Great Weapons for Rogues

The international community has long ignored the activities of a certain network of black-market arms dealers. As a result, extremely dangerous missiles have fallen into the wrong hands.

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The large weapons stockpiles left to rust after the end of the Cold War fed an illegal arms trade network spanning Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to supply weapons to warring factions in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Africa. The dealers have disregarded UN sanctions and armed anyone who had cash.

Shadowy arms trading companies were established in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. A retired Russian colonel, who was once an official arms dealer for Russia's arms trade monopoly and afterward went into business for himself, explained that the network uses corrupt military and government officials to connect potential buyers with Cold War weaponry. Fake end-user certificates are cooked up, phony companies are established, and everything is for sale, including experienced military personnel to operate the purchased systems.

Authorities in the East and West have occasionally indicted individual traffickers, but they have done virtually nothing to dismantle the network. Narcotics and endangered species have gotten more funds and attention, perhaps because the arms smuggling network has often done the dirty jobs governments and secret services want done. They supplied fighters in the former Yugoslavia, rebels in Sudan and Kurds in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. And if Africa is teeming with weapons and mercenaries, that's Africa's problem.

Western intelligence services have used the network's channels to steal secret Soviet-made weapons. Sometimes they were caught, as in 2000 when a Canadian company attempted to buy five secret high-speed Shkval torpedoes in Kyrgyzstan through an East European middleman. Even the integration of Eastern Europe into NATO and the EU has not stopped the illegal arms trade.

After the Orange Revolution led to regime change in Ukraine, it was disclosed that some 20 Kh-55 strategic cruise missiles were surreptitiously delivered to Iran and China. Ukraine inherited 578 Soviet Kh-55 missiles with 200-kiloton nuclear warheads. The weapons should have been sent to Russia under the provisions of the U.S.-Russian START I nuclear disarmament treaty, which Ukraine also ratified. A number of Russian-Ukrainian contracts were signed but at least 20 missiles were diverted from their destination -- thanks to corrupt officials -- and wound up in Iran.

Russian arms trader Oleg Orlov was apparently involved in the scheme. Orlov was accused by the UN Security Council in 2001 of selling illegal weapons to rebels in Angola. Last July, Orlov was arrested in the Czech Republic, one of the important centers of the illegal arms trade. As is typical for such deals, Orlov and his partners are suspected of providing the Iranians with maintenance equipment and hired-gun technicians to service the Kh-55 missiles.

The Kh-55 has a range of up to 3,000 kilometers and flies at a low altitude. Its onboard radar scans the terrain, and an onboard computer compares the data with a digital map to achieve incredible precision. Special satellites produce digital maps for the missile.

Last month, it became public that Russia and Iran had signed a contract to launch a communication satellite and "other additional satellites." A Ukrainian general told me that the only purpose of the "additional satellites" Russia has agreed to launch is to make digital maps for the Kh-55 and provide the real-time guidance essential when the cruise missile flies over water.

The Kh-55 is the best possible delivery system for a rogue state. Unlike a ballistic missile, it is hard to detect when it is launched. With a converted civilian plane, the Iranians could attack Israel from over the Mediterranean or launch a missile from the middle of the Atlantic to hit the United States. The Iranians have secretly acquired the know-how and basic ingredients from a Pakistani network smuggling nuclear material. The Kh-55 can be fitted with a Pakistani-style warhead, but it will have a relatively low yield of only 10 kilotons or less. The precision of the Kh-55 more than compensates for this shortfall, however. With Iranian President Mohammad Khatami threatening Israel and the United States with "a burning hell," it is clear that the Kh-55 deal is the worst case of post-Soviet proliferation so far.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.