The use of missiles is increasingly becoming commonplace in armed conflict. missiles can be differentiated by their launch location (i.e. land, sea, and air platforms), their target (i.e., air, ground, ship etc.), their payload (e.g., conventional or nuclear armed) and their propulsion/flight mode (e.g., ballistic or cruise missiles)
Recent years have seen the development of precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles. States have developed and deployed increasingly accurate long and short-range conventional missiles. Ballistic missiles, in particular, are being used more frequently in armed conflict, including by non-State actors.
Despite their role in strategic doctrines, political significance, historical record of indiscriminate use, and, increasingly, use to carry out attacks in contemporary armed conflict, global regimes and norms governing missiles remain underdeveloped.
Their potential to carry and deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD) payload quickly and accurately makes missiles a qualitatively significant political and military issue. In addition, the diversity of international views on matters related to missiles poses a particular challenge for efforts to address the issue in multilateral fora.
Controls on missiles have been most extensively pursued in the context of bilateral arms control treaties and other arrangements between the Soviet Union/Russian Federation and the United States. These arrangements achieved effective limits in deployments and stockpiles of ballistic missiles, strategic anti-missile systems and nuclear cruise missiles. Despite the steady erosion of this architecture, key limits continue to be maintained even as technological developments are enabling new forms of arms competition centered on emerging capabilities, such as long-range conventional strike and missile defenses.
Multilateral controls on missiles are limited in scope and effect. The international trade in various types of conventional missiles and their launchers are subject to the Arms Trade Treaty and reportable under the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. Additionally, two voluntary arrangements exist that seek to prevent the proliferation of missiles and related technology: the Missile Control Technology Regime (MTCR) and Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC). The legally binding export controls required by Security Council resolution 1540 (2004), intend to prevent non-State actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, also apply to the means of delivery of such weapons.
Currently, there is no legally binding multilateral instrument dealing with the issue of missiles.
Pursuant to General Assembly resolutions, three Panels of Government Experts devoted to the issue of missiles have been established within the United Nations. The first Panel was established from July 2001 to July 2002, the second Panel in 2004 and the third Panel completed its work in June 2008, agreeing on its report by consensus. There has been no resolution introduced on the topic in the General Assembly since 2008 (resolution 63/55).
More recently, the General Assembly has considered the issue of a specific type of missiles in relation to outer space security: By its resolution 77/41 of 7 December 2022, the General Assembly, inter alia, “call[ed] upon all States to commit not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests.”
Types of missiles
The pursuit and achievement of effective multilateral controls on missiles has been complicated by their diversity of types, varied roles in military doctrines and lack of agreed standard categories and terms. United Nations instruments distinguish between, inter alia, artillery rockets, ballistic missiles, space launch vehicles and cruise missiles, but no formal definitions to distinguish among these various systems exist. States maintain various means at the national level for categorizing missiles. These rely on various characteristics, as presented in the table below.
|Nature of ordnance
(conventional, chemical, biological, nuclear)
Method of propulsion
(air-breathing, solid-fueled, liquid fueled)
(ground-, ship-, submarine- or air-launched)
(surface-to-surface, surface-to-air, air-to-surface, air-to-air, submarine-to-surface, submarine-to–submarine)
|Range (There is no international consensus on how to categorize ballistic missiles by range. Two examples from national practices are as follows)
< 1,000 km short
1,000 – 3,000 km medium
3,000 – 5,500 km intermediate
> 5,500 km intercontinental
< 50 km tactical
50 – 300 km operational-tactical
300 – 500 km operational
500 – 1,000 km operational-strategic
> 1,000 km strategic
States continue to pursue and refine various missile-related technologies. Improvements to the guidance, accuracy and maneuverability of ballistic missiles have increased their military utility, contributing to their desirability, proliferation and use. Innovations to increase accuracy have included flight trajectory tracking by: ground-based radar; optical sensors; radar imaging; and navigation and positioning satellites. Maneuverable re-entry vehicle technology has been deployed since 2010 and, in comparison weapons that follow a strictly ballistic trajectory, may be more capable of avoiding some missile defences and possibly useable against moving objects.
Some States are developing and deploying vehicles with the ability to glide and maneuver at hypersonic speeds (March 5 and above) over long distances within the atmosphere. Like a maneuverable re-entry vehicle, a hypersonic glide vehicle could be launched from a booster rocket. A hypersonic glide vehicle would, however, spend most of its flight on a non-ballistic trajectory, sustained by aerodynamic lift. States are also developing hypersonic cruise missiles, including by bringing new engi8ne technologies, such as scramjets, to maturity.
In addition, recent armed conflicts have seen the increased use of missiles to deliver conventional explosive payloads. Their use against civilian targets, especially in populated areas, is of particular concern. This increased battlefield use of missiles is fuelled in part by their increased accuracy and in part by the wider availability of the technology and components required for their manufacture.
The Issue of Missiles in all its Aspects: Reports of the Secretary General
A/63/176 – The issue of missiles in all its aspects: Report of the Secretary General (2008)
This report was prepared by the Panel of Governmental Experts, established pursuant to General Assembly resolution 59/67 of 3 December 2004, to address the issue of missiles in all its aspects, including identifying areas where consensus can be reached.
The report discusses the background and present situation with regard to missiles, and identifies a number of key issues which should be taken into account in order to address, in a comprehensive manner, the issue of missiles in all its aspects. These issues include, inter alia, the global and regional security backdrop which provides the motivation (or lack thereof) for missile development, testing, production, acquisition, transfer, possession, deployment and use; the circumstances of transfer to and use of certain types of missiles and missile technology by State or non-State actors; the issue of disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation; the interrelation between doctrines, strategies and missile-related behavior; the relative salience of ballistic and cruise missiles as well as missiles as delivery vehicles for weapons of mass destruction or conventional arms; missile defence; and the increased contribution of space-based capabilities to a wide range of human endeavours.
The Panel concluded, among other things, that it was important to have continued international efforts to deal with the increasingly complex issue of missiles in the interest of international peace and security, and to further deliberate on the issue, specifically focusing attention on existing and emerging areas of consensus. The Panel also emphasized the important role of the United Nations in providing a more structured and effective mechanism to build such a consensus.
A/59/278 – The issue of missiles in all its aspects: Report of the Secretary General (2004)
The General Assembly requested the Secretary-General in its resolution 58/37, with the assistance of a panel of governmental experts to be established in 2004, to explore further the issue of missiles in all its aspects and to submit a report for consideration by the General Assembly at its fifty-ninth session.
The panel held three sessions at the United Nations Headquarters during 2004, the first from 23 to 27 February, the second from 17 to 21 May and the third from 19 to 23 July. “However, given the complexity of the issue at hand, no consensus was reached on the preparation of a final report”.
General Assembly resolution A/59/67 requested the Secretary-General to prepare a report, with the support of qualified consultants and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, as appropriate, taking into account the views expressed by Member States, to contribute to the United Nations endeavor to address the issue of missiles in all its aspects, by identifying areas where consensus can be reached, and to submit it to the General Assembly at its sixty-first session. It also requests the Secretary-General, with the assistance of a Panel of Governmental Experts, to be established in 2007 on the basis of equitable geographical distribution, to explore further ways and means to address within the United Nations the issue of missiles in all its aspects, including identifying areas where consensus can be reached, and to submit a report for consideration by the General Assembly at its sixty-third session.
A/57/229 – The issue of missiles in all its aspects: Report of the Secretary General (2002)
The report above was prepared by the Panel of Governmental Experts, established pursuant to General Assembly resolution 55/33 A, of 20 November 2000, to address the issue of missiles in all its aspects. The report provides an overview giving the background and current situation in the field of missiles. It also describes a number of areas of concern.
These concerns are related to, inter alia, the increasing number, range, technological sophistication and geographic spread of missiles and their capability of delivering weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons, as well as conventional weapons, missile defences and their strategic consequences, the potential use of space-launch vehicle technology for the development of missiles, the role of missiles in military doctrines as well as the role and scope of confidence-building measures.
The Panel concluded, among other things, that these and other issues are regarded as serious concerns for international peace and security. It noted that there are multiple approaches currently undertaken to deal with the issue of missiles, both within and outside the United Nations. The Panel also stated that it is essential to continue efforts in this regard and noted the role of the United Nations in this context. Finally, it concluded that all approaches undertaken at the national, bilateral, regional, plurilateral and multilateral levels, including the initiatives described in the report, need to be further explored.