Rumsfeld Panel Releases Report on Missile Threat to U.S.

Craig Cerniello

IN MID-JULY, the congressionally mandated "Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States," led by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, concluded that the United States may have "little or no warning" before so-called "rogue nations," such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, are able to deploy long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory. Although congressional Republicans claim the finding justifies the immediate deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system, the report did not address this issue and the Clinton administration, which opposes NMD deployment at this time, has not backed away from the intelligence community's assessment that the United States is unlikely to face such a threat before 2010.

According to a November 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE 95-19) on the emerging ballistic missile threat to North America, "No country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada." Dissatisfied with the conclusion of that assessment, Congress, in the fiscal year (FY) 1997 defense authorization bill, ordered an independent review of the NIE.

The independent review, chaired by former CIA Director Robert Gates, criticized aspects of the NIE but rejected the charge that the estimate was "politicized" and reaffirmed the conclusion that rogue nations are unlikely to develop ICBMs capable of threatening the United States before 2010. (See ACT, January/February 1997.)

The authorization bill also established the so-called "Rumsfeld Commission," which was only responsible for analyzing the nature of the missile threat to the United States and not appropriate responses to that threat. In its unclassified executive summary released July 15, the nine-member Rumsfeld Commission reported that it had unanimously reached four key conclusions.

First, it noted that several hostile or potentially hostile nations are acquiring ballistic missiles armed with nuclear or biological weapons capable of threatening the United States and its allies. The commission concluded that once a decision had been made to acquire such a capability, it could only take North Korea and Iran five years and Iraq 10 years to acquire a ballistic missile capable of inflicting "major destruction" on the United States. Second, the commission said the emerging ballistic missile threat to the United States is "broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly" than the intelligence community had reported in the past. Third, the commission said, "The Intelligence Community's ability to provide timely and accurate estimates of ballistic missile threats to the U.S. is eroding." Finally, in a theme that runs throughout their analysis, the commissioners argued that the United States will have reduced warning of threatening ballistic missile deployments by rogue nations and that under some scenarios there may be "little or no warning."

Based on these conclusions, the commission recommended the revision of U.S. policies that assume extended warning time for ballistic missile threats. In its report, the commission noted that rogue nations are not following the lengthy development and deployment cycles for ballistic missiles that were utilized by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, and that rogue states are now able to enhance their missile programs through foreign assistance.

In a July 15 letter to various members of Congress, CIA Director George Tenet defended his agency's recent assessment of the missile threat to the United States, which offered a longer timeline than does the Rumsfeld Commission for the emergence of an ICBM threat from a country other than Russia, China and North Korea. He said the conclusions of the CIA's March 1998 Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Missile Developments were supported by the available evidence, well tested in community debate and reviewed by outside experts. "But where evidence is limited and the stakes are high," Tenet said, "we need to keep challenging our assumptions."

In a July 15 statement, House National Security Committee Chairman Floyd Spence (R-SC) said, "The commission's work reinforces my views on the urgency of committing to the deployment of missile defenses to protect the American people as soon as possible...." That same day, Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) said the findings of the commission "confirm the need to move forward with a commitment to deploy a national missile defense." Under the Clinton administration's so-called "3+3" program, the United States will decide in 2000 whether to deploy an NMD system by 2003 if merited by the existing threat and the available technology. If a deployment decision is not made in 2000, the United States will continue to refine the elements of its system, remaining three years away from actual deployment. However, critics of an early NMD deployment date remain skeptical. On July 7, Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) released a new report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) which concluded that even with increased funding there are "high" schedule and technical risks associated with deploying an NMD system by 2003.