Stanford University News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Aircraft threat equally serious as ballistic missiles, researchers conclude

STANFORD -- Which is more dangerous to Western powers in the hands of developing nations: a ballistic missile or a modern ground-strike combat airplane?

Conventional wisdom has held that advanced strike aircraft are less dangerous or less destabilizing in regional conflict than ballistic missiles.

That has led to a situation, a new Stanford University study indicates, in which the United States and Western European countries attempt to control rigorously the transfer of ballistic missile systems, yet have done little to curb the sales of modern ground-strike combat aircraft.

In "Assessing Ballistic Missile Proliferation and Its Control," John Harvey of Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control and his co-authors argue that modern combat ground-strike aircraft present an equally serious threat to regional stability. The arms export control policies of the major powers must be reassessed, and perhaps revised, in light of this fact, they say.

Principal authors of the report were Harvey, John Barker, Michael Elleman and Uzi Rubin. Harvey and Rubin co-chaired the study group that included 13 scholars affiliated with the center.

The 178-page report is indicative of how the center's research has evolved along with world events. For years, the center was most closely associated with the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust involving the superpowers.

Focus on missiles

Harvey notes that world attention, particularly since the Persian Gulf war, has been focused on the acquisition by developing countries of ballistic missile systems, such as the Scud B missile used by Iraq during the Desert Storm war and the protracted 1980s war with Iran.

"These systems are becoming increasingly prominent in Third World arsenals, and are perceived as threatening stability and regional military balances," the Stanford report states.

While Western powers attempt to control proliferation through such mechanisms as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), he noted, the same countries continue to sell modern ground-strike combat aircraft to developing nations.

The United States has sold F-14s to Iran, F-15s to Israel and Saudi Arabia; F-16s to Pakistan, Egypt, Israel and South Korea; and F-18s to Kuwait. The Soviet Union has supplied Tu-16 "Badger" and Tu-22 "Blinder" bombers to Iraq, and Su-24 ground attack aircraft to Libya and Iraq (and, it has just been learned, possibly to Iran as well). France and the United Kingdom also have strong Third World aircraft markets.

Harvey said that many scholars fear the deteriorating economy in what was the Soviet Union may provide an "incentive" for the republics to sell arms even more indiscriminately.

The justification for continued aircraft sales, the study found, was the "widely held belief" that those planes are less dangerous than, for instance, Scud missiles.

"On the contrary, our study shows that modern combat aircraft are, indeed, very capable and cost-effective alternatives to ballistic missiles for ground-strike missions," the report states.

"The impact of missile proliferation on regional security is not as great as some have portrayed," the group found.

In addition to examining the military effectiveness of ballistic missiles in comparison with advanced strike aircraft, the Stanford report 1) identifies trends in the supply of, and demand for, ballistic missiles, 2) identifies key technologies and systems whose control is essential to a successful missile non- proliferation regime, 3) reviews the relevance and effectiveness of present control mechanisms, and 4) offers policy options for strengthening controls on the proliferation of longer-range ground-strike delivery systems, including ballistic missiles and advanced combat aircraft.

Policy recommendations

Concluding that "the issue of concern is not ballistic- missile proliferation itself but the acquisition of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, including delivery vehicles of sufficient range, by irresponsible states," the researchers offered a number of policy recommendations:

  • The United States should encourage any state willing to adhere to MTCR provisions to be embraced and included in the regime, but intense diplomatic efforts should not be expended in pursuing additional members. It would be more productive, Harvey writes, for the United States to "quietly engage key suppliers" in bilateral agreements or understandings not to transfer certain types of weapons to certain states.
  • The MTCR adherents should expand their criteria to include shorter-range missiles than at present. The MTCR guidelines apply to systems that can deliver a 500-kilogram or larger warhead to a range greater than 300 kilometers. Given the close proximity of, for example, Syria and Israel, systems that can deliver warheads over a shorter distance need to be addressed.
  • The United States should explore bringing export controls on ballistic missiles and strike-aircraft systems and technologies more into balance. It is insufficient to focus on new aircraft platforms, the researchers note; modern technologies in such areas as advanced navigation, targeting and electronic countermeasure systems "can transform earlier-generation aircraft into modern and effective strike systems."
  • Export control efforts should focus on certain key missile- unique technologies and resources. "In controlling the missile trade, it is more important to restrain transfer of missile 'turnkey' production facilities, associated licensing rights, and component production technologies than [to control] transfers of missiles themselves."
  • Rigid and global controls on dual-use items (those that have both civilian and military applications) are unnecessary. For responsible states that have renounced nuclear weapons programs, the presumption should be in favor of transfers of such items, including space-launch systems or component technologies.
  • The MTCR should not be further codified in national legislation. "The disadvantage of dramatically reducing U.S. flexibility in applying controls outweighs the positive benefits of legislation," the researchers concluded.
  • In addition to supplier controls, the United States should examine approaches for reducing demand for missile systems and other advanced delivery vehicles.
  • And, "most importantly," the United States "must continue to take a leadership role in helping to advance diplomatic and political solutions to ongoing conflicts in various regions, including the Middle East, South Asia, and the Korean peninsula.

"Above all else, the generation of a secure and stable regional peace will be achieved via negotiated agreements respecting international borders, arms control that includes all advanced weapons systems rather than just missiles, confidence- building measures, and security cooperation and guarantees."



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.