Intelligence Estimate Upgrades Chinese, Iranian Missile Threats

Alex Wagner

On January 9, the intelligence community released an unclassified summary of its 2001 report on foreign ballistic missile developments through 2015.

In general, the report differs little from the last public National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), issued in 1999, but the new estimate upgrades the threat posed by the Chinese and Iranian missile programs and indicates that terrorists with weapons of mass destruction pose a greater threat to the United States than ballistic missiles.

The estimate emphasizes that the United States is “more likely” to be attacked by weapons of mass destruction delivered by “nonmissile” means rather than by ballistic missiles and that a terrorist is the “most likely” actor to carry out such an attack. The report is the first intelligence estimate to reach such a conclusion, although Robert Walpole, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, made the same assessment during February 2000 testimony to Congress on the 1999 estimate.

The new report says China’s nuclear-armed ICBM arsenal will increasingly threaten the United States, judging that by 2015, Beijing could have between “75-100 long-range warheads deployed primarily against the United States.” The 1999 estimate said that China is likely to have tens of [single-warhead] missiles capable of targeting the United States” by 2015.

The estimate notes that a Chinese decision to deploy multiple warheads and missile defense countermeasures on its ICBMs “would be factors in the ultimate size of the force.” Citing China’s attempt to develop “a modern, more survivable strategic deterrent,” the report also states that Beijing is currently developing an 8,000-kilometer road-mobile DF-31, a longer-range DF-31, and a JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

By 2015, Beijing could have “about two dozen shorter range DF-31 and DF-4 ICBMs that could reach parts of the United States,” according to the NIE, although the DF-4’s 5,500-kilometer range would only allow it to target remote parts of Alaska. At present, China deploys approximately 20 single-warhead DF-5A ICBMs, which have a range of 13,000 kilometers and are the only Chinese missiles currently capable of reaching the United States.

The intelligence community has also upgraded the potential threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles. While the previous estimate said that the United States will “probably” face an ICBM threat from Iran by 2015, the new report says that the United States is “most likely” to encounter such a threat by that time. However, one agency, reportedly the State Department, deems it “unlikely” that Iran will successfully test an ICBM by 2015.

According to the report, Iran’s 1,300-kilometer Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) is “in the late stages of development,” despite the fact that Tehran’s most recent flight test of the Shahab-3 in September 2000 is believed to have failed. (See ACT, October 2000.)

The NIE includes new sections on India and Pakistan, augmenting the scant details provided in the 1999 report. While saying that India has made “progress toward its aim of achieving self-sufficiency for its missile programs,” the report notes that New Delhi continues to rely “heavily” on foreign assistance.

The estimate states that India will “probably” deploy the 2,000-kilometer Agni-2 missile before 2010 and that New Delhi is also developing the Sagarika, an SLBM that the intelligence community does not believe will be deployed before 2010. The report notes that the 150-kilometer Prithvi-1 continues to be New Delhi’s only currently deployed ballistic missile.

Notably, India “could convert its polar space launch vehicle into an ICBM within a year or two of a decision to do so” because “most components needed for an ICBM are available from India’s indigenous space program,” according to the report.

Regarding Pakistan, the report estimates that Islamabad will continue to make progress toward developing a “survivable, flexible [medium-range missile] force,” but it does not mention any Pakistani pursuit of an ICBM capability. The report characterizes Pakistan’s Ghauri-1 missile simply as a Nodong acquired from North Korea, whereas a January 2001 Defense Department report said that the 1,300-kilometer Ghauri was “based on” the Nodong.

Despite North Korea’s continued moratorium on missile tests and stated willingness to end its indigenous missile program and missile exports, there was no change in the intelligence community’s view of the North Korean missile threat from the last report. But the new estimate says that North Korea continues to develop the nuclear-capable Taepo Dong-2, which may be ready for flight testing and would be capable of reaching any target in the United States.

Although United Nations inspectors have not been in Iraq since December 1998, the intelligence community’s estimate of Baghdad’s missile capabilities is nearly unchanged from 1999. The report states that “most” of the agencies tasked with creating the new estimate “believe that Iraq is unlikely to test before 2015 any ICBMs that would threaten the United States, even if UN prohibitions were eliminated or significantly reduced in the next few years.” (Emphasis in original.) The current Iraq sanctions regime, in place since the Persian Gulf War, prohibits Baghdad from possessing or developing missiles with ranges over 150 kilometers.

The new NIE adds details to the 1999 estimate about Iraq’s potential development of MRBMs, saying that with “substantial foreign assistance, Baghdad could flight-test a domestic MRBM by mid-decade.” (Emphasis is original.) However, if coupled with “rapid erosion of UN prohibitions” and a “willingness to risk detection of developmental steps,” the report says that an Iraqi MRBM test by 2010 is likely.

Like the 1999 National Intelligence Estimate, the new report predicts missile developments independent of “significant political and economic changes,” a practice that generated much criticism by experts when the 1999 estimate was released. (Emphasis in original.)