The presence of ballistic missiles makes military crises both more and less likely, according to a new study published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution.
The study, which was conducted by Emory University Professors Simon A. Mettler and Dan Reiter, finds that states armed with ballistic missiles are more likely to initiate military crises against others, and less likely to be the targets of military crises themselves.
As Mettler and Reiter explain it:
“A state with ballistic missiles is 266 percent more likely to initiate a crisis as compared to a state without ballistic missiles. Further, a state is 67 percent less likely to initiate a crisis against a potential defender with ballistic missiles, as compared to a potential defender with[out] ballistic missiles.”
The authors also find that, “missile possession by a target makes crisis escalation less likely, though missile possession by an initiator does not make crisis escalation more likely.”
According to the article, this is the first empirical test of the effects of ballistic missiles on international conflict.The findings seem to confirm the longstanding fears in the United States and elsewhere about the proliferation of ballistic missiles, especially among so-called third world countries. Mettler and Reiter’s findings suggest that states that acquire ballistic missiles will be more likely to engage in aggression and the U.S. and its allies will be less likely to initiate military action against them.
This is consistent with the findings of the 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, which is often referred to as the Rumsfeld Commission. Although not based on empirical research, that commission’s report stated:
“A number of countries with regional ambitions do not welcome the U.S. role as a stabilizing power in their regions and have not accepted it passively. Because of their ambitions, they want to place restraints on the U.S. capability to project power or influence into their regions. They see the acquisition of missile and WMD technology as a way of doing so.”
There was an important qualifier to Mettler and Reiter’s study, however. Namely, the authors find that, “missiles make crisis initiation more likely only among nonnuclear states, and missiles make a state less likely to be targeted only among nuclear states [emphasis in the original].”
Mettler and Reiter point out that ballistic missiles hold a number of characteristics that make more attractive from a military standpoint than air strikes. Most notably, ballistic missiles are more likely to reach their target compared with aircraft because ballistic missile defense systems are much less sophisticated than air defense and other anti-aircraft capabilities. Furthermore, unlike when using aircraft to deliver bombs, a country launching a missile attack does not put any of its military personnel in jeopardy.
Finally, Mettler and Reiter point out that missiles are able to deliver their ordnance much faster given their ability to travel at rates of thousands of miles per hour. This can have huge military benefits such as being able to destroy the target’s retaliatory capabilities.
The author digs deeper on a number of points. For example, the study finds that a state is less likely to be the target of a military crisis if it has solid-fueled missiles than if it has liquid-fueled missiles. The reason that solid-fueled missiles have greater deterrence power is likely because they can be launched with little notice, giving potential adversaries less confidence that they can destroy an arsenal of solid-fueled missiles with a first strike compared to liquid-fueled missiles.
On the other hand, the study finds that having submarine-launched ballistic missiles or underground silos does not make a state any less likely to be the target of a crisis than if it had ballistic missiles with other delivery systems. This is somewhat surprising given the greater survivability of missiles located on submarines or in underground silos.