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.
The problems of conventionally armed ballistic missiles are twofold. First, they are difficult to integrate with other military operations, unless they are very accurate. Even if accurate, they represent an inefficient means of delivering ordnance, usually carrying smaller payloads than aircraft or modern artillery, at greater cost. Second, strategic campaigns of the sort that might make use of conventionally armed missiles rarely succeed; target populations can withstand far greater stress without breaking, and conventional ballistic missiles cannot deliver enough ordnance to threaten serious economic or industrial disruption. For states without significant strike capability, ballistic missiles offer something, but no serious, integrated threat. Nuclear tipped ballistic missiles surely overcome these problems, but suffer from their own sets of technical and strategic problems.
So why does panic break out every time North Korea or Iran announces a ballistic missile test? Part of the answer is surely that defense forces look for missions, especially in response to overwrought politicians. The North Korean missile test posed no risk to Japan, and didn’t change North Korea’s threat to Japan one iota. Shooting down the North Korean ballistic missile would have been the height of diplomatic irresponsibility. At the same time, Japan is genuinely and correctly concerned about far more plentiful, effective Chinese missiles; the North Korean weapons provide a useful stalking horse for the Chinese. Ballistic missiles matter if they carry tracking systems capable of having a significant effect on military operations. This is why we care about Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, and about other hyper-accurate Chinese and Russian (some reports suggest that Iskander missiles launched during the South Ossetia War may have done some damage, although these reports remain sketchy) ballistic missile systems.
Excessive excitement about ballistic missile developments surely serves some purposes, but it primarily gives states like North Korea and Iran easy public relations wins. A more careful approach would focus on the actual threat posed by advanced missiles, distinguishing the Russian and Chinese arsenals from the vast array of ancient Scuds and Scud derivatives held by states worldwide. This would make fear mongering more difficult, but would have the advantage of placing the real threat in meaningful perspective.