On 19 October 2021, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) hosted a side event entitled “Exploring prospects for missile verification” in the margins of the First Committee on Disarmament and International Security of the 76th United Nations General Assembly.
This event focused on exploring the potential for effective missile verification measures against the backdrop of advances in missile-related technologies, their proliferation and the impact of these developments on the international security landscape.
The panel was chaired by Mr. James Revill from UNIDIR, who opened the discussion by introducing the institute’s missile verification project. The project explores possible approaches to verifying various aspects of missile programmes, including, but not limited to, the limits of mobile missiles, distinguishing nuclear-capable from conventional missiles, remote verification tools and verifying the peaceful nature of space launch programmes.
In introductory remarks, H.E. Mr. Thomas Göbel, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, called for new and vigorous efforts to stabilize and expand missile related arms control. He warned of a proliferation crisis in the absence of regulations against the advancement of new and disruptive technologies, such as, inter alia, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, lethal autonomous weapons systems and counterspace weapons. He welcomed UNIDIR’s missile verification project as an invaluable source of knowledge in anticipation of future opportunities to pursue progress on missiles-related arms control talks.
Mr. Pavel Podvig, senior researcher at UNIDIR’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Program, specializing in nuclear verification and arms control, started his presentation by clarifying the definition and purpose of verification. The latter, he said, is an activity that helps States assess compliance with agreed obligations with the objective to build a system that promotes confidence in the absence of significant violations rather than an absolute assurance of the absence of any violence. On the findings of the project, Mr. Podvig noted that there are existing tools that are useful for future verification dialogue. A representative example is the New START Treaty, between the Russian Federation and the United States, which offers a definition on different ballistic missiles categorized by range and it details bilateral procedures that can be directly applied to future multilateral agreements. Mr. Podvig concluded by pointing out the challenges that require further work, including verification of mobile missiles and cruise missiles.
Ms. Almudena Azcarate Ortega, an associate researcher at UNIDIR, raised concerns about the absence of a multilateral verification mechanism. She regarded the Wassenaar Arrangement, which provides for export controls on arms and dual-use technologies, and the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation as existing measures that could potentially address the issue. However, Ms. Ortega stressed that, in both cases, applicable measures are not designed to target proliferation of missiles and the technology, and therefore, fail to impose limits on indigenous programmes.
When asked about ways to differentiate between peaceful and military purposes of a space launch programme, Mr. Dmitry Stefanovich from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations replied that there is no way to verify that this technology is purely civilian. However, he carried on, “if we go into details, we can find ways to address it”, adding that preparatory environments for the launch of a ballistic missile or a space launch vehicle differ and thus theoretically offer relevant information, with a note to a caveat that states should be willing to provide necessary information.
In their concluding remarks, the panelists stressed that, while the foundation and tools to support the establishment of a verification regime exist, it requires the political will of States to establish an effective missile verification regime. In the ensuing Q&A, the speakers and the audience focused on existing verification measures that could be applied to verifying nuclear missiles, hypersonic weapons and space launch vehicles.