The trail from a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile lights up the night sky.
The development of intercontinental ballistic missiles like the one being tested here has had a destabilising effect on global security. © ASSOCIATED PRESS

Weapon delivery systems

Technical progress in the development of weapon delivery systems (e.g. ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and other unmanned aerial vehicles and drones) and their increasing proliferation have a destabilising effect internationally and contribute to various threat scenarios. Certain systems can carry nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in addition to conventional warheads. An essential part of Switzerland's non-proliferation efforts is therefore to prevent the proliferation of systems capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction. Attempts to address this issue at the multilateral level have been few and far between. Weapon delivery systems are thus not yet regulated by any international agreement that is binding under international law.

There are however two politically binding multilateral initiatives that seek to address the problem:

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC)

The Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCoC) is a transparency initiative bringing together over 140 states parties. It aims to prevent the proliferation of delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction.

In subscribing to the HCoC, states make a political commitment to provide pre-launch notifications and submit an annual declaration of their country's ballistic missile and space-launch activities. Although the HCoC does not provide for any legally binding prohibitions or restrictions on delivery systems, its transparency and confidence-building measures help to mitigate the risks associated with these technologies. Switzerland assumed the one-year chairmanship of the HCoC in 2020.

Hague Code of Conduct

Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)

The Missile Technology Control Regime focuses on unmanned delivery systems. It aims to limit the proliferation of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for weapons of mass destruction. The regime's 35 signatory states have agreed to a set of common export control guidelines. Switzerland will chair the MTCR in 2022.

Missile Technology Control Regime

Space security

The development of ballistic missile systems has close ties with space programmes – both civilian and military. In recent years, space has become indispensable to networked infrastructures. The strategic importance of outer space is growing with the rapid development of space applications and increasing number of actors in space. Space security and the sustainability of space-based systems are matters of increasing urgency.

The United Nations Outer Space Treaty is the most important agreement in this field. It prohibits states from placing nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in outer space. The treaty does not cover conventional weapons. 

Weapons and armed forces in space?

Terrestrial and space-based anti-satellite weapons already exist or are being developed and tested. Although for now there is no reason to assume that space-to-Earth weapons have already been placed in orbit, such efforts cannot be ruled out. The militarisation of space would have far-reaching, destabilising consequences. The potential for armed conflict in space is a matter of widespread concern. Such a conflict could cause the collapse of highly vulnerable essential infrastructures such as communications, remote sensing and positioning satellites. Switzerland is concerned that some states now regard outer space as a legitimate space to conduct warfare and are preparing their armed forces for this eventuality.

The existing international norms are only partially applicable to outer space. Switzerland is in favour of establishing and continuing to develop additional rules to prohibit the placing of weapons in orbit and the use of force against space systems.

Switzerland favours legally binding and verifiable agreements, but also sees benefits in politically binding agreements such as an international code of conduct on space activities. It supports an approach recently proposed by the United Kingdom to this end. A politically binding agreement could pave the way for more far-reaching legally binding agreements by reaffirming certain ground rules and promoting trust, transparency, security, stability and sustainability in outer space. 

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Last update 26.01.2022

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