Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum from MoD on: the Ballistic Missile Threat (March 2002)


  1.  The Committee asked for a supplementary memorandum describing weapon of mass destruction and ballistic missile acquisition and development programmes in countries of concern, and possible future trends. Before turning to possible future trends, about which it is difficult to make definitive statements, this memorandum will set out in more detail our assessment of the current capabilities of North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya. The information set out below does not necessarily indicate the full extent of our knowledge of their programmes. And we can never be sure that we have a full picture of all developments. But it provides a summary of the information that can be made available at an unclassified level in the time scale requested by the Committee. We believe it is important to give as full a picture as possible of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and we will continue to release publicly information as we are able to do so.


  2.  North Korea has some hundreds of SCUD missiles in service, with ranges of up to 500km. It can produce these itself and they are available for export. It also has in Service No Dong missiles, with a range of up to 1,300km. This missile is available for export, and the technology has enabled Iran and Pakistan to acquire their own versions. In August 1998, North Korea launched a three-stage Taepo Dong-1 as a satellite launch vehicle. This demonstrated that North Korea could produce a missile with a range of about 2,000km. It also demonstrated expertise in multistage missile technology. A two-stage Taepo Dong-2 missile, which could have a range in excess of 5,000km, is under development. A three-stage Taepo Dong-2 missile could have intercontinental range. North Korea has since 1999 observed a moratorium on flight-testing. However, ground-testing and other development activities have continued and a flight test of the Taepo Dong-2 might be carried out were the moratorium to end. A particular cause for concern is North Korea's willingness to sell its missiles and technology to any country prepared to pay for them; it has sold hundreds already.

  3.  North Korea is believed to have diverted sufficient fissile material for at least one nuclear weapon prior to its agreement with the US to freeze plutonium production in 1994. It has sufficient plutonium in spent fuel rods under International Atomic Energy Authority supervision for additional nuclear weapons. And concern remains that North Korea might still be pursuing a covert nuclear programme. North Korea has the infrastructure to support the development of chemical and biological weapons.


  4.  Iraq fired large numbers of SCUD-type missiles during the Iran-Iraq and Gulf conflict. It covertly retained a small number of SCUD-type missiles called the Al Hussein, with a range of around 650km, after the Gulf conflict. UNSCR 687 permits Iraq to develop missiles up to a range of 150km, and since the Gulf conflict Iraq has been openly developing Ababil 100 and Al Samoud short-range missiles. In the absence of UN inspectors, we believe Iraq has worked on extending their range beyond the permitted limit. Iraq has long had ambitions to develop longer-range missile systems with ranges of over 1,000km; we believe work on such systems continues, but is only able to make relatively slow progress while UN restrictions remain in place.

  5.  Iraq has admitted to having had offensive chemical and biological weapon capabilities, which included warheads for the Al Hussein missile filled with nerve agent, anthrax, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin. It has used chemical weapons against the Iranians and the Kurds. Iraq sought to conceal these programmes from UN inspectors and did not acknowledge its biological weapons programme until 1995. It failed to convince UN inspectors of the accuracy of its declarations about these programmes. It failed to account to UN inspectors for significant amounts of material produced under these programmes. And since 1998 it has refused to allow UN inspectors into Iraq to continue to investigate these programmes. We believe that Iraq has retained precursors, equipment and expertise, and continues to pursue covert chemical and biological weapon programmes. Iraq has also long sought a nuclear weapons capability, and continues to do so. We believe it has retained much of its former expertise, but currently lacks certain key components and materials. We believe that if sanctions were lifted, Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in as little as five years, and less if it were able to obtain fissile material from an external source rather than produce it itself.


  6.  Iran currently has in service several hundred SCUD and SCUD-type missiles with ranges up to 500km. Based on North Korean No Dong technology, Iran is developing the Shahab-3 missile, with a range of up to 1,300km. It would be able now to field a limited number, and is working to produce a substantial force. Iran has made no secret of its aspirations to develop a satellite launch vehicle capability. This technology is very similar to that required for longer-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. We believe that Iran could test such systems by the end of the decade, and possibly sooner depending on how much external assistance it receives. If it acquires complete systems, it could achieve such a capability more quickly.

  7.  Iran is seeking to master the full nuclear fuel cycle so that it can develop a totally indigenous civil nuclear power programme. This legitimate programme could be exploited for use in a covert nuclear weapon programme. We have long-standing concerns that Iran may be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons in breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, and has acknowledged a past chemical weapons programme. It would also be capable of producing biological weapons.


  8.  Libya has an ageing force of SCUDs. It is now seeking to produce extended range SCUD missiles, with extensive North Korean assistance that includes the provision of components and equipment. Libya also has an interest in procuring a longer-range capability. We believe Libya also has weapons of mass destruction aspirations. We believe progress has so far been relatively slow, but are concerned by the possibility that external assistance could speed their efforts.


  9.  We currently assess that there is no significant ballistic missile threat to the UK. We do not believe that any of the states listed above currently has the capability to reach the UK with ballistic missiles. Some states would, however, be capable of targeting vital UK interests such as the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus, or forces deployed close to them. We also recognise that some of our NATO Allies are closer to regions of ballistic missile proliferation and that the US has security commitments in areas of the world that we do not.

  10.  We do not have any evidence that any state with ballistic missiles currently has the intention specifically to target them at the UK, or UK interests. Of course, intentions can change quickly. We are therefore very concerned by the trends described above in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles as a means of their delivery, and continue to monitor developments closely.

  11.  We believe it is important to tackle the potential threat with a comprehensive strategy that encompasses diplomacy, conflict prevention, non-proliferation, counter-proliferation, export controls, intelligence co-operation, law enforcement, deterrence and defensive measures. We understand the role that active missile defences can play as one part of this strategy and as part of a balanced spectrum of defensive measures.

  12.  Predicting future developments in the potential ballistic missile threat, in terms both of time scales and of likely increases in missile range, is difficult. It will depend not least on the effectiveness in the future of our comprehensive strategy to curb the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, the efforts we make with our Allies and friends, and the efforts of the international community as a whole. It will also depend on how technical capabilities develop within individual states, on their capacity to procure expertise or complete systems from proliferators, on a continued political and financial commitent on the part of individual states to developing these capabilities, and on their intentions. However, we can state that were a country in the Middle East or North Africa to acquire a complete ballistic missile system of sufficient range, a capability to target the UK could emerge within the next few years.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 1 May 2002