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– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Proliferation Threats Continue, Administration Officials Says

Matthew Rice

OFFERING THE GRIM assessment that proliferation threats will continue to grow, several senior administration officials visited Capitol Hill in early February to discuss a wide range of security issues facing the United States. While addressing many potential dangers, their reports gave special attention to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), with an emphasis on the spread of ballistic missile technology. Vice Admiral Thomas R. Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified February 2 before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that "the prospects for limiting proliferation are slim, and the global WMD threat to U.S. allied territory, interests, forces and facilities will increase significantly."

In addition to Wilson, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and J. Stapleton Roy, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, also appeared before the committee February 2 to present their annual reports. Robert Walpole, national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, testified before the Senate Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services on February 9.

According to their testimony, U.S. conventional military dominance is likely to remain unmatched in the foreseeable future, even with declining defense budgets. But the U.S. advantage may only intensify proliferation trends as "many potential adversaries believe they can preclude U.S. force options and offset U.S. conventional military superiority by developing WMD and missiles," Wilson explained.

The Intelligence Community's Nonproliferation Center further outlined the threat in its biannual report to Congress, also released in early February. According to the report, Iran has continued to develop an infrastructure for chemical and biological weapons production, the latter aided by contacts within the former Soviet Union. While there is no direct evidence that Iraq has begun rebuilding its WMD programs, the report noted recent construction activity at sites destroyed during Operation Desert Fox indicates that Iraq is "likely" doing so. The report also said that Libya and Syria have continued chemical-weapons-related procurement activities, though UN sanctions have limited those efforts.

Missile Proliferation Emphasized

The combined threat assessments agreed that the prospect for long-range ballistic missile use against the United States, while growing, remains low. Strong relationships with the United States and the U.S. deterrent make a Russian or Chinese ICBM attack "unlikely," Roy explained. The U.S. deterrent may also constrain programs in the so-called "rogue" states. "Given the credibility of U.S. retaliatory capabilities in the face of any nuclear attack on the American homeland, we would assign the North Korean threat to a tertiary level," Roy said. However, in his testimony, Walpole noted that over the next 15 years North Korea, Iran and potentially Iraq could emerge as long-range missile threats.

More likely in the short to medium term would be an attack by an alternative delivery mechanism, which, until long-range programs became more robust, would have the advantage of lower cost, greater accuracy and an increased ability to effectively disseminate chemical or biological agents, Walpole said. But alternative delivery means are not likely to prevent continuing efforts to develop long-range missiles given their unique ability to "provide a level of prestige, coercive diplomacy and deterrence that non-missile means do not." Walpole argued that missiles designed for such reasons would not need to be deployed in large numbers and would have reduced requirements for accuracy and reliability, potentially cutting the time needed for development and deployment.

The North Korean and Iranian programs were given special attention. With continued aid from Russian and Chinese entities, Iran's missile program in particular could approach self-sufficiency in the coming years, according to the Nonproliferation Center report. In addition, its Shahab-3 program, a medium-range ballistic missile with a reach of 1,300 kilometers, has achieved what the report termed "emergency operational capability"—the ability to deploy a limited number of delivery vehicles in a crisis situation.

North Korea continued work on its Taepo Dong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile, though a testing freeze negotiated with the United States remained intact. Chinese entities continued to provide raw materials and missile components in aid of this program. According to Roy, while the North Koreans have agreed to a freeze, they have yet to clarify the terms by which they would be willing to give up missile export activities, which have continued, particularly to countries in the Middle East.

While Iraq was designated the least likely of the three to deploy an ICBM within the next 15 years, the Nonproliferation Center report noted that its Al-Samoud ballistic missile, legally pursued under a UN-imposed range limit of 150 kilometers, could be reconfigured for a range of 180 kilometers. The report further explained that "once economic sanctions against Iraq are lifted, Baghdad probably will begin converting these efforts into longer range missile systems, unless restricted by future UN monitoring."

In addition to progress in these programs, Tenet warned of the emergence of "secondary suppliers"—countries that have long relied on imports of technology and expertise for the development of their own missile programs may begin to export their own knowledge and indigenously produced missiles or missile components. In the near term, this would likely be confined to the provision of shorter-range missiles and related materials. But as domestic infrastructures mature, longer-range delivery vehicles could be exported as well. Iran, for example, might be able to supply not only domestically produced Scuds, but the more advanced Shahab-3 as well, Tenet said.

Strategic Threats and NMD

For the foreseeable future, Russia and China will remain the only powers with the ability to accurately and reliably target U.S. cities with weapons of mass destruction, but the size and sophistication of their arsenals may vary depending on developments in their economies and their relationship with the United States, the officials concurred.

While the efficacy of missile defenses was not discussed, potential reactions to their deployment were mentioned. Roy noted that while "the aggregate nuclear-armed ICBM threat against the United States is declining dramatically" due to arms control obligations and Russian economic woes, "this situation could change for the worse if Moscow (and secondarily, Beijing) concluded that the United States was pursuing interests in fundamental conflict with their own." Altered threat perceptions could prompt Russia to halt nuclear reductions at or above 2,000 deployed warheads instead of the 1,500 it has suggested as a START III level.

Roy said that China could use multiple re-entry vehicles to triple its existing ICBM arsenal, which currently consists of about 20 Dong Feng-5 ICBMs, but Walpole added that China was not expected to do so in the near future. Roy also warned of a harsh reaction to U.S. missile defense plans. "The most serious potential threat to the United States would be Chinese military action, possibly in response to a perceived U.S. challenge to vital PRC interests…includ[ing] implementation of a robust theater missile defense system that nullified Chinese deterrence or included Taiwan," he said.

In addition, the deployment of missile defenses could spur trade in missile decoys and penetration aids. Russia and China would probably be willing to sell such technology, Walpole noted, and currently existing technologies could allow new proliferants to deploy countermeasures by the time that they flight test their missiles.