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former IAEA Director-General

The New Missile 'Threat' Gap
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Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

A new "threat" gap has suddenly burst upon the political scene. The congressionally mandated Rumsfeld Commission has concluded that rogue states could shortly threaten the United States with ICBMs armed with weapons of mass destruction. Advocates of immediate deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system heralded the report as establishing a new clear and present danger.

The commission credits Iran and North Korea with the ability to develop and deploy ICBMs armed with nuclear, biological or chemical warheads indigenously within five years of a decision, and claims that such a program could be carried out clandestinely without U.S. knowledge. Since the decision could have been made years ago, it follows that the threat could appear full blown at any time and that the United States "might well have little or no warning before operational deployment." This startling assessment differs radically with the 1995 National Intelligence Estimate, reaffirmed this March, that such a threat from rogue nations would not emerge before 2010 with the possible exception of a potential North Korean capability against the largely uninhabited western-most parts of the Hawaiian Islands and Alaska.

Despite the commission's strong criticism of the intelligence community's estimating methodology, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet stood by the national estimate, emphasizing that it represented the community's assessment taking into account the real world factors affecting these programs. Moreover, General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated unequivocally that the chiefs remained confident that the intelligence community would provide "the necessary warning" of any ICBM threat to the United States by rogue countries.

The Rumsfeld Commission apparently assumes that rogue states will give overriding priority to deploying a small number of ICBMs armed with weapons of mass destruction to threaten some targets in the United States in the belief that this would deter U.S. intervention in regional conflicts. In reality, however, even the most "irrational" rogue state would be deterred from threatening, much less undertaking, such an attack by the prospect of overwhelming U.S. retaliation or even pre-emptive strikes, since in the post-Cold War era there is little danger of military escalation involving other nuclear powers.

The report suggests that rogue states, unfettered by the exacting engineering demands in advanced nuclear-weapon states, could move expeditiously to simplified ICBMs and concurrently defeat U.S. intelligence by working underground with only a final proof test. For these countries with limited technical and management expertise such high technical risk programs represent a most unlikely scenario. The suggested alternative that complete operational ICBM systems might be purchased from Russia or China appears equally unlikely, given their own security concerns and the increasing cooperation of these countries in restricting relevant trade with the suspect states. If these scenarios seem implausible, the report suggests that rogue states could simply launch shorter-range missiles from ships, aircraft or the territory of U.S. neighbors. One wonders which neighbors would sacrifice themselves for a rogue state.

To deal with these unlikely missile threats, there are strident congressional calls for the immediate deployment of a national missile defense even though no such system exists and those in development could, according to one member of the Rumsfeld Commission, be easily defeated by any state technologically sophisticated enough to produce an ICBM. Moreover, to meet other nuclear threats suggested by the commission and others, the United States would also have to deploy a massive air defense system to deal with aircraft delivery and seal U.S. borders and coasts against smuggling threats.

The best defense against future missile threats by rogue states is not a crash effort to deploy expensive, unproven defenses, but rather aggressive pursuit of measures to reduce the possibility that such threats will ever materialize. Such measures include improved controls on international trade through the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group; prompt U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to secure U.S. leadership in strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime; passage of implementing legislation to bring the United States into compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention; and major, imaginative efforts focused on ending missile and weapons of mass destruction programs in the few states of concern.

How ironic and tragic it would be if the United States, having successfully survived and won the Cold War against an extremely powerful adversary, should now retreat into a fortress America in fear of a very unlikely missile threat from a few weak rogue states.

Posted: June 1, 1998