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The Missiles of Winter (I): International Conventions
The Missiles of Winter – Part II: Rampant Proliferation

pyrolytic discsPyrolytic or fibrous reinforced graphites.  The raw material is a very fine dark grey to black powder – processed, the density  ranges from 1.72 to 2.2 g/cc,  with the latter being the case for pyrolytic graphite. Machined parts are black and depending on the level of machining, have a varying gloss to the surface.  Very finely machined parts have no surface pitting.  Graphite is used in biomedical applications, in nuclear reactors, as a mold in casting and manufacturing metal parts, and for critically-dimensioned furnace fixtures. Graphite is also the preferred material for electrodes for electric discharge machining. When infiltrated with metals, graphite is used for brushes in electric motors and as bearings in many mechanical applications. Indeed, while the average person likely won’t think about graphite over the course of a normal day, they likely are in constant contact with it.


Oh yes – pyrolytic graphite is also used in the construction of missiles, particularly in nozzle throats and guidance vanes.  Guidance vanes like the ones used on the SCUD missile and Iranian Safir launcher (see picture).  It is because of their application in missile designs that this seemingly innocuous and benign material has landed on the Missile Technology Control Regime’s (MTCR) list of controlled materials as a Category II item alongside more notable items like linear accelerometers, titanium alloys and ceramic materials for missile nose cones.  But what is the MTCR?  How did it come about?  Who is party to it and what kind of legal standing does it have?

The appearance of SCUD missiles in Iran in 1985 highlighted a growing awareness and concern over the proliferation of “nuclear capable” missiles.  A consortium of nations began talks that led to a set of export controls that rely on voluntary compliance.  As originally established in April 1987, the MTCR sought to stop the proliferation of missiles with ranges of 300km or greater and a payload of 500 kg or greater (500 kg being thought the minimum weight of a first generation nuke and 300km the expected minimum range of a nuclear-capable missile).  Under the MTCR, each member state establishes export control policies for these weapons (note: in 1992 those control policies were expanded to include cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, space-launch vehicles, drones, RPVs, and even sounding rockets, and other systems used or with the potential to be used for the delivery of chemical and biological agents as well as a nuclear warhead) and their supporting technologies and materials.  An annex to the MTCR is divided into two categories with one, CAT I, describing assembled systems, major subsystems and their production facilities.  The other, CAT II, provides a detailed list of specialized materials, technologies, propellants and other sub-assemblies used in the design and construction of those restricted items.  Below, for example, is a partial list from the current annex (updated November 2008) of restricted chemicals:

4. C.1.Composite and composite modified double base propellants

4. C.2.Fuel substances
a. Hydrazine
b. Hydrazine derivatives
c. Spherical aluminium powder
d. Zirconium beryllium magnesium and alloys
e. Boron and boron alloys
f. High energy density materials
4. C.3. Perchlorates, chlorates or chromates
4. C.4.a. Oxidiser substances – liquid propellant rocket engines
b. Oxidiser substances – solid propellant rocket motors
4. C.5. Polymeric substances
4. C.6. Other propellant additives and agents
a.    Bonding agents
b.    Curing reaction catalysts
c.    Burning rate modifiers
d.    Esters and plasticisers
e.    Stabilisers

One will notice reading the above that many of those same elements and components are not strictly used in the design and production of missiles, so a series of suggested factors should be applied by a nation contemplating the export of potentially banned material.  Under a general presumption biased towards denial, those factors are:

  • Whether the intended recipient is pursuing or has ambitions for acquiring weapons of mass destruction;
  • The purposes and capabilities of the intended recipient’s missile and space programs;
  • The potential contribution the proposed transfer could make to the intended recipient’s development of delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction;
  • The credibility of the intended recipient’s stated purpose for the purchase; and
  • Whether the potential transfer conflicts with any multilateral treaty.

The expectation is each nation party to the regime, will seek guarantees on the part of a nation requesting items under MTCR controls that it will only utilize the export-controlled items for the stated purpose claimed and that said material will not be transferred to t third party absent permission from the original exporter.  While the MTCR itself does not carry any sanction authority, under US law, Washington may sanction entities-individuals, companies, or governments (whether they are MTCR members or not)-exporting MTCR-controlled items to certain countries identified as proliferators or potential threats to U.S. security. Sanctions may also be levied if the United States judges the transfer contrary to the MTCR. Typically, Washington prohibits the charged entity from signing contracts, receiving aid, or buying arms from the U.S. government for a period of two years. Sometimes the penalties can be imposed for longer lengths of time or extended to commercial imports and exports as well.

Founding members included the US, Britain, Italy, France, (West) Germany, Japan and Canada.  Russia and some of the former members of the Warsaw Pact joined in the early 90’s.  MTCR members today (year joined in parenthesis): Argentina (1993), Australia (1990), Austria (1991), Belgium (1990), Brazil (1995), Bulgaria (2004), Canada (1987), the Czech Republic (1998), Denmark (1990), Finland (1991), France (1987), Germany (1987), Greece (1992), Hungary (1993), Iceland (1993), Ireland (1992), Italy (1987), Japan (1987), Luxembourg (1990), the Netherlands (1990), New Zealand (1991), Norway (1990), Poland (1998), Portugal (1992), Russia (1995), South Africa (1995), South Korea (2001) Spain (1990), Sweden (1991), Switzerland (1992), Turkey (1997), Ukraine (1998), the United Kingdom (1987), and the United States (1987). Notably absent from this list are China, Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Israel, most of whom constitute the core of proliferation concerns.

All well and good – but has the system worked?  Given that since it was established in 1987 we have seen North Korea attempt two launches (with a likely third in the offering) of an IR/ICBM prototype ostensibly as a space launch vehicle; Iran successfully orbit a payload via a notional IRBM, India placing satellites on orbit, indigenously develop a growing family of ballistic- and now, supersonic land attack nuclear capable missiles, engaging Pakistan in a subcontinent missile race.  The latter participant has been directly and substantially aided by the Chinese who only, publicly, broke off aid following US sanctions.  The fact that all of the above also posses and have demonstrated nuclear weapons capability or are engaged in covert programs to obtain nuclear weapons only serves to underscore the seriousness of the situation. That most of these programs have been slowed in their rate of progress may confer a mantle of partial success to the regime.

However, as the Iranians have loudly pointed out, the fact that they were still able to carryout the successful launch in spite of sanctions and limiting regimes, only serves to increase the cache of their program and strengthen the ties of co-development in what is increasingly becoming a regime of arms control pariahs.  Such a network bypasses controls of this and even the newer November 2002 initiative, the International Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (which calls upon all countries to show greater restraint in their own development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction and to reduce their existing missile arsenals if possible) enabling proliferation and increasing regional instabilities.   The problem comes on the other side of the equation – namely those countries that are voluntary participants in the MTCR or ICCABMP who might come to view the latter (especially) as an impediment to their own indigenous space programs and access to space, an increasingly vital element in a globalized world.  Therefore, a more rigorous, legally sanctioned anti-proliferation regime would likely be even less successful as willing participants dwindle and refuse accession to said accords.  One path, therefore, lies in making sure all nations understand the benefit to their own self-interests and security is found in full(er) participation in these voluntary regimes.  An equally important path is managing the consequence of life in a world proliferated with weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them at increasingly greater ranges.

And that entails the necessity of missile defense.

Next: The Missiles of Winter (IV) – The Pillars of Missile Defense

(ed: More information on the MTCR, including source documentation, may be found at the official website at: (hosted by Canada as part of its membership in the MTCR) – SJS).


  1. Jim

    Just a little background on the MTCR:

    The idea originated under Pres. Jimmy Carter amongst some high ranking government bureaucrat “thinkers,” mainly in the old Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), but it didn’t get beyond the thinking stage before Carter was out and Reagan was elected. Reagan’s people at the State Department almost immediately picked up on the idea. The first talks with close allies and original partners — UK, France, Italy, etc. — probably began in the early 80’s, 1981 or 82. There was immeidately a tension between the foreign partners, who did a lot of international trade in space related items for the European Space Agency, and the Pentagon, led by Richard Perle, who saw the regime as an opportunity to stop virtually all trade in missile and space items. The Europeans were doubly sensitive because the nuclear non-proliferation regime was being tightened at the same time, already producing cries of unfairness from developing nations, some legitimate, and some bad guys joining the chorus. Thus the Europeans were reluctant to join anything that looked too much like the NPT and its related trade restrictions.

    While one source for drawing up a list of restricted items for the MTCR annex was the NPT regime including the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Zangger Committee, another was the old COCOM regime that restricted exports to the old Soviet Union. Richard Perle was a major player in the COCOM regime. He tended to give the allies fits within the COCOM framework for being too lenient on their exports, which made them even more leary of joining a new missile regime. They didn’t want to sign up to something else that the US would use to beat them about the head and shoulders with.

    Thus the talks dragged on for years, although everybody recognized that missile proliferation was a problem that needed to be addressed.

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