The war in Ukraine has decisively confirmed the arrival of a new missile age. This era is characterized by a surge in the global supply and demand signals for both missile-based delivery systems and the means to counter them. In addition to the morale of the Ukrainian people and intelligence for targeting support, it is a conflict defined by the mass use of precision fires. The threat of Ukrainian air defenses has impeded the free rein of Russian air forces, and thousands of Russian missiles have done the same to Ukraine. All of this occurs under a nuclear shadow and continued Russian nuclear saber-rattling. How well the threats of nonnuclear air and missile attack are handled will shape the prospects of future nuclear proliferation.
This conflict’s primacy of long-range standoff weapons—missiles of all stripes—confirms a much longer trend. Decades ago, the primitive guidance of Scuds led to them being categorized as a boutique or terror weapon, rather than one with military effect. No more. The diffusion of precision guidance—and advanced intelligence and targeting systems—have made them effective and indispensable. Russia has pounded Ukraine for months with precision missile fires—the largest volume of ordnance in Europe since World War II—exacting a heavy toll on economic infrastructure, military forces, and population, even as it has failed at combined arms and many ground assaults. Iran, Azerbaijan, and Armenia have used precision missiles extensively in regional conflicts. As Assistant Secretary of Defense John Plumb testified in May, “Offensive missiles are increasingly weapons of choice for Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, for use in conflict and to coerce and intimidate their neighbors both in peacetime and crisis.”