional offensive forces a distinct advantage over layered defences. This would have negative consequences for homeland defence, regional stability and the spread of potent terrorist capabilities. As a consequence, the growing threat of cruise missiles and UAVs underscores the need not just to develop suitable defences but also improved non-proliferation policies.


The non-proliferation problems are challenging. They merit the highest level of attention within affected governments. Because existing MTCR provisions can be adapted to achieve better controls on cruise missiles and UAVs, the MTCR will remain the best tool available to slow the scope and pace of missile proliferation. In considering the merits of various alternatives to the MTCR, the non-proliferation community should recall the MTCR’s many successes in slowing the qualitative spread of ballistic missiles.



Dennis M. Gormley (United States) is a Senior Consultant in the Washington, DC office of the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies. In 2002, he was a Consulting Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He served for 20 years as a Senior Vice President with Pacific–Sierra Research Corporation, heading its east coast operations and serving on its Board of Directors. While in government service he was head of foreign intelligence at the US Army Harry Diamond Laboratories. He is the author of three books, including Dealing with the Threat of Cruise Missiles, Adelphi Paper 339 (Oxford University Press, 2001), as well as numerous articles in academic journals and leading newspapers.