U.S. Intelligence Estimate Warns of Rising Missile Threats

IN A NEW National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), summarized and submitted by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) as an unclassified report to Congress, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that "during the next 15 years the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China and North Korea, probably from Iran and possibly from Iraq." While detailing the growing missile capabilities of the so-called rogue states, the report, released on September 9, noted that the Russian threat will remain the "most robust and lethal." Theater and national missile defenses will, according to the report, prompt countries developing missiles to respond by "deploying larger forces, penetration aids and countermeasures."

The NIC identified three key characteristics of the evolving missile threat. First, that the majority of missile proliferation is occurring below the ICBM (5,500-kilometer range) level. Second, many countries developing ICBMs "probably assess that the threat of their use" would deter, complicate or constrain U.S. action, despite Washington's recognized military superiority. Third, the probability of ballistic missile use against "U.S. forces or interests,"including with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads, has increased to a level higher than that experienced during most of the Cold War. The report further pointed out that "emerging long-range missile powers do not appear to rely on robust test programs," and may be willing to deploy missiles after a single test, thereby reducing the intelligence community's ability to provide adequate warning of ICBM deployment.

Overall, the NIC described the new missile threats as involving states with "considerably fewer missiles with less accuracy, yield, survivability, reliability, and range-payload capability" than those faced in the past. In comparison with Chinese and Russian ICBM stocks, the estimate emphasized that "initial North Korean, Iranian and Iraqi ICBMs would probably be fewer in number—a few to tens rather than hundreds or thousands."

The Rogue States

North Korea, using technology in its Taepo Dong-1 rocket, which was fired in a failed August 1998 attempt to place a satellite into orbit, is considered most likely to develop an ICBM capable of threatening the United States. With "an operable third stage and a reentry vehicle capable of surviving ICBM flight, a converted Taepo Dong-1 SLV [space launch vehicle] could deliver a light payload to the United States," the NIC report claims. (Emphasis in original.) But the NIC judged that it would be unlikely that the missile could carry a nuclear warhead, though a chemical or biological weapon payload is considered feasible.

Pyongyang's still-untested Taepo Dong-2, however, is more likely to be weaponized than the Taepo Dong-1, and with two stages would be capable of delivering "a several-hundred kilogram payload to Alaska and Hawaii, and a lighter payload to the western half of the United States." A third stage could enable delivery of the larger payload "anywhere in the United States." Though the report noted a Taepo Dong-2 test was probable, North Korea subsequently announced on September 24 a moratorium on missile tests while engaged in negotiations with Washington to improve bilateral relations. (See story.)

By copying North Korea's example of attempting to use the Taepo Dong-1 to launch a satellite, Iran is thought "likely to test a SLV by 2010 that—once developed—could be converted into an ICBM capable of delivering a several-hundred kilogram payload to the United States." The NIC admits, however, that intelligence analysts are divided over the likely timing of Iran's first flight test of an ICBM capable of reaching the United States. Estimates range from "likely before 2010" to "less than an even chance by 2015." (Emphasis in original.)

Despite the loss of much of Iraq's missile program infrastructure during and after the Persian Gulf War, the NIC reported that Iraq could test an ICBM threatening the United States by 2015. Baghdad, according to the report, is likely to try to emulate North Korea by extending the range of Scud-based ballistic missiles by using staging technology to develop an ICBM capability. As with Iran, analysts differ on the likelihood of Iraq testing an ICBM before either 2010 or 2015.

An ICBM capability by both Iraq and Iran could be accelerated through foreign assistance, the NIC warns. Russian missile assistance was cited as continuing to be "significant," while China was charged with continuing to "contribute" to missile programs in other countries. The report concludes that Moscow and Beijing are unlikely to sell "a complete ICBM, SLV, or the technologies tantamount to a complete ICBM."

Russia and China, which are credited with having "developed numerous countermeasures" to ballistic missile defense, are judged, however, as likely to sell technologies related to these countermeasures. The report assesses that North Korea, Iran and Iraq would probably "rely initially on available technology—including separating RVs [re-entry vehicles], spin-stabilized RVs, RV reorientation, radar absorbing material (RAM), booster fragmentation, low-power jammers, chaff, and simple (balloon) decoys—to develop penetration aids and countermeasures." The report concludes that "these countries could develop countermeasures based on these technologies by the time they flight-test their missiles."

The NIC further reported that countries could pursue non-missile delivery options to avoid missile defenses. Another factor that could prompt delivery by ship, truck or an airplane, according to the report, is that "initial indigenous nuclear weapons designs are likely to be too large and heavy for a modest-sized ballistic missile." The NIC asserts that covert delivery methods, though less impressive, could offer "reliability advantages" over a missile—an important consideration for countries with few nuclear weapons.

Russia and China

Though focused on emerging threats, the NIC observed that Russia's strategic forces will "remain formidable," but will "decrease dramatically...primarily because of budget constraints" to a level "well short of START I or II limitations." The probability of an unauthorized or accidental Russian launch, in the NIC's assessment, is "highly unlikely so long as current technical and procedural safeguards are in place."

The NIE-based report estimated that China, which currently only has about 20 ICBMs that can target the entire United States, will continue modernizing its strategic nuclear forces, introducing two solid-fuel ICBMs: the 8,000-kilometer DF-31 and a longer-range ICBM (usually termed the DF-41). The DF-31 will primarily be targeted at Russia and Asia, while the DF-41 will be directed against the United States.

While noting that Beijing has had the technical capability to develop multiple RV payloads for 20 years, the NIC estimates that Chinese deployment of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) on "a future mobile missile would be many years off." Ultimately, the NIC predicts Beijing "will likely have tens of missiles targeted against the United States, having added a few tens of more survivable land- and sea-based mobile missiles with smaller nuclear warheads—in part influenced by U.S. technology gained through espionage."

Fresh Controversy Over M-11s

The intelligence community's report produced new controversy over Pakistan's alleged November 1992 acquisition of Chinese M-11 short-range ballistic missiles. Long a red flag for those who believe the Clinton administration has deliberately ignored U.S. non-proliferation laws by not imposing sanctions on China, the report's outright assertion of the Chinese transfer prompted Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) to threaten to hold up a key U.S. State Department nomination until sanctions are imposed on Beijing. "The administration can adhere to the MTCR [Missile Technology Control Regime] law, which it has been flouting for the past six years, or it can make do without any assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation affairs," Helms said at a September 16 hearing.

The State Department has long insisted that the evidence regarding the M-11 transfer is insufficient to satisfy the high threshold needed to impose sanctions for shipments of whole missiles (so-called Category I transfers). The Clinton administration did impose so-called Category II sanctions on China in August 1993 for missile-related materials and technology transfers, and has urged Beijing to join the MTCR.

China obtained relief from the U.S. sanctions in October 1994 by pledging to observe the MTCR's "guidelines and parameters" and end sales of whole ground-to-ground missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more. Subsequently, China has reportedly continued its trade in missile components and technologies, which are covered by MTCR while Beijing considers joining the regime.