By Samuel M. Hickey
Three months into its invasion, Russia has fired more than 2,200 missiles at Ukraine: the greatest in number and most varied use of missiles in modern warfare. Yet, ballistic and cruise missile attacks have shown limited military utility and failed to turn the tide of the war, despite Ukraine’s lack of similar capabilities or effective missile defense architecture. Instead, missiles have been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths and untold damage to property and infrastructure, most of it civilian in nature.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of “resorting to the missile terrorism tactics in order to spread fear across Ukraine,” which may be an important charge to build an argument for war crimes. Militaries across the world are searching for lessons in Ukraine’s rubble and countries in the Middle East are keen to learn if the conflict changes missile theory.
In mid-May, I presented at a conference on curbing missile proliferation in the Middle East in Amman, Jordan. According to a 2017 study, the Middle East had been the target of more than 90 percent of the 5,000-plus missiles fired in combat since World War II. As countries across the globe consider investing in more missiles, including those with advanced capabilities that are supposedly harder to defend, countries in the Middle East are no exception. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has not shown that missiles are making a major contribution to achieving Russia’s goals, so why do we care so much that this technology is proliferating? The answer remains the ability to pair long-range delivery vehicles with weapons of mass destruction.
Export control regimes and voluntary codes of conduct — Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Hague Code of Conduct (HCoC) — are the primary means of managing missile proliferation, but they lack strong enforcement mechanisms. The weakness of these guardrails is particularly significant for the Middle East, which does not have a regional security architecture and, as such, is particularly vulnerable to weapons build-ups and arms racing.
The September 2019 twin cruise missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities Abqaiq and Khureis eliminated five percent of global oil output and led to two conclusions. First, these were huge targets filled with highly flammable material, which showed that missiles can terrorize civilian infrastructure but even this infrastructure is only found in a few countries. Second, it showed that even if the success rate of missile defenses improves, they can be overwhelmed and cannot be deployed to defend all infrastructure. Further evidence can be found in the missile and drone attacks by the Houthis in January of this year on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which hit a fuel storage facility in Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi International Airport causing a fire. The UAE claims it intercepted missile attacks on Al-Dhafra Air Base and other cities, but without a dialogue, missile defenses are a stop gap to relieve pressure, but hardly a long-term solution.
States that have invested heavily in missile defenses have found that the challenges of detecting and destroying them are extensive. The high success rate of Israel’s Iron Dome is against the simplest of rockets and cannot be extrapolated to more mature offensive systems. The Gulf Cooperation Council is attempting to integrate their missile defenses and increase information sharing but defending against maneuvering capabilities is an exceptional challenge.
In the absence of a regional dialogue, missile programs are maturing without restriction, but the invasion of Ukraine offers a moment to reset the narrative on missile capabilities. While many countries believe that missiles serve as a deterrent, especially if the state lacks a strong air force, there should be no confusion that the value ascribed to missiles is the theoretical ability to hold civilian population centers at risk. Events in Ukraine should tear down this illusion.
It is also important to recognize that Israel, which has one of the most advanced missile programs in the Middle East, has usually relied on aircraft, not missiles, for regional strikes. The concern, however, remains that these systems’ greatest utility is to deliver chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. With greater understanding that the missiles governments are spending billions on only terrorize civilians, there may be less perceived benefit from acquiring them.