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Rumsfeld Reprise? The Missile Report That Foretold the Iraq Intelligence Controversy
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Greg Thielmann

In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has come under fire for his part in the Bush administration’s misuse of U.S. intelligence to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But Rumsfeld’s tendency to hype selective portions of intelligence that support his policy goals was already familiar to intelligence professionals. They remember his chairmanship of a 1998 congressionally chartered commission charged with evaluating the nature and magnitude of the ballistic missile threat to the United States. As with Iraq, Rumsfeld’s work on ballistic missiles often ignored the carefully considered views of such professionals in favor of highly unlikely worst-case scenarios that posited an imminent threat to the United States and prompted a military, rather than diplomatic, response. Just as is likely to be the case with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), time has proven Rumsfeld’s predictions dead wrong.

The “Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States,” chaired by Rumsfeld and released in July 1998, was one of the most influential congressionally mandated reports in recent memory. The presentation of the Rumsfeld Commission report and the unexpected attempt by North Korea to launch a satellite one month later combined to create a political tidal wave that ultimately engulfed one of the most successful arms control treaties in history, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The report also led to massive increases in spending on defenses against ICBMs rather than on domestic spending, other defense priorities, or more urgent defenses against short- and medium-range missiles. Because the Rumsfeld report had such a significant impact on U.S. foreign and defense policy, it is worth checking the report’s predictions against current realities.

To do so on the report’s fifth anniversary is particularly appropriate because of the report’s emphasis on how much the missile threat could grow during a five-year period. The report concluded that any nation with a well-developed, Scud-based missile infrastructure would be able to flight-test an ICBM within about five years of deciding to do so. It further asserted that North Korea and Iran were seeking this capability in order to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Yet, since the report’s release, none of the emerging missile states have flight-tested a missile with even half the range of an ICBM. The report that helped kill the ABM Treaty was spectacularly wrong about its principal premise. “Happy Anniversary” greetings are not in order.

The report’s central and most clarion warning is contained in the first paragraph of its unclassified Executive Summary :

The newer ballistic missile-equipped nations [North Korea, Iran, and Iraq]…would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the U.S. might not be aware that such a decision had been made.1

The report further states that North Korea and Iran place “a high priority on threatening U.S. territory, and each is even now pursuing advanced ballistic missile capabilities to pose a direct threat to U.S. territory.” Such language created the strong impression that the five-year clocks of North Korea and Iran were already running. Moreover, the estimate of a five-year timeline from the development decision point to the initial ICBM capability was said to apply not just to the three countries that President George W. Bush would later label the “axis of evil,” but to any nation “with a well-developed, Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructure.”

The Rumsfeld Commission strongly implied that movement from single-stage, short-range ballistic missiles to multiple-staged ICBMs is a straight-line, relatively rapid, and predictable progression. This notion is both ahistorical and unrealistic. Missile development programs of even the most advanced industrialized states have advanced in fits and starts, encountering serious programmatic setbacks along the way. Even after the development secrets of long-range missiles have been unlocked by other states, it can take many years to move beyond the rudimentary short-range missiles represented by the Soviet Scud model. Those countries today that seek to build missiles that can deliver a sizeable payload on target to the other side of the globe must still overcome significant technological hurdles. These include, among others, the use of staging, developing, or acquiring sophisticated guidance systems and mastering high stress atmospheric re-entry. Moreover, emerging missile states also have to seek foreign help in an environment where most potential suppliers have pledged to withhold assistance.

The report also warned ominously about the scope, pace, and inscrutability of ballistic missile proliferation and, in a harbinger of Iraq, dismissed the ability of intelligence professionals to monitor developments. “The threat to the U.S.…is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community.” The report identified a new danger from “alternative ballistic missile launch modes,” such as sea-launched, short-range ballistic missiles and third-country basing schemes. Furthermore, the report concluded that the Intelligence Community could no longer be expected to provide ample warning of threatening developments. “The Intelligence Community’s ability to provide timely and accurate threats of ballistic missile threats to the U.S. is eroding.… The U.S. might have little or no warning before operational deployment.”

Reverent Attention From the Pundits

Such a unanimous conclusion about the future by nine prominent experts (Rumsfeld, Dr. Barry M. Blechman, General Lee Butler, Dr. Richard L. Garwin, Dr. William R. Graham, Dr. William Schneider Jr., General Larry Welch, Dr. Paul Wolfowitz, and The Honorable R. James Woolsey) was hard to challenge at the time, particularly after North Korea appeared to underscore their findings with the flight of a three-stage Taepo Dong-1 space launch vehicle on August 31, 1998. Commentators and pundits soberly intoned about the heightened peril. The new missile powers were declared more dangerous than the old. Their strategic ballistic missile potential was said to be emerging rapidly and their governments were presumed to have already taken the decision to develop ICBMs, leaving little time for remedial action. A typical example of the report’s uncritical reception was provided by Brookings Institution President Michael H. Armacost: “[T]he potential ballistic missile threat to the American homeland has increased as missile delivery system technology has proliferated, as noted in the Rumsfeld Commission report.”2 Most relevant to the actionable strategic policy issue of the day, many pundits concluded that the new threat could only be reliably addressed by deploying ballistic missile defenses outside of ABM Treaty limits.

The Intelligence Community Bends

The intelligence community had been judged harshly by elements of Congress for the alleged sanguinity of its past assessments of foreign ballistic missile developments. Yet, an attempt to get a more forward-leaning professional assessment on missiles by appointing a commission chaired by former CIA director Robert Gates did not succeed in fundamentally altering previous intelligence judgments. After passing a new law, which broke with the congressional tradition of naming commission members proportionately between the parties, the Republican majority did succeed in appointing a new commission under Rumsfeld and naming six of its nine members. In an apparent effort to mollify Republican congressional critics, the intelligence community adopted a more alarmist tone in its next full-blown National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the subject in 1999, “Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015.” This NIE lowered the threshold for identifying a new missile threat. The previous standard of “initial operating capability,” still used by the U.S. military, was discarded in favor of using the first flight test of either a missile or a space launch vehicle as the key milestone. This new milestone was inelegantly dubbed “initial threat availability,” but its exact meaning was elusive. Did it mean, for example, the first fully successful flight test? Would the proliferant state have confidence that the missile would work without a fully successful test or even after only one successful test? Not surprisingly, adoption of the new criterion meant that missile systems under development would now be considered “a threat” significantly earlier than before.

The impact of the definitional change was made dramatically clear in the NIE’s treatment of the August 1998 Taepo Dong-1 launch. The North Korea section of the unclassified summary’s Key Points began by assessing that “North Korea could convert its Taepo Dong-1 space launch vehicle [SLV] into an ICBM that could deliver a light payload…to the United States.” The tone implied that a quasi-ICBM threat already existed. One would have to read deeper into the document to learn that this system failed even to place its small satellite in orbit. If the system were to be converted from an SLV into an ICBM, the North Koreans would also have to learn how to construct a warhead that could be brought back through the atmosphere successfully, undamaged by the considerable heat and vibration of re-entry, and then could be directed to hit its target. These requirements each pose discrete engineering challenges — and mastering them is far from a foregone conclusion for a country that has no long-distance instrumented test range and no long-range missile development experience.

The NIE featured warnings of what “could” happen more prominently than projections of what was “likely to” happen. The result echoed that of the Rumsfeld Commission, heightening concerns about technically possible but wholly implausible scenarios. Thus before presenting what analysts judged were Iraq’s most likely capabilities, the NIE declared that “most analysts believe Iraq could test an ICBM that could deliver a lighter payload to the United States in a few years based on its failed SLV or the Taepo Dong-1,” which could be imported from North Korea. While readily absorbing the alarm inherent in the expression “in a few years,” readers were less likely to note that neither scenario made much sense, nor was anyone predicting that either would happen. A similar argument was advanced with Iran. In neither case did the report explicitly state what analysts well understood: a lighter payload would necessarily be a non-nuclear one and lack significant military impact. Buried toward the end of the report was the clarification that, when it came to larger payloads, analysts were divided between “likely before 2010” to “unlikely before 2015.”

The NIE did a better job than the Rumsfeld Commission of accurately describing the awesome but declining strength of Russian strategic forces and of describing the relative numerical insignificance and qualitative weaknesses of any ICBMs that might emerge from North Korea, Iran, or Iraq. It described the Russian ICBM threat as “considerably more robust and lethal than that posed by China, and orders of magnitude more than the threat posed by other nations.” The Rumsfeld report’s Executive Summary is focused almost exclusively on emerging ballistic missile threats to the United States although the commission was mandated by Congress to assess “existing and emerging” threats. In passing quickly over Russia, the Rumsfeld report’s summary acknowledged that the number of missiles in the inventory was “likely to decline further” but stated that intelligence estimates on Russia were “difficult to make.” According to the NIE, Russian strategic forces would “decrease dramatically.” The commission warned that “the risk of an accident or loss of control over Russian ballistic missile forces…which now appears small…could increase sharply and with little warning.” The NIE judged the chance of an unauthorized or accidental launch as “highly unlikely so long as current technical and procedural safeguards are in place.”

Still, the NIE conformed to the principal Rumsfeld Commission theme that the threat from newer ballistic missile-equipped nations was broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than previously reported by the intelligence community. Particularly in its presentational aspects, the NIE repeated the commission’s emphasis on ballistic missile threats from North Korea, Iran, and Iraq over those from Russia and China. The threat from emerging states was emphasized up front in the list of “Key Points” in the unclassified summary and the sections of the main body, relegating the much more potent Russian and Chinese missile arsenals and the dramatic decline of Russian strategic forces to a secondary position. A reader of the NIE’s Key Points learns that the United States will most likely face new ICBM threats from North Korea and Iran by 2015 and that a North Korean Taepo Dong-2 ICBM “could be tested at any time.” But the same reader would have to read between the lines of the Key Points or to perform an exegesis of the discussion section to realize that the net ballistic missile threat to the United States through 2015 was expected to fall by thousands of warheads.

Subsequent intelligence community proclamations and products maintained fealty to the broad thrust of the Rumsfeld Commission report. For example, CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin told a space and missile conference in Huntsville, Alabama, on August 21, 2001, that:

[A] number of countries hostile to the United States are on a path that seems likely to expose America to an increased intercontinental [ballistic missile] threat…Some emerging missile states have already decided to go beyond medium-range weapons and develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.3

The only intelligence entity voicing public dissent on these themes was the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). According to INR Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Fingar, testifying in an open session of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on February 7, 2001, “INR assesses that, among states seeking long-range missiles, only North Korea could potentially threaten the U.S. homeland with ballistic missiles in this decade, and only if it abandons its current moratorium on long-range missile flight testing.”

What Has Happened

Looking around in the summer of 2003, five years after the Rumsfeld Commission completed its report, one sees a very different world than the one predicted. There have been no ICBM flight tests by any of the newer ballistic missile-equipped nations. As of this writing, North Korea has still not flight-tested its Taepo Dong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM)/ICBM, an event which the 1999 NIE predicted would probably take place that same year. In fact, none of the ballistic missiles flight-tested by the proliferant states have so far reached the 3,000-kilometer-range floor of the intermediate-range ballistic missile category. The total number of long-range ballistic missiles in the world, meanwhile, has fallen to roughly half of Cold War highs and the number of countries with active long-range programs has also declined. [See Chart 1.]

There is no doubt that ballistic missiles still hold attraction for a number of countries. The Rumsfeld Commission explained that “emerging powers…see ballistic missiles as highly effective deterrent weapons and as an effective means of coercing or intimidating adversaries, including the United States.” But the manifestation of this interest has primarily been seen in the category of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. According to a 2002 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reckoning, 22 of the 35 nations with ballistic missiles have missiles with ranges of 300 kilometers or less; only 11 have missiles with ranges of more than 1,000 kilometers.4 Five of these countries are nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states; four more are either friendly or at least not hostile to the United States. The remaining two states, North Korea and Iran, have single-stage, 1,300-kilometer-range missiles—the North Korean Nodong and its Iranian derivative, the Shahab-3. Neither poses an imminent ballistic missile threat to population centers in the United States, thousands of kilometers away. [See Chart 2.]

This analysis does not dispute that the existing ballistic missiles of proliferant states can pose a threat to U.S. forces, interests, or allies, nor does it argue for indifference to ongoing development programs for longer-range missiles. But efforts to develop and deploy defenses against these threats were not limited by the ABM Treaty. The Rumsfeld Commission report was specifically charged with assessing another kind of ballistic missile threat: that posed by strategic ballistic missiles, on which the ABM Treaty did pose limits. The salient policy question was therefore supposed to be whether and how soon a new strategic ballistic missile threat would emerge.

There is a general consensus among U.S. government and academic experts that both North Korea and Iran have development programs for longer-range missiles and for nuclear weapons. There is no consensus on whether the longer-range ballistic missile programs are on an immutable track to deployment and, if so, what the timetable for testing and deployment would be. On the fifth anniversary of the Rumsfeld Commission report, however, we can reach the tentative conclusion that the commission was either wrong about the intent of emerging missile states to develop and deploy ICBMs or wrong about the speed with which they could do so. It is also possible the commission was wrong about both. Moreover, none of the “plausible scenarios” for other, non-ICBM ballistic missile threats to the United States identified by the commission have materialized.

So What?

For the Rumsfeld Commission to have erred in its principal warning is an important symptom of deeper problems, but it is hardly an impeachable offense in and of itself. Indeed, it is unreasonable to expect either congressional commissions or intelligence agencies to predict the future with complete accuracy. Excessive concern about avoiding mistakes in prognostication can turn clear, insightful analysis into overly qualified mush. Properly done, the commission’s report could have helped its consumers understand trends, put dangers in perspective, and revealed underlying truths. The shortcoming of the Rumsfeld Commission report was not so much its inability to foresee specific missile development timelines as it was its failure to educate Congress and the public about an important and complicated issue. Instead of elucidating a security concern, it sounded a false alarm. In the process, it fostered a polarization of the intelligence community on the warning function, emphasizing possible but highly unlikely outcomes. Moreover, the Executive Summary of the report blurred the distinction between a real, tactical ballistic missile threat to U.S. forces and interests and a hypothetical future threat to U.S. territory from “rogue state” strategic ballistic missiles, just as the administration recently blurred the distinction between Iraq and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. This morphing of the threat was later matched by the Bush administration’s morphing of the response to the threat. Under Rumsfeld, the rhetorical, programmatic, and budgeting distinction between ballistic and tactical missile systems has been virtually eliminated in the administration’s analysis.

WMD Payloads: Apples and Oranges

The Rumsfeld Commission report also exaggerated the threats that Iran and North Korea could pose to the United States by blurring crucial distinctions on the ability of each country’s missiles to carry different payloads—from nuclear to chemical and biological weapons. The report asserted baldly that “a successfully launched ballistic missile has a high probability of delivering its payload to its target compared to other means of delivery.” But it didn’t make clear that these countries were far from producing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, far and away the most destructive payload, in terms of both the number of human victims and the amount of material damage. Because nuclear weapons require far more missile throw-weight than do chemical or biological weapons, developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM is an especially challenging way for North Korea or Iran to threaten the United States. The Rumsfeld report also did not explain that ballistic missiles are not an optimal means of delivering biological and chemical weapons. Biological weapons pose particular technical challenges in surviving the high temperatures of ICBM warhead re-entry. The deadly effects of chemical weapons are confined to the area of use, requiring more accuracy, and are critically weather dependent. Moreover, many types of chemical weapon agent are lethal for only a short period.

Rather than spelling out the relative dangers posed by the different weapons and evaluating the ability of Iran and North Korea to use ballistic missiles as delivery platforms, three categories of unconventional weapons were lumped together under the catchall label “weapons of mass destruction.” Such unqualified assertions mislead the non-expert reader about the basics of missile physics, contributing to the subsequent distortion of such events as North Korea’s unsuccessful Taepo Dong-1 space launch effort. In the latter case, the intelligence community was surprised by the addition of a small kick motor and satellite to the payload of the anticipated two-stage medium-range ballistic missile. Although North Korea failed to place the satellite in orbit, extrapolations of the system were made by strategic missile defense advocates to describe the Taepo Dong-1 as an intercontinental weapon, which could launch a “WMD”—meaning a chemical- or biological-weapon—warhead to the United States. Critics derided such a fantasy weapons payload as the “golf ball of death.”

If the Rumsfeld Commission had given a fair assessment of the dangers posed by ballistic missiles, far fewer of the foreign ballistic missiles projected by the commission to be a “serious threat” to the United States would have seemed so. Add to that the fact that the accuracy of rudimentary Iranian or North Korean ICBMs would be so poor as to prevent them even from reliably targeting cities and the report’s claims that such missiles have “a high probability of delivering its payload to its target compared to other means of delivery” would have come undone. Certainly, these nations would have been better off using simpler technologies to spread chemical or biological weapons even as the 1999 NIE pointed out. On the penultimate page of the unclassified summary’s discussion section, six advantages of nonmissile WMD delivery options for emerging ballistic missile states were listed, including less expense, greater accuracy, greater reliability, greater effectiveness for biological weapon dissemination, greater ability to avoid missile defenses, and greater ability to avoid retaliation by masking the source of attack.

Dulling Intelligence

The Rumsfeld Commission report, in addition to the U.S. intelligence community failures to provide tactical warning of the May 1998 Indian nuclear tests and the August 1998 North Korean missile launch, put intelligence agencies on the defensive. Intelligence officials were subsequently grilled during congressional hearings on previous ballistic missile threat assessments. The press criticized the failures of previous intelligence assessments to predict what happened. The intelligence community got the message and showed in subsequent ballistic missile assessments that it would not again be outdone in forecasting threats. But by making its projections more “worst case” and less qualified, these estimates became less useful for decision-makers, who have a greater need to know what is probable than what is theoretically possible. By making assessment criteria less precise, intelligence projections also became less useful for analysts and planners throughout government. The intelligence analysis, which predicts that “anything can happen,” may not be proven wrong, but neither will it be very useful. A similar dynamic emerged with intelligence assessments of Iraq. If a capability could not be disproven, it was assumed to exist. “Faith-based analysis” was characteristic of Rumsfeld in both cases.

Ignoring Deterrence

The Rumsfeld Commission report asserted that “emerging powers see ballistic missiles...as an effective means of coercing or intimidating adversaries, including the United States.” A number of U.S. officials, both in the Clinton and in the Bush administrations, have repeatedly claimed that the United States would not have come to Kuwait’s aid if Saddam Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons. (Such rhetoric would appear to have damaged U.S. deterrence much more effectively than any weapons developments occurring in the new missile states.) The report did not elaborate on why these states believed that strategic rather than shorter-range ballistic missiles were necessary to achieve this effect, but one can assume the authors were contending that only by credible threats to the American homeland would the United States be deterred from intervening in areas where its core interests were not engaged. Recent events, however, remind us that perceived threats to the American people can increase rather than discourage public support for U.S. military action abroad.

Logic would argue that any deterrent advantages for “rogue state” leaders of ballistic missiles with unconventional weapons could be achieved with shorter-range systems since the feared U.S. invasion force would likely be within range. For emerging missile powers to anticipate effectively intimidating the United States with threats of a direct missile attack against the American homeland is a dubious proposition. There is no empirical evidence that even the most erratic foreign leader would believe himself immune from such an attack. After all, the last time U.S. territory was attacked by a foreign state, the aggressor state was utterly defeated and then occupied, losing two cities to nuclear detonations in the process, and its ring-leaders were hanged. When a nonstate terrorist organization based in another country attacked America on September 11, 2001, the United States sent troops to the ends of the earth to overthrow that country’s government.

The problem with emerging missile powers using or threatening to use strategic ballistic missiles against the United States is that it cannot be done anonymously. There are no plausible scenarios for disguising the source of an ICBM attack on the United States. The sophistication of U.S. ballistic missile early-warning assets and the inability of emerging missile states to target those assets leaves little doubt that the origin of an ICBM attack would quickly become known. Devastating retaliation and the end of the attacker’s regime would have to be assumed.

Sabotaging Arms Control

The Clinton administration assumed that for it to win congressional approval for future reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces that it would need some kind of strategic missile defense. In 1996, the Clinton administration sought to demonstrate this support by designating National Missile Defense (NMD) as a acquisition program. Prior to the Rumsfeld Commission report, however, the president had not yet made a deployment decision and Congress had not mandated system deployment. The Rumsfeld report and the North Korean missile launch that summer provided a huge impetus to the effort to develop and deploy strategic missile defenses and a rationale for withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. The report’s dubious assertions that the new missile states could have ICBMs within five years of a deployment decision and that there would be little warning in advance of a flight test created a new sense of urgency. Although Clinton ultimately postponed the expected deployment decision in 2000, the die had been cast. It made little difference that the ABM Treaty did not preclude the deployment of defenses against the short- and medium-range missiles, which had experienced dynamic growth. Nor did it matter that there was a nearly universal desire internationally for retention of the ABM Treaty and that Russia had made START II implementation contingent on adherence to the ABM Treaty. Bush announced before the end of his first year in office that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty, without even selecting a system architecture that would explain the necessity for withdrawal. Six months later, the treaty was gone, and with it, the START II agreement that would have verifiably halved the number of U.S. and Russian strategic weapons.

Bilateral strategic arms control was not the only victim. Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty was one of the first in a long series of major U.S. policy decisions flying in the face of world opinion—spending precious political capital and lowering the reservoir of international support needed in moments of crisis. The full-bore pursuit of strategic missile defenses will have cost the United States tens of billions of dollars in obligations over five fiscal years. It has diverted attention and resources from the greater threat posed by terrorist attack. It has even siphoned funds from the tactical ballistic missile defense programs that would address a real and present danger to U.S. forces.

The Rumsfeld Commission report also weakened the NPT regime by ignoring progress made over the previous decade in nonproliferation efforts and implicitly denigrating the potential effectiveness of existing international instruments. So fixated was it on the empty half of the glass that it became completely blind to the full half. Moreover, by emphasizing how dire it would be for the United States to face off against even one unreliable, inaccurate ICBM with a biological- or chemical-weapon warhead, the report gave heart to the missile program advocates in hostile states that their efforts would yield a great political dividend in deterrent value.

The end result of both the Rumsfeld Commission report and subsequent intelligence estimates was to distract their consumers from the most serious security threats to the nation, leading to misallocation of resources, America’s estrangement from its allies, and a weakening of the nation’s deterrent. With five years’ hindsight, it is apparent that the impact of the Rumsfeld report were policies that actually worsened the security problems facing the nation. Now, in the aftermath of a war propelled by dubious threat assessments from the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz Pentagon, it is difficult to avoid being overcome by a powerful sense of déjà vu.

Ballistic Missiles: Who Has What?

China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the only countries that have deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). The table below depicts the status of the missile programs other countries have. None of the countries listed below have ever flight-tested an IRBM or an ICBM.

Countries With IRBM or ICBM Programs
Countries With Deployed Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles
North Korea
North Korea
Saudi Arabia

1. Iran has flight-tested the Shahab-3 several times with mixed results. A handful of Shahab-3s with an estimated range of 1300 kilometers, are believed to be available if Iran decided to deployed them.

Sources: Arms Control Association and the Central Intelligence Agency


Missile Ranges
Short-range ballistic missile (<1,000 km)
Medium-range ballistic missile (1,000-3,000 km)
Intermediate-range ballistic missile (3,000-5,500 km)
Intercontinental ballistic missile (5,500+ km)

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Developments Since the Rumsfeld Commission Report

The Rumsfeld Commission contended that the ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea posed “a substantial and immediate danger to the U.S., its vital interests and its allies.” The commission’s report insinuated that both countries could possibly develop and flight-test an intercontinental ballistic missile within a five-year period of choosing to do so, particularly if they received foreign help. Below is the current status of the Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile programs.


Iran has flight-tested and is in the “late stages” of developing its medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missile. It is estimated that the Shahab-3 could travel up to 1,300 kilometers.

Iran is working on the Shahab-4 and the Shahab-5, both of which are expected to have greater ranges than the Shahab-3. Neither has been flight-tested, and the Shahab-5 is reportedly in the very early stages of development.

North Korea

The longest-range missile North Korea has deployed is the Nodong-1, which has an estimated capability of delivering a payload of up to 1,300 kilometers.

North Korea has conducted one flight test of the Taepo Dong-1, which has an estimated range of up to 2,000 kilometers. That sole flight test occurred in August 1998 and was a failed effort to put a satellite into orbit.

North Korea is working on a Taepo Dong-2, which, if successfully built, is estimated to have the capability to strike the continental United States. The missile has not been flight-tested.

North Korea declared a missile flight test moratorium in September 1999 and has reiterated that pledge several times since, the last at a September 2002 North Korean-Japanese summit. Pyongyang flight-tested short-range missiles earlier this year, but the White House said the tests were not covered by the moratorium, which Washington has always interpreted as applying to long-range ballistic missiles.

Sources: Arms Control Association and the Central Intelligence Agency

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1. The report’s executive summary is available at www.armscontrol.org.

2. James M. Lindsay and Michael O’Hanlon, Defending America: The Case for Limited National Missile Defense (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001), p. vii.

3. John E. McLaughlin, “Watch for More and More Medium- and Long-Range Missiles,” International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2001.

4. Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002), p. 73.

Greg Thielmann retired in 2002 as director of the Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Affairs Office in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.



Posted: July 1, 2003