Home Terrorism & Threats Why Nations and Terrorists Seek Robust, Capable Missiles

Why Nations and Terrorists Seek Robust, Capable Missiles

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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

North Korea recently launched three missiles successfully from a submarine. This successful launch represents a marked improvement in North Korean military capabilities.

Shortly after news of the launch went international, a colleague asked me why so many nations – even those with large militaries – pursue robust missile capabilities. North Korea, Iran, China and even some no-state actors are classic examples of why nations and terrorist groups want missiles.

Today’s Missile Designs Originated with World War II’s V2 Rocket

Many missile designs used today by third-world nations, and even missiles sold by China, have their roots in Germany’s V2 rocket. The Nazi regime that ran Germany during World War II used V2 rockets to launch numerous assaults on London. The V2 rockets weren’t the most accurate weapons, but they managed to hit London consistently.

The V2 rockets couldn’t hit specific buildings crucial to the British war effort, but they sufficiently terrorized the British population. Even today, rockets and missiles employed by developing nations aren’t the most accurate of weaponry. But some developers have managed to use rudimentary inertial guidance systems, while others have come to rely on the sheer number of missiles they own.

Other Countries Use Missiles, Less Expensive Technology for Effective Defense

North Korea, Iran and China developed many of their military capabilities in response to the overwhelming United States military machine. While these countries cannot hope to compete directly with United States military capabilities, they rely on asymmetric means instead.

For instance, it’s expensive for these nations to develop many of the products that the U.S. military uses. Instead of keeping pace with the U.S. military, these nations rely on less expensive technologies.

Missiles fill that void, but they also allow for using fewer forward deployed troops or front-line manned systems that are within easy reach of U.S. air or naval fire. As these nations continue to develop anti-access or area denial defenses, missiles en masse will play an important role in coastal defense.

Firing a missile, even a lot of them, is also significantly less expensive than developing and fielding a missile defense system. This fact has not been lost on Russia, either.

Russia is more advanced militarily than North Korea, Iran or China, but that doesn’t stop Russia from being pragmatic. Russia is fully funding supersonic missiles to defeat U.S. missile defense systems in Europe — not just in missile capability, but in sheer numbers as well.

Another advantage gained by having a robust missile defense is the ability for strategic capability with nuclear weapons. North Korea, Iran and China do not possess heavy bombers capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. These countries must rely on land-based missile systems, or in some cases, submarine launches. China has had a nuclear program and a capable delivery system for quite some time, while North Korea only recently joined the nuclear club.

This nuclear readiness is an important distinction between these two countries. North Korea has only just managed to detonate a nuclear device and they do not yet have the capability of delivering it anywhere. North Korea has shown a continued drive over the last few years to develop a reliable missile that can be launched from either land or sea assets.

Iran has cold-tested a nuclear device (they have tested the components without fuel so there was no detonation). However, Iran struggles to develop a reliable missile for delivering a nuclear payload.

The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, declassified by the U.S. government, states that Iran had ceased working on their nuclear program. This stoppage was due in part to threats made by Washington and Israel to bomb the nuclear facilities before Iran could ever get to that point.

Not wanting to tip its hand about its nuclear capabilities, Iran decided to suspend work on their nuclear program until they had a functioning missile delivery system. Iran wanted to develop a weapon that was actually deliverable, so Iran could deter any offensive military action undertaken by Israel or the United States.

Missile Acquisition Vital to Terrorist Groups

Nation-states are not the only ones that seek to possess a robust missile capability. Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas both employ missiles regularly and effectively against Israel. In some cases, these groups developed their missiles and rockets in somebody’s garage.

With increasing support from Iran, both of these terror groups gained access to more capable munitions. For instance, Hezbollah acquired SCUD missiles from Iran. Because the missiles were difficult to transport covertly, Israel destroyed these systems in several airstrikes.

Missile Effectiveness Not Dependent on High Costs

Missiles and even more rudimentary rockets still have a place on today’s battlefield. Not every weapon system needs to be a multi-billion dollar investment to be effective.

Military development of new technologies typically stems from the unique needs of nations pursuing various missile technologies. As missile acquisition and delivery programs continue to develop in North Korea, Iran, China and terrorist groups, the U.S. military and its allies will need to carefully monitor these missile-related activities.

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