The Paradox of Precision: Nonstate Actors and Precision-Guided Weapons

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On Feb. 16, 2016, the secretary general of Lebanese Hizballah, Hassan Nasrallah, declared that “a missile on these ammonia plants [in Haifa] is equal to an atomic bomb.” This implicit threat to attack Israeli chemical plants with precision munitions demonstrates the paradox of precision: Weapons that allow traditional militaries to reduce collateral damage can be used by nonstate actors to target critical infrastructure and threaten civilians.

Precision-guided systems and standoff capabilities have become abundant and cheap. As a result, these systems are proliferating into the hands of nonstate actors who easily evade the legal norms surrounding their use. Existing arms control and legal frameworks fail to define and address the unique and severe threats posed by the transfer of precision standoff capabilities and technologies to nonstate actors, as they are focused primarily on denying proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. An explicit norm banning these transfers would help states tackle a growing security threat, through regulation and interdiction, and would also reduce the international legitimacy of the proliferation of precision standoff technologies.



In this article we explore the challenges posed by the proliferation of precision-guided munitions, the limitations of the current multilateral frameworks, and propose an arms control initiative to ban the transfer of precision standoff capabilities to nonstate actors. While arms control initiatives may fall short of their aspirational objectives, they serve an important role in setting international norms, legal obligations, and influencing multilateral fora. Our proposed initiative can help shape mechanisms for international cooperation and attribution of offenders. This is especially important with regards to dealing with “rogue states” and situations where national legislation is inadequate. Despite the potential for mitigating risk, these efforts are likely to face pushback by commercial and political stakeholders. We define precision standoff capabilities broadly, in a manner that encompasses rockets, missiles, and drones. We do so despite the unique characteristics and somewhat different policy concerns regarding unmanned aerial systems.

The Characteristics of the Threat

Nonstate actors are increasingly using precision weapons systems. The destructive effects of this trend are not theoretical. This is evident almost anywhere one looks in the Middle East. In Lebanon, Hizballah is investing heavily in making its vast ballistic arsenal more sophisticated and precise, including efforts to acquire the necessary manufacturing capability and know-how. In Yemen, Houthi rebels have used armed drones to target Saudi oil infrastructure. The abundance of precise systems is not exclusively an outcome of Iranian-backed proliferation — the Islamic State has also used weaponized drones on multiple occasions in Iraq and Syria.

This phenomenon is by no means confined to the Middle East. Surface-to-air missiles launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in the Donbass shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. There have been reports of Boko Haram using attack drones in Nigeria. Simultaneously, across the globe, criminal organizations are beginning to harness aerial capabilities. The adoption of drones for violent uses has apparently already begun in the war between Mexican drug cartels.

Using precision technology and standoff capabilities, nonstate actors can cause more damage now than in the past. These technologies are readily available, cost less, do more, and require less expertise. Standoff capabilities challenge the ability to retaliate and to eliminate threats in real time. Some of these systems are being transferred by increasingly persistent “rogue” proliferators, but others are a part of the so-called “support” given by global and regional powers to local actors. As the threshold for the acquisition and use of technologies such as unmanned aerial systems, drones, and quadcopters has been significantly lowered, nonstate actors are also innovatively weaponizing commercially available technologies.

In the coming years, as technology for precision-guided systems continues to advance, the challenges are likely to increase. First, these systems are sure to become more lethal — nonstate actors will have more precise weapon systems, with bigger payloads and more of them. Secondly, the ability to deploy these systems will improve significantly and they may be increasingly autonomous. Operating these systems from longer ranges will become easier, and the use of predetermined GPS targets (or other Global Navigation Satellite Systems) or AI algorithms could reduce the role of humans in the decision-making process. The use of space-related commercial intelligence gathering platforms, such as Google Earth, helps different entities to easily acquire precise targets. These new technologies might also simplify the use of nonconventional weapons, as, for example, a drone or quadcopter could easily disperse chemical agents.

An Inadequate Existing Legal and Multilateral Framework

Existing multilateral arms control frameworks don’t curtail the proliferation of precision standoff capabilities to nonstate actors and fail to address it as a unique problem. Current efforts regarding nonstate actors are focused on weapons of mass destruction and voluntary commitments regarding arms trades. Precise systems are generally perceived as preferred weapons since they help to minimize collateral damage and to distinguish between militants and civilians. The use of standoff precision weapons can assist commanders in meeting the requirements of the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants in international humanitarian law, and the general imperative to avoid the use of indiscriminate weapons.

The growing importance of nonstate actors in international conflicts in the last 20 years has led scholars to grapple with their legal obligations. Many claim that while the rules of armed conflict and international humanitarian law still apply to nonstate actors, their enforcement faces significant challenges and is seldom sufficient. Some nonstate actors, of course, ignore legal norms or abuse them cynically. While states are accountable for their actions, violent nonstate actors can evade responsibility. These groups usually thrive in war zones and states with low governance, which lack effective institutions that might hold them accountable for their deeds. Furthermore, nonstate actors often don’t share the basic values that underpin international law and norms, demonstrated by their intentional targeting of civilians. In the hands of nonstate actors, precision-guided weapons cease to be a tool that decreases collateral damage. Instead, they become weapons of strategic, and potentially mass, destruction. The lack of accountability for nonstate actors also drives some states to seek impunity for their actions by conducting them through proxy groups. Therefore, it seems blatantly clear that the international community should do everything in its power to prevent nonstate actors from acquiring these weapons.

To date, there are no adequate international norms on the proliferation of standoff precision capabilities to nonstate actors. The existing “binding” arms control framework regarding nonstate actors focuses on weapons of mass destruction. The 2004 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 determined that all states must refrain from providing support to nonstate actors to attain nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and their means of delivery. It also requires states to adopt laws and regulations to prevent proliferation of these systems.

Resolution 1540 recognizes that threats posed by nonstate actors are different in nature to those posed by states. However, its focus on nonconventional weapons and their delivery systems does not address precision-guided munitions. In addition, there are other U.N. Security Council resolutions that try to limit the proliferation of arms by and to certain states. These resolutions address specific regional threats. Examples include the controversial time-limited arms embargo on Iran (U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231); Resolution 2270 on North Korea, which is accompanied by a United Nations sanctions program; Resolution 2216, which prohibits arms transfers into Yemen; and the arms embargoes on Libya (Resolution 2473) and South Sudan (Resolution 2428). These resolutions have had varying degrees of success, depending on the will of other states to enforce the embargos.

The Arms Trade Treaty establishes standards for the international trade of conventional weapon systems. The treaty prohibits, among other things, arms transfer to states if the exporting state has prior knowledge that the arms would be used in the commission of grave war crimes. It also stipulates that arms transfers will be prohibited if the state assesses that it would “undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, as well as acts of terrorism or organized crime. On paper, the Arms Trade Treaty could provide a multilateral basis to address many of the concerns about precision-guided munitions and nonstate actors. However, the treaty applies only to member states and it does not include verification and punishment mechanisms. The Arms Trade Treaty also fails to emphasize the distinct threats relating to nonstate actors and has limited implications for states with low governance.

Current export control regimes don’t sufficiently address precision standoff capabilities, and are likely to face many challenges if they were to attempt to do so. The Missile Technology Control Regime, for example, focuses on delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction. Its members agreed to restrict the transfer of missiles and missile technology with a particular emphasis on systems with ranges of over 300 kilometers and payloads of at least 500 kilograms. Many of the standoff precision-guided systems do not fall under these categories and in any case, the export regime only applies to states who voluntarily adhere to it. In addition to export regimes, it is worth noting the 2003 Bush administration Proliferation Security Initiative. The initiative is an effort by “like-minded” states that aims to stop the transfer of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and other related materials to states and nonstate actors. This initiative is supposed to complement other international counterproliferation efforts. The initiative’s goals include interdicting illegal transfers and strengthening national legal authorities to facilitate interdiction.

Working Toward an Arms Control Regime

The international community has not defined a norm banning precision standoff capabilities in the hands of nonstate actors. This norm would be paramount to mobilizing countries to tackle the proliferation of these systems and to promote cooperation to counter this negative trend. Therefore, we propose a new arms control initiative that will set prohibitions on the transfer of standoff precision weapons, technologies, manufacturing capabilities, and know-how to nonstate actors. Ideally, this should be a U.N. Security Council resolution, which is the most comprehensive tool to bind all states and promote regulation. The resolution should address the transfer of complete weapon systems, as well as certain components, manufacturing capabilities, and know-how. It should include a robust implementation and reporting mechanism, while also facilitating information sharing between relevant parties. If a Security Council resolution is not politically viable, a multilateral decision (for example in the U.N. Conference on Disarmament) or a like-minded states’ initiative would be good alternatives, as means to advance the proper norm.

Arms control arrangements cannot, by themselves, eliminate the threat of precision standoff capabilities in the hands of nonstate actors.  However, as is evident in examples like the Biological Weapons Convention or the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (most commonly referred to as the “Ottawa Treaty”), arms control initiatives can promote international norms without fully achieving their declared aspirations. Similarly, the purpose of our proposed initiative would be primarily normative. The international community should recognize that there is a problem and agree on its characteristics. An arms control initiative sets the foundation for this agreement. Moreover, such an initiative would be a big step toward increasing the accountability of states that try to use nonstate actors as means to sustain legal impunity. This initiative would strengthen the legitimacy, regulation, and interstate efforts to counter the proliferation of these systems. This norm could be the basis of future sanctions regimes and efforts to reduce arms transfers to states that proliferate precision standoff technologies to nonstate actors.

As is evident from the nature of the threat, the efforts to tackle it are riddled with challenges. The dual-use nature of precision technology and unmanned aerial systems makes it very difficult to confine the scope of the technology. The legitimate uses and abundance of these systems significantly complicate the nonproliferation task, as the control of the supply chain is limited. Economic interests and commercial stakeholders might push back on these efforts. An arms control framework that deals with precision-guided missiles and rockets might be easier to achieve. This would be a good first step but a partial one nonetheless. Another challenge that arises is that some nonstate actors are viewed differently by various states. The Syrian Democratic Forces, for example, have been key partners to the West and an integral part of its strategy in Syria — the view from Moscow is very different. States may be wary to bind their own hands through this initiative with regards to supporting their partners, and therefore getting the right language is key. These are substantial challenges, but we believe that there is still a shared international interest in creating a norm that will promote security and stability.

We have already seen a glimpse of the potential damage of precision-guided systems in the hands of nonstate actors. Just as these systems have revolutionized the way conventional militaries operate, they are game-changers in the hands of nonstate actors. While arms control regimes are inherently imperfect, they help mobilize states to face significant threats. An arms control initiative could help tackle some of these challenges and move the international community to adopt a new paradigm to deal with these emerging, but very concrete, threats.



Itamar Lifshitz was a 2019–2020 fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is an officer in the Israel Defense Forces where he has led research and analysis teams.

Ayal Meents is an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. He has extensive expertise in strategic planning and arms control.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization with which they are associated.

Correction: A previous version of this article noted that the “Syrian Defense Forces” have been a key partner to the West. That was incorrect. The Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner to the West.

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