Joshua PollackReverse-Engineering the Grimmett Reports

Since giving a presentation on North Korea’s missile trade last month in Seoul at the Asan Plenum, I’ve had a couple of requests to explain the data sources more precisely. Much of the curiosity stems from an article in the English-language online edition of the Chosun Ilbo that attributed the data to “a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.” Well, not exactly. Good luck finding any report like that.

OK, then. Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about where the numbers come from. Seriously, you’ve been warned.

For aficionados of CRS, the headline of this post has already given half the game away. Richard F. Grimmett’s annual reports, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations,” contain a heap of unique data on, well, what the title says. (The reports state that they contain “official, unclassified, background data from US government sources.”) And they’re my source for how many complete missile systems North Korea is known to have delivered abroad, to what regions, in what years.

(Prior to 1995, the reports were called “Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World.” Prior to 1991, they were called “Trends in Conventional Arms Transfers to the Third World by Major Supplier.” What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.)

Still, one thing the Grimmett reports won’t tell you is very much specifically about North Korea. Getting from Grimmett’s raw data to a reconstruction of North Korean missile deliveries took a heap of work, to use a technical term. The results appear as Table 1 in “Ballistic Trajectory: The Evolution of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Market,” which appears in the current issue of the Nonproliferation Review. You can download it free of charge.

The best things in life are free, they always say.

A Peek Inside the Sausage Factory

Ballistic missiles appear in the Grimmett reports as “surface-to-surface” missiles, or SSMs. (It appears that this category has yet to capture any cruise missiles, which either count as anti-ship missiles or have been excluded by virtue of being air-launched.) The first step was to figure out which figures in this category could be attributed to North Korea. Of the six categories of arms sellers — U.S., Russia, China, Major West European, All Other European, and All Others — just three are recorded as delivering SSMs: Russia, China, and All Others. Based on an extensive, iron-rich diet of missile-related readings, I’ve concluded that the “All Others” SSM numbers for 1987 through 2009 correspond to North Korea. Why 1987? See especially Joe Bermudez’s paper from 1999 on the history of the North Korean missile program.

The second step was processing Grimmett’s numbers. Each report covers the prior eight years, and contains tables with two four-year bins for arms deliveries to each region of the globe, e.g., 2002-2005 and 2006-2009. The earliest available period involving a sane definition of SSMs (i.e., one that excludes anti-tank missiles!) is 1984-1987, which enables reconstruction of figures starting from 1984.

Naturally, each bin repeats four years after its initial appearance. For example, there’s a 1991-1994 bin in the 1995 report, and the same thing again in the 1999 report. The numbers in these repeated bins aren’t fully consistent, indicating retrospective updates in the underlying database. I resolved these inconsistencies in favor of the more recent reports.

The third step was to convert the four-year bins into annual data. This started with exercises in logic. For example, there were (about) 90 SSMs delivered from “All Others” to the Near East in 1992-1995, (about) 30 SSMs in 1993-1996, and zero in 1994-1997. It’s a straightforward inference that there were about 60 deliveries in 1992 (the difference between 90 and 30), about 30 deliveries in 1993, and none thereafter through 1997.

Unfortunately, the data contained a few irresolvable inconsistencies. After struggling with alternative interpretations, I opted for whatever reconstruction tended to favor more recent reports while minimizing the overall “error,” again on the assumption that retrospective updates were responsible for the apparent problem. The differences between interpretations are small in any case, and the inconsistencies were few to begin with. But reader beware: because of the retrospective-updating phenomenon, recent numbers should be considered provisional. As subsequent Grimmett reports appear, I might get around to revising the table. Watch this space.

The Soviet Scud Question

To get a fuller picture of the global missile market, I carried out these steps not only for North Korea but also Russia and China. All three appear in the paper in Table 1. The Soviet figures contain an oddity: a staggering 1,660 SSM deliveries to “Asia” from 1989 to 1991. These figures correspond to the appearance of Scud missiles on the battlefield in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet ground troops in 1988. Did the Soviets really export that many missiles over such a short period?

In the end, I discounted these numbers, a choice supported by reports that “all functions connected with the security, transportation, storage and launch of Scud missiles [in Afghanistan] are handled by Soviet advisers.” In other words, they weren’t exports at all, but were missiles operated abroad by Red Army troops. A book co-authored by a retired ISI Brigadier, Mohammed Yousaf, makes essentially the same claim.

How long that situation persisted is less clear. An article by Bermudez in the February 1992 issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review dated the arrival of the Scuds to October 1988, commenting that “there is little doubt that at this time that the ‘Scuds’ were under the direct operational control of the Soviets, who conducted all fire missions.” But it isn’t apparent whether unused missiles might have been left with the Afghan military after the abrupt withdrawal of the “advisers,” which Bermudez dates to November 1991. Regardless, this wasn’t the actual subject of the paper, so even including all 1,660 SSMs wouldn’t have changed any of its conclusions. Although it would interfere with claims like “40% of Missiles in Developing World Came from N.Korea.”

I’ll let Jeffrey tackle the question of whether any deliveries are missing from the China column.

On a Personal Note

Thanks to those who made it possible to do this research and to present it. Thanks also to the voters who picked my article as the winner of the first online reader survey at the Nonproliferation Review. However much other recent evidence might suggest otherwise, democracy clearly is the best system.

Update. See also “North Korea’s Shrinking Role in the Global Missile Market,” now live at It details recent interceptions of arms shipments from North Korea, discusses Burma’s apparent emergence as a new customer, and identifies new ballistic missile suppliers, actual or potential.

Late Update. Missile control: A multi-decade experiment in nonproliferation,” is now live at It builds on this research to uncover what has worked to stop missile proliferation, what hasn’t, and what lessons could be drawn from that for related challenges.

Another Update | Sept. 1, 2011. FAS has just posted a complete run of the Grimmett reports from 1982 through 2010. Now you can roll your own version of Table 1, if you like.


  1. yousaf (History)

    Josh, thanks — great presentation btw. I would like to underline what you mention re. BMD:

    According to the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report (2010), Iran, Syria, and North Korea are now amassing increasingly large and sophisticated ballistic missile arsenals

    – “Proliferators are increasing the number of deployed systems (and thus raid sizes), shifting from liquid- to solid-fueled systems, and deploying missile defense

    • Ballistic missile defense has helped to stimulate these developments

    And, note, that the BMDR report also explicitly states, “Both Russia and China have repeatedly expressed concerns that U.S. missile defenses adversely affect their own strategic capabilities and interests.”

    And the bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission points out specifically that, “China may already be increasing the size of its ICBM force in response to its assessment of the U.S. missile defense program.”

    Lastly, although there is great interest in Iranian missiles and future possible nuclear weapon capability, the NK Unha-2 is much more potent than anything Iran has — and given NK’s fledgling nuclear weapons, the overall threat from NK is bigger than that from Iran, or any of the states NK may be proliferating to.

    • joshua (History)

      Thanks, Yousaf. I’m not sure how seriously to take the Unha-2 space launcher as a missile threat, given its failure to perform in 2009, but I take your overall point.

  2. Scott Monje (History)


    This may be naive, but couldn’t you just ask Grimmett about his sources? After all, he says they’re unclassified.

    • joshua (History)

      I think the sources are adequately described. Aren’t they?

      There is this additional caveat in the reports:

      “Data relating to surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles by foreign suppliers are estimates based on a variety of sources having a wide range of accuracy. As such, individual data entries in these two weapons delivery categories are not necessarily definitive.”

  3. Anya L. (History)

    I have a secret stash of Grimmett reports on my hard drive. It’s exciting to learn that there are more members of that particular fan club.

    What I want to know is… Why didn’t you just ask the man about the “All Others” category?

    • joshua (History)

      And spoil all the fun?

  4. JWest (History)

    Would welcome Mr. Grimmett’s commentary on ACW.
    Thanks for yours.
    V/R JWest

  5. joshua (History)

    From the Dep’t of Things I Wish I’d Known About. Steve Zaloga writes:



    Regarding the 1,660 TBM in the Grimmett reports, the Afghan Army’s 99th Missile Brigade fired 438 R-17 (Scud B) missiles in March-June 1989, 995 through October 1989 and 1,554 by May 1991. They were used mainly in the defense of Jalalabad. The figure I have seen is around 1,700 missiles delivered from the USSR. About 50 were still in inventory in 1992 after the collapse of the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan – JP]. I covered this in my monograph “Scud Ballistic Missile and Launch Systems 1955-2005” (New Vanguard 120, Osprey Publishing: 2006). The 99th Missile Brigade had a significant Soviet component, and I suspect they were simply expending stocks of old (possibly age-expired) missiles.


    Steve Zaloga


    Unfortunately, the book — which appears to be very nicely illustrated, by the way — is listed as “out of stock” by the publisher: Happily, though, used copies are available at the usual websites.

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