The spectacles of the Syrian Scud missile launches, the recent North Korean ballistic missile test, and the relative success of the Iron Dome rocket intercept system have combined to thrust ballistic missiles back into the international spotlight. Cooperation between North Korea and Iran has become a great concern, especially with the relative success of North Korea’s latest launch. Syrian missile use has raised fears that Assad’s government might take further escalatory steps, such as using chemical weapons. These efforts have highlighted ongoing multilateral and domestic steps to manage ballistic missile proliferation, and particularly to stop “problem” states from further developing their missile capabilities. This attention has elevated ballistic missiles to the illicit plateau normally inhabited by chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. It is unclear, however, that ballistic missiles deserve this attention; the historical record of ballistic missile effectiveness is mixed at best.
In 1944 and 1945, Germany struck the United Kingdom with 1,402 V-2 ballistic missiles, killing upwards of 2,700 British soldiers and civilians. While terrifying, the V-2s killed only a small fraction of the total from the London Blitz (some 40,000) or from the Combined Bomber Offensive (which the U.S. Air Force itself estimated in 1945 as having killed 300,000 German civilians and wounded over 700,000 others). During the various “War of the Cities” phases of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq launched over 500 ballistic missiles at Iran (some armed with chemical warheads), which responded with, by some estimates, 600 of its own. The strategic effect of these attacks was limited; civilians were terrified — 2,000 Iranians were killed from missile attacks with another 6,000 injured — but there is little evidence that either campaign was decisive in ending the war. Iraq launched Scuds at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War, but failed to seriously damage U.S. forces or drag Israel into the conflict. In the waning days of the Libyan Civil War, government forces launched a Scud missile against rebel positions, to no apparent effect.
Most recently, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have launched a series of ballistic missile strikes on rebel-controlled parts of the country. The impact of these strikes remains unclear, but they quickly earned the condemnation of the international community.