Controlling ballistic missile proliferation

Assessing complementarity between the HCoC, MTCR and UNSCR 1540


The Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, the Missile Technology Control Regime and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 each contribute to the international regime for the nonproliferation of ballistic missiles. The three instruments aim at controlling both horizontal and vertical proliferation. However, the complementarity of the three instruments in fulfilling their roles in supply-side and demand-side non-proliferation, particularly in the areas of export controls and transparency and confidencebuilding measures, has not been sufficiently explored.

Several gaps remain in the universalisation and acceptance of the instruments, their coverage, and the comprehensiveness of the standards they establish, which limits their degree of complementarity. The three instruments should strengthen the implementation of their provisions, institutional linkages and improve their interactions. Cross-cutting themes and challenges, such as hypersonic missiles, could help demonstrate convergences, complementarity and avenues for cooperation and synergies.

JUNE 2020 

Kolja Brockmann














‘The Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (Hague Code of Conduct, HCoC), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 are three key nonproliferation instruments that seek to address the challenges posed by missile proliferation.’

The international missile nonproliferation regime is in a dire state. The acquisition of missiles and the required technology by more states and nonstate groups which did not previously have themcommonly referred to as horizontal proliferationcontinues. At the same time, most missile possessor states practice vertical proliferation, which describes the quantitative expansion or modernisation of arsenals and the development of new missile types.1 In particular, the acquisition of increasingly sophisticated missiles by a growing number of states and nonstate actors in several regions of the world, as well as the development of new missile technologies and the modernisation of existing stockpiles by major powers, creates uncertainty and fuels regional and international instability. At least 31 states have acquired ballistic missiles, at least 12 possess space launch capabilities and many more supply components and technology towards ballistic missile and space launch programmes.2 Several nonstate actors have acquired missiles, as recent uses of missiles in Yemen and against Saudi Arabia have demonstrated.3 Iranian and North Korean missile developments continue despite the imposition of severe sanctions regimes. The demise of the Intermediaterange Nuclear Forces (INF) Treatywhich banned an entire class of missilesremoved restrictions on arsenals of the United States of America (USA), the Russian Federation (Russia) and several other Soviet successor states, spurring fears of new military buildups in Europe and other regions.4 In addition, Russia, the USA, the People’s Republic of China (China) and several other states, including France, are undertaking the development of hypersonic missile technology, creating perceptions of new vulnerabilities.5 These developments increase related potentially destabilising activities, including the use of missiles in ongoing conflicts, the frequency of missile flight ests, a potential widening of the use spectrum of missiles, nuclear and conventional entanglement and the demand for and in turn proliferation of missile technology. In light of these developments and in the absence of a strong norm or treaty banning or regulating all or certain types of missiles, strengthening the existing nonproliferation architecture and its remaining instruments is ever more important.

The Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (Hague Code of Conduct, HCoC), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 are three key nonproliferation instruments that seek to address the challenges posed by missile proliferation. The MTCR and UNSCR 1540 are export control instruments that provide a framework for creating standards and control measures for the trade in missile systems and relevant goods and technologies. They are however often only considered for their roles in enabling technology denial, while their other roles such as creating transparency among supplier states, including on licence denials and detected procurement attempts and diversion, are often neglected. The HCoC is the only multilateral agreement covering missiles open to all states, but it is frequently criticised for its limited scope and effectiveness. By fulfilling its role as a transparency and confidencebuilding instrument that commits states to responsible conduct and information sharing, it nonetheless seeks to ease tensions and perceptions of insecurity and help states refrain from destabilising arms races. As the only demandside nonproliferation instrument for missiles, it occupies a key position in the current missile nonproliferation architecturedespite its weaknesses.6

Through their different functions, each of these three instruments serves to address both horizontal and vertical proliferation of ballistic missiles, mainly by strengthening export controls and implementing transparency and confidencebuilding measures. However, their complementarity remains poorly explored. At a time of severe crisis in traditional arms control approaches, there is a need for more in depth consideration of these three instruments’ respective contributions to missile nonproliferation.7 This paper therefore explores to what extent HCoC, MTCR, and UNSCR 1540 are complementary in addressing both horizontal and vertical proliferation of ballistic missiles by means of export controls and transparency and confidencebuilding measures.

The paper mainly focuses on ballistic missiles, rather than on all types of missile systems. A ballistic missile is understood to be an ‘unmanned, actively guided, rocketpropelled vehicle that can be fired […] along a ballistic (or parabolic) trajectory.’8  Ballistic missiles remain the delivery system of choice for nuclear weapons and they are also associated with the delivery of chemical and biological weapons. As such, ballistic missile proliferation is intrinsically linked to the threat posed by chemical, biological and nuclear (CBN) weapons to international peace and security. The entanglement of modern conventionally armed ballistic missiles and those carrying CBN weapons—in the absence of arms control agreements creating the necessary transparency, for example through mutual access and inspections—further contributes to crisis instability and increases miscalculation risks.9 The limited ability to defend against ballistic missiles, even for those states with advanced missile defence systems, increases states’ perception of ulnerability, often resulting in potentially destabilising arms build-ups. There is also a ‘dual-use dilemma’ affecting missile technology. Similar technologies are employed both in ballistic missiles and in civilian space launch rockets. States’ right to acquire technology for the latter purpose in order to exercise their rights to the peaceful uses of outer space is explicitly permitted in relevant international treaties. As such, it is more difficult to distinguish legitimate trade and technology transfers from those fuelling a weapons programme. For this reason, the HCoC also seeks to address states’ space launch capabilities and policies. While cruise missiles are associated with some of the same risks as ballistic missiles, they are currently not covered by the HCoC.10 The reasons for this, and the need for an expansion of the coverage of the HCoC to include cruise missiles has been discussed by other authors and is beyond the scope of this paper.11

First, this paper outlines the existing non-proliferation architecture on ballistic missiles by discussing the origins and scope of the HCoC, MTCR and UNSCR 1540. The second part of the paper analyses the roles of the three instruments in seeking to address both horizontal and vertical proliferation of ballistic missiles by means of export controls and transparency and confidence building. It further discusses their complementarity and interactions in fulfilling these roles. Then, it develops recommendations on strengthening the HCoC, MTCR and UNSCR 1540, improving complementarity and enhancing their cooperation. Finally, it briefly draws conclusions on the complementarity of HCoC, MTCR and UNSCR 1540 as tools for ballistic missile non-proliferation. […]

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1 Victor Sidel, ‘Vertical nuclear proliferation,’ Medicine, Conflict and Survival, vol. 23, no. 4, 2007, p. 250.

2 Kelsey Davenport, ‘Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories’, Arms Control Association Fact Sheets, December 2017, <>.

3 Jean Masson, ‘Les missiles des Houthis: prolifération balistique et groupes armés non-étatiques’ [The Houthis’ missiles: ballistic missile proliferation and armed non-state groups], Recherches & Documents, no. 11/2018, FRS, December 2018.

4 On the demise of the INF treaty, see Ian Anthony, ‘European Security after the INF Treaty,’ Survival, vol. 59, no. 6, December 2017/January 2018, pp. 61-76; Ulrich Kühn, ‘Between a rock and a hard place: Europe in a post-INF world,’ The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 26, nos. 1-2, 2019, pp. 155-166.

5 Douglas Barrie, ‘Unstable at speed: hypersonics and arms control,’ Military Balance Blog, IISS, 18th October 2019.

6 Mark Smith, ‘The HCoC: Current challenges and future possibilities,’ HCoC Research Papers, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6–7. 

7 Łukasz Kulesa, ‘The crisis of nuclear arms control and its impact on European security,’ Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Paper, EUNPDC, no. 66, January 2020.  

8 Aaron Karp, Ballistic Missile Proliferation: The Politics and Technics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, p. 4.

9 Stéphane Delory, ‘Ballistic missiles and conventional strike weapons: Adapting the HCoC to address the dissemination of conventional ballistic missiles,’ HCoC Research Papers, no. 6, January 2020; Ulrich Kühn, op. cit. 

10 Mark Smith, op.cit.    

11 See e.g. Stéphane Delory, Emmanuelle Maitre, and Jean Masson, ‘Opening HCoC to cruise missiles: A proposal to overcome political hurdles,’ HCOC Research Paper, no. 5, February 2019; Dennis Gormley, Missile Contagion: Cruise Missile Proliferation and the Threat to International Security, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2010.

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