Event Reports

Missiles Capability Protocol

by Layan Ounis, Alexander Reiffenstuel

Towards Better Security in the Middle East

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) Jordan Office and the Arab Institute for Security Studies (ACSIS) hosted its first roundtable discussion on the Missiles Capability Protocol from the 17th-18th May 2022. The aim of this roundtable was to initiate an inclusive and constructive dialogue in order to develop confidence-building measures that entail missile capabilities. The roundtable hosted a number of experts representing various international bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), the US Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the League of Arab States, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The roundtable analyzed different aspects of missile proliferation regionally and internationally; specifically, the legality of utilizing missiles in armed conflicts, and its impact on security and stability, and concluded with recommendations on how to reduce the threat of missiles and ensure a better regional security architecture.

The opening remarks emphasized that missiles have played a significant role in regional security dynamics in the Middle East. Numerous countries in the region possess missiles that can be used to attack high-value targets deep inside other countries in the region. Considering the devastating conflicts, tensions, and geopolitical dynamics that have plagued the region, participants view missiles as weapons for deterrence, war, and retaliation. They allow strategic strikes while reducing their own casualties by keeping the attacker’s military personnel out of range of the adversary’s defensive systems. Missiles, notably ballistic missiles, have proliferated because they are cost-effective, easy to use, and difficult to defend against. With technological advancement, the increased accuracy and precision have contributed to their perceived military value. In particular, the potential use of ballistic missiles as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and conventional missiles threaten regional stability and cause international concern. After all, indigenized missile development (i.e. locally produced missiles in the region) and/or procurement and their use can disrupt regional arms balances, exacerbate tensions and contribute to military escalation. This is not to mention the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences they may cause, especially in or near civilian areas.

This roundtable comes in light of the ongoing proliferation of missile programs and repeated missile strikes on oil and energy facilities in countries of the Middle East throughout the past several years. The absence of regional security infrastructures and binding agreements, as well as worsening tensions between Saudi-Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, and Iran have exacerbated missile build-ups, arms races, and overt reliance on missile defense systems. Additionally, the lack of regional dialogue and a high degree of mutual mistrust has resulted in low regional participation in international voluntary treaties and transparency of weapons developments. Hence, the Middle East is witnessing an alarming shift from ballistic missiles to indigenously manufactured and sophisticated guided missile technologies. This poses a tremendous threat to human security and civilian infrastructure (as witnessed in Syria, Yemen, and the UAE). The possibility of utilizing explosive high-yield weapons, nuclear-capable, and hypersonic missiles increases the risk of miscalculations, pre-emptive strikes, and escalation. This is especially concerning, as studies conducted by the ICRC and UN agencies stressed that no international body or state is capable of addressing the resulting immediate and long-term humanitarian consequences nor providing adequate emergency response to a nuclear attack.

Further, participants argued that lacking public awareness of the region’s nuclear missile programs and limited involvement of local actors, NGOs, and the public is a major obstacle to non-proliferation. Especially since NGOs working in disarmament suffer from inadequate material or human capacities and international influence, they tend to avoid debates on nuclear energy and weapons. Also, numerous NGOs focus on non-nuclear missiles and avoid criticizing the possession of nuclear ones, as it risks governmental obstruction. Additionally, limited civilian awareness and the inability to access transparent data reduce mass mobilization. Finally, the limited integration of nuclear experts into a larger framework of activists and states reduces their influence on public opinion and policy-making in missile non-proliferation.

Common mechanisms of non-proliferation, such as voluntary codes of conduct and export regimes, lack robust enforcement mechanisms in the Middle East. Meanwhile, imposing sanctions on a country with fully indigenized ballistic missile programs has limited effectiveness since supply-chains are locally based. Hence, participants presented alternative recommendations to curb regional missile proliferation. It was encouraged to have Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel simultaneously subscribe to major voluntary ballistic missile control regimes such as the ‘Missile Technology Control Regime’ (MTCR) and the ‘2002 Hague Code of Conduct’ (HCoC). This would advance regional confidence-building processes, reduce uncertainty in military strategies and regulate missile trade, thus restricting the spread of WMD-capable ballistic missiles. Moreover, several participants advocated for a missile program freeze, thus preventing states from acquiring ballistic missiles over certain ranges, warheads, and their systems. This recommendation echoes the ICRC’s urge to avoid the use of high-impact explosive weapons in urban environments. Moreover, the participants argued that these recommendations could lay the foundations for a flight-test ban to reduce the development of new missiles. Lastly, participants agreed that NGOs and citizens could play an essential role in promoting and implementing missile control and disarmament. After all, the military use of missiles is limited, except as weapons of terror, as seen in the employment of Russian missiles in Ukraine. This underscored the notion that missiles are predominantly weapons of deterrence and retaliation, and increased public awareness of this could foster a political movement to pressure leaders against their usage.

In light of these developments, ACSIS developed the ‘Missile Capability Protocol’, a voluntary instrument for controlling missile proliferation and utilization in armed conflicts in this region. The protocol can pave the path for a cooperative arrangement between regional and international actors. It aims to provide transparency between relevant parties and immunity for critical infrastructure such as non-war sustaining/non-war-fighting nuclear, oil, and energy facilities. The protocol does not deny the right of its members from developing or acquiring missiles or delivery vehicles as part of the signatory parties’ self-defense doctrine. However, it does encourage de-targeting measures and a mutual commitment to not utilizing missiles as weapons of warfare. Finally, the protocol will take into consideration the recommendations proposed by the participants throughout the roundtable discussion. It will accordingly present them in the ongoing international preparatory committee meetings, which the participants were invited to join.

In conclusion, the roundtable discussion, jointly coordinated by ACSIS and KAS Jordan Office, supported the development of a network of experts who highlighted some of the most pressing challenges of missile proliferation in this region. Participants provided important policy recommendations to encourage voluntary subscription to major ballistic missile control regimes and similar measures to reduce missile development. Lastly, participants expressed their desire to build on the efforts of this roundtable discussion in the future since such formats advance public discourse and sharing of expertise, experience, and solutions.


Layan Ounis

Layan Ounis

Project Assistant / Research Fellow

layan.ounis@kas.de +962 6 5929777 ext.: 218