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This is the second part of a story that ran on August 16.

For many experts in weapons proliferation, cruise missiles are the most disturbing threat today.

Hezbollah’s recent use of an Iranian variant of the Chinese “Silkworm” C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile against an Israeli warship illustrates the larger trend. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the first Gulf War demonstrated America’s unparalleled global power, which flowed, in part, from possession of a new class of weapons with near-surgical accuracy at great distances. Fifteen years later, another shift in the balance of global military power is occurring as missile technology–particularly, the cruise missile technology that was a hallmark feature of U.S. military supremacy–is being democratized.

Cruise missiles can be as sophisticated as the American AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile and its W80 nuclear warhead–which can strike targets 3,000 kilometers away, using guidance systems that hug satellite-mapped terrain–or as simple as small, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) built from commercially-available kits. The German World War II-era V-1 “buzz bomb” even meets the definition of a cruise missile: an unmanned self-propelled guided aircraft that uses aerodynamic lift to deliver a payload to a target. Still, as Owen Cote, associate director of MIT’s Security Studies Program, explains: “Antiship cruise missiles only need a relatively simple inertial navigation system and a radar return from their target, which is within the area the missile is launched at.” Consequently, antiship cruise missile systems, being simpler and often shorter range, are generally the first kind of cruise missile acquired by states or organizations, such as Hezbollah.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary nonproliferation agreement involving 34 countries and supposedly limiting export of unmanned systems that can deliver weapons of mass destruction, defines a antiship cruise missile as having a range of less than 300 kilometers. A cruise missile is a Category II item–meaning, essentially, that it may be exported by any company that manufactures it. (Category I severely limits exports of ballistic missile systems, space-launch vehicles, and land-attack cruise missile systems.) Given that antiship cruise missiles can be converted to land-attack systems, the MTCR is a particularly leaky sieve. But American actions have also inadvertently helped spread the technology. In 1998, when the Clinton administration launched 75 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Osama bin Laden’s bases in response to al Qaeda’s bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, six of the missiles misfired and landed across the border in Pakistan. It has long been suspected that these unexploded missiles were studied by Pakistani and Chinese scientists. Ted Postol, a professor of science, technology, and international security at MIT, confirms this: “A Pakistani colleague of mine told me that a significant number of those missiles that we launched at Afghanistan actually landed in Pakistan and those guys reverse-engineered them.”

The propulsion system of the Babur missile that Pakistan tested in 2005 definitely resembles that of the BGM-109 Tomahawk. After an initial launch by a solid-fuel booster, a cruise turbo fan engine cuts in, giving the Babur a speed of 880 kilometers per hour and a range of 500 kilometers. That Chinese assistance was a factor in developing the Babur’s GPS- and INS-based guidance system is supported by its resemblance to the Chinese YJ-62 antiship cruise missile and the family resemblance of both missiles to the Tomahawk.


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