"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Greg Thielmann

Books of Note

The Politics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia

Bhumitra Chakma, ed., Ashgate Publishing Co., 2011, 280 pp.

Kelsey Davenport

This volume examines how India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs affect the two countries’ domestic political and military strategies and the broader regional dynamics in South Asia. The authors aim to address the “key issues” of South Asian nuclear weapons politics rather than provide an exhaustive study of the topic. The first of the book’s four sections differentiates nuclear deterrence and force building in South Asia from how those concepts apply to the “traditional” nuclear-weapon countries—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In this section, Rajesh M. Basrur contributes an astute chapter, which, after comparing nuclear deterrence in South Asia with other systems, such as the U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry, concludes that the practice of minimum deterrence in the region works. Part two includes an in-depth discussion of command and control issues and the development of nuclear doctrines in India and Pakistan. Part three takes a broader look at the regional impact of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear deterrents and examines the role that China and the United States play in shaping South Asian nuclear deterrence. Binoda Kumar Mishra’s chapter in this section on the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi concludes that, in the long run, China, not Pakistan, will play the key role in shaping India’s nuclear policy. The final section of the volume examines the challenges to nuclear arms control and suggests potential confidence-building measures aimed at preventing the authorized or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons in South Asia. In particular, Dipankar Banerjee’s chapter in this last part offers several concrete options that India and Pakistan could pursue to reduce the nuclear threat within the region.



Nuclear Jihad: A Clear and Present Danger?

Todd M. Masse, Potomac Books, 2011, 339 pp.

Benjamin Seel

In this balanced assessment of the threat of nuclear terrorism, Todd M. Masse, a branch chief in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s nuclear security office, frames the debate as one between “skeptics” and “conventionalists.” Focusing on the significant barriers that stand in the way of terrorist groups actually carrying out such an attack, skeptics view the efforts to combat nuclear terrorism as a sidetracking of efforts that would be better directed toward preventing traditional acts of terrorism. Conventionalists view nuclear terrorism as a threat that is increasing in likelihood and deserving of a comprehensive policy approach to combat it. Drawing from both arguments, Masse concludes that U.S. national security policy should attack both the supply side and the demand side of the nuclear terrorism equation. He argues that the United States should focus on securing the stockpiles of nuclear material around the world and “preventing future nuclear proliferation among nation states.” However, he says, it should also continue its intelligence, national security, and law enforcement efforts to constrain the operational planning and training of groups such as al Qaeda and to block the flow of funds to them. Masse highlights the existing gap between the stated desires of terrorist groups to carry out a nuclear attack and their ability to bring such an attack to fruition. That disconnect makes the threat of nuclear jihad clear but not present, he says. He ends by cautioning that although the “[a]bsence of evidence is not…evidence of absence,” sweeping statements implying that terrorist groups have capability and intent are “unwarranted” and serve only to elevate the threat level “unnecessarily.”

The Politics of Nuclear Weapons in South Asia, Bhumitra Chakma, ed., Ashgate Publishing Co., 2011, 280 pp.

Nuclear Jihad: A Clear and Present Danger?, Todd M. Masse, Potomac Books, 2011, 339 pp.

Opponents of U.S. Nuclear Cuts: Still Being Chased by the Russian Bear?



Volume 3, Issue 1, February 24, 2012

Last week, the press reported on Defense Department options for Presidential guidance that were being prepared as part of the Nuclear Posture Review implementation study. The notion that the President might consider deep cuts in U.S. nuclear forces unleashed some intemperate reactions that brought to mind Shakespeare's most famous stage direction (in "The Winter's Tale"): "Exit, pursued by a bear."

Just as thespians have struggled over the years with staging the bear's pursuit of Shakespeare's character Antigonus, critics of further reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons have difficulty figuring out how to represent the Russian bear following the end of the Cold War. The U.S. nuclear deterrent is still primarily sized and shaped by, and oriented against, the Russian Federation. Moscow's strategic forces still retain the ability to annihilate the United States. And even though the ideological conflict is over and Russia now contains far fewer targets and weapons than did the Soviet Union, Cold War assumptions and calculations still govern nuclear force planning.

The critics of nuclear cuts ratchet back and forth on Russia - in one moment warning of the threat, citing Moscow's surly rhetoric and stated intention of re-investing in Russia's strategic defense budget - and in the next breath, dismissing U.S.-Russian arms control efforts as unnecessary and irrelevant for addressing more urgent threats from a powerfully resurgent China, a nascent nuclear North Korea, and a recalcitrant and potentially nuclear Iran.

Policymakers need to engage in a serious discussion about what the U.S. nuclear arsenal can and should deter. This dialogue must absorb the new reality of an often contentious, but no longer zero-sum U.S.-Russian relationship. It must re-examine the archaic premise that the United States needs to maintain not only a capability to assure the survival of its retaliatory forces in the event of a Russian first-strike, but also to launch a pre-emptive first-strike against Russia.

Reality Check

However, a prerequisite for that fundamental and overdue debate is undertaking a sober and realistic accounting of the existing balance of forces. That has not yet been done by the vocal critics of nuclear cuts. Thirty-four Republican members of the House of Representatives wrote to President Obama last week, referring to "the growth in quantity and quality of nuclear weapons capabilities in Russia, the People's Republic of China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and, perhaps soon the Islamic Republic of Iran..." The Representatives did not provide a time frame for this "growth," no doubt because the reduction in Russian strategic forces during recent years has actually led to an overall decline in aggregate numbers of nuclear weapons possessed by America's potential enemies.

The U.S. House members also cited the "...ambitious nuclear weapons modernization programs of Russia, communist China, Pakistan and others..." In this context, it would seem relevant to mention that China's "ambitious" program has added, over the last three decades, about 30 warheads that could reliably reach the United States. China now fields some 40-50 warheads on intercontinental systems, compared to the 1,790 deployed by the United States that could reach China.

China's strategic nuclear systems are relatively less sophisticated and diverse than those of the United States. China's newest-class ballistic missile submarine, which will provide the sea-based leg of its nuclear deterrent, is very noisy, according to an unclassified report of the Office of Naval Intelligence. These strategic submarines would thus be very vulnerable to stalking and destruction by much quieter U.S. attack submarines. Moreover, China has no intercontinental bombers, no adequate strategic warning, and no multiple warheads on its ballistic missiles - four decades after MIRVs were first deployed by the United States.

The Shrinking Bear

In a February 16 Senate Floor speech, Sen. Jon Kyl continued his jihad against the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) by noting: "Not a country in the world has reduced warheads since the signing of the New START treaty except the United States." In so doing, Kyl focuses on a slight uptick in Russia's deployed warhead count from six months earlier, ignoring a slight numerical reduction in the number of Russia's deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers over the same period. More importantly, he obscures the long-term trend line, which shows Russia today with some 300 warheads fewer than two years ago and projects further reductions of similar magnitude over the next few years, putting Russia well below New START's warhead ceiling.

It is appropriate to consider carefully Russian nuclear force trends when considering future U.S. nuclear policy. After all, Russian strategic forces dwarf those of all other countries against which U.S. nuclear weapons could be used. U.S. and Russian strategic forces together contain over 90 per cent of all nuclear weapons in the world. Moreover, Russia is the only country, which has any counter-force capability against the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

However, such consideration reveals a conspicuous and continuing decline in Russian strategic forces from the robust base Moscow inherited from the Soviet Union. Because the warhead-rich SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs are reaching the end of their service lives and the new Bulava SLBM has suffered delays, the decline promises to last for years, even if Moscow moves forward with development and deployment of a new, heavy, multiple-warhead ICBM.

The latest figures exchanged under New START show that Russia had 1,566 warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers (counted-as-one for each aircraft)--224 less than the United States. While both parties are obligated to reduce operational warhead levels further before the treaty's 1,550 ceiling enters into effect in February 2018 many U.S. and Russian experts predict that Russia's warhead count may fall significantly below that ceiling. For example, Russian academician Alexei Arbatov, says Russia's New START accountable warhead count could total only 1,000-1,100 within the decade as the deployment of new systems fails to keep pace with the retirement of legacy systems.

What is to be done?

Rather than induce Russia to build up its strategic nuclear forces, it is in the security and financial interests of both countries to pursue further, parallel reductions in such forces. An updated look at the nuclear balance and the narrowed function of nuclear weapons proclaimed by President Obama should lead to a number of important changes in nuclear policy guidance:

  • Entire categories of targets -- only appropriate for nuclear war-fighting rather than deterrence -- should be eliminated from U.S. nuclear war plans.
  • Overblown requirements for damage expectancy should be scaled back.
  • Requirements for rapid launch capabilities should be eased, removing pressure from national command authorities for hasty decisions and reducing overall force requirements - for example, for the number of SSBNs on station.

Empowered with updated presidential guidance, force planners can responsibly and significantly reduce the number of weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

"Chased by a bear" may work as stage direction for dramatic performances to an early 17th Century English audience, which was accustomed to bear baiting as public entertainment. It is less suitable as a framework for U.S. nuclear policy in the 21st Century, which needs to be based on honest assessments of nuclear threats and an accurate understanding of the limited role of nuclear weapons. The bear chase is over.--Greg Thielmann


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today


Volume 3, Issue 1, February 24, 2012

Last week, the press reported on Defense Department options for Presidential guidance that were being prepared as part of the Nuclear Policy Review implementation study. The notion that the President might consider deep cuts in U.S. nuclear forces unleashed some intemperate reactions that brought to mind Shakespeare's most famous stage direction (in "The Winter's Tale"): "Exit, pursued by a bear."

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Iran Nuclear Brief: The Path to Avoiding War and Resolving the Nuclear Crisis


January 4, 2012
By Greg Thielmann

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U.S.-Iranian relations are bad and getting worse. The New Year has opened with rising tensions between the United States and Iran and an increased prospect of war—either intentional or accidental.

The Nov. 2011 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency details why the international community remains deeply concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. While sanctions and other measures have slowed down Iran’s movement toward acquiring a nuclear weapons option, Tehran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities and has so far refused to implement the confidence-building steps necessary to ensure it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

The latest round of U.S. unilateral sanctions has been met with Iranian threats of closing the Straits of Hormuz through which 35% of the world’s seaborne oil passes. Iran reinforced those threats with ten days of military exercises in nearby waters that included launches of anti-ship missiles. These and other developments highlight how relatively minor incidents could quickly escalate into a major military conflict.

At the same time, Iran proposed on December 31 a new round of talks with the P5+1 group of nations, suggesting that that diplomatic options to resolve the nuclear concerns about its nuclear activities have not been exhausted.

In the following Iran Nuclear Brief, ACA Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann argues that in order to avoid unintentional conflict with Iran, there is an urgent need to establish better lines of bilateral communication at all levels—between military forces in the region, between diplomats, and between senior officials. Thielmann also explains why pragmatic diplomatic engagement is essential to a successful strategy to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Additional presentations and analyses from ACA’s "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle" project are available here.


The Nov. 2011 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency details why the international community remains deeply concerned about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. While sanctions and other measures have slowed down Iran’s movement toward acquiring a nuclear weapons option, Tehran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities and has so far refused to implement the confidence building steps necessary to ensure it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

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Iran Nuclear Brief: The IAEA's November Report on Iran: More Confirmation Than Revelation


December 5, 2011
By Greg Thielmann

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The release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program in early November attracted intense media interest and stimulated strong political reactions in the United States and around the world. The IAEA report and its 14-page annex represented a milestone for the Vienna-based agency in terms of its willingness to present detailed information to the public on activities of concern in Iran’s nuclear program.

The Arms Control Association provided an in-depth assessment of the IAEA report on November 8, 2011. Yet much of the subsequent press coverage has been inaccurate in its comparison of the IAEA’s latest report with past characterizations of Iran’s nuclear activities – most notably, the public summary of the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate.

The following Iran Nuclear Brief elucidates the similarities and differences in those two documents, incorporating an earlier article by ACA’s senior fellow, Greg Thielmann, and Benjamin Loehrke, senior policy analyst for the Ploughshares Fund, which was published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists on November 23, 2011.

Presentations from earlier briefings in the ACA "Solving the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle" series are available from the ACA here.


The release of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program in early November attracted intense media interest and stimulated strong political reactions in the United States and around the world. The IAEA report and its 14-page annex represented a milestone for the Vienna-based agency in terms of its willingness to present detailed information to the public on activities of concern in Iran’s nuclear program.

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Books of Note

Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: The Role of Missile Defense

Tom Sauer, Columbia University Press, 2011, 155 pp.

Tom Sauer’s short but comprehensive volume analyzes the interaction between the goals of eliminating nuclear weapons and having a missile defense system to protect against any illicit nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that may appear. Judging nuclear deterrence unsustainable, Sauer assumes ultimate elimination of nuclear arsenals worldwide and does not dwell on the near-term difficulty of further reducing strategic offensive arsenals in an environment of unconstrained strategic missile defenses. He suggests that policy choices on missile defense will help determine whether global nuclear disarmament will be able to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Key to Sauer’s overall analysis is his contention that the actual technical capabilities of the current generation of missile defenses have been greatly exaggerated and that it is “extremely doubtful” a reliable missile shield could be built over the next couple of decades. He ranks the desirability of three possible configurations of missile defenses for achieving a stable and effective ban on nuclear weapons: Best would be a regime banning all defensive as well as offensive ballistic missiles; second best would be limiting missile defenses to theater systems; and third would be sharing large-scale strategic missile defense systems with all major powers. Sauer contends that other scenarios for missile defenses, including the current trajectory of U.S. programs, will lead to new arms races in defensive and offensive weapons.—GREG THIELMANN


Deterrence: Its Past and Future

George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby, eds., Hoover Institution Press, 2011, 230 pp.

This two-part book discusses the evolving role of deterrence and its utility against emerging international security threats. Part I is a compilation of summaries of papers presented at a conference on deterrence held in November 2010 at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Remarks delivered at the conference by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), and Admiral Michael Mullen also are included in the volume. The summaries touch on a variety of issues, including the feasibility and challenges of preventing states from reconstituting nuclear arsenals after the elimination of nuclear weapons, the debate over de-alerting nuclear forces, and the need to reassess conventional thinking on nuclear deterrence in a multipolar environment in which nonstate actors challenge national security. In Part II, Steve Andreasen and Michael Gerson analyze how states with nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom), NATO, and Iran perceive the broader international security environment, view the role that nuclear weapons play in deterrence, and think about the abolition of nuclear weapons. The two authors focus on how these viewpoints are known and understood in the United States. The purpose of this approach, according to Andreasen and Gerson, is to prevent misinterpretation of other states’ views on the role and utility of deterrence. —KELSEY DAVENPORT

Op-ed: GOP candidates, what do you say about savings in military budget?



By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association

The following piece was originally posted online at The Des Moines Register on August 4, 2011.

Washington is obsessed these days with reducing the deficit. The GOP presidential contenders crisscrossing Iowa give prominence to the issue as well. But even as they call for ever deeper budget cuts, they have been reluctant to look at trimming the $27 billion annual cost of operating and maintaining our bloated Cold War nuclear arsenal and the $125 billion planned for building new weapons in the decade ahead.

Iowa Republicans can use the state’s privileged place in the presidential sweepstakes to ensure that candidates stop ignoring the nuclear elephant in the room. They can refer to the dramatic deficit reduction proposal recently advanced by one of the most conservative members in the U.S. Senate, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who called for cutting $79 billion from U.S. strategic nuclear forces over the next decade.

The potential impact of fiscal policy on defense programs was highlighted last year by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he said, “the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” Coburn’s proposal addresses the way defense cuts can contribute in turn toward restoring fiscal balance — improving the economic fundamentals on which national prosperity depends, while maintaining the nuclear deterrent at the heart of U.S. national security strategy.

Further reductions in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile can now be safely contemplated, because the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is in force. The treaty, approved by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan 71-26 vote last December, has enhanced predictability for both sides.

Without New START, Russia might have slowed the retirement of its older ballistic missiles, each bearing multiple, city-killing nuclear warheads. Without the hundreds of notifications about Russian strategic force activities that have been received under the treaty and the regular implementation of the treaty’s on-site verification, the United States would have much less confidence in assessing the status of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The presidential candidates should look at the nuclear balance of forces in the wake of New START. The Russians are already below two of the treaty’s three key limits — 700 for deployed missiles and bombers, and 1,550 for deployed warheads and bombers — nearly seven years before the deadline. The United States is moving slowly toward bringing its forces under the limits, which means it continues to spend money servicing and operating weapons deemed non-essential.

By the time the United States gets down to the treaty limits, it may have hundreds more operational warheads than Russia. It is likely to have 15 times more than China and 300 times more than either North Korea or Iran. U.S. conventional forces will be far superior to any adversary. In light of the growing strategic imbalance in our favor and in consideration of our dire fiscal straits, it is proper to question whether the Pentagon should carry out exorbitant plans to simultaneously modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad. Many defense experts, like Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say it doesn’t have the money to do so, given other requirements.

The Cold War ended 20 years ago. Our military leadership is now focused on the 21st century threats of nuclear proliferation, peacekeeping, and international terrorism. Even the commander of U.S. Strategic Forces, Gen. Robert Kehler, emphasizes that Cold War competition is over, that Russia is no longer an enemy and that weapons of mass destruction use by terrorists rather than Russia heads his threat list. The rationale is long gone for maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons, each many times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 66 years ago.

Candidates who aspire to lead the nation need to be able to explain the connection between fiscal and security challenges. Iowa voters need to ask them to do so.


By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association

The following piece was originally posted online at The Des Moines Register on August 4, 2011.

Washington is obsessed these days with reducing the deficit. The GOP presidential contenders crisscrossing Iowa give prominence to the issue as well. But even as they call for ever deeper budget cuts, they have been reluctant to look at trimming the $27 billion annual cost of operating and maintaining our bloated Cold War nuclear arsenal and the $125 billion planned for building new weapons in the decade ahead.

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Iranian Missile Messages: Reading Between the Lines of "Great Prophet 6"



Volume 2, Issue 10, July 12, 2011

In light of justifiable concerns about Iran’s potential as a nuclear weapons state, the country’s latest military exercise, ending last week, provided some grounds for qualified relief. Although the official commentary was predictably defiant in tone, the overall choreography and the weapons actually fired bespoke neither the intent nor a current operational capability for Iran to strike at Israel or Europe. The absence in the exercise of systems likely to serve as nuclear weapons delivery vehicles belies contentions that Tehran is moving rapidly to achieve such a capability.

“Great Prophet 6” Fireworks
In a ten-day extravaganza of martial events, dubbed “Great Prophet 6,” Iran conducted a prodigious number of missile launches, showcasing a variety of ballistic and cruise missiles, including some new missile types and a newly displayed silo basing mode. The live-fire exercises provided useful training for the troops and stimulated national pride among the population. Such displays of missile prowess also help Iran’s clerical government rally domestic support behind efforts to defy UN sanctions and send a warning message to potential aggressors.

Missiles Are the Measure
Missiles are the premier weapon of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran’s ballistic missiles, in particular, occupy an iconic place in the power pantheon – they are fast to employ, hard for an enemy to locate and attack prior to launch, difficult to intercept in flight, and can potentially serve as a vehicle for delivering nuclear weapons to targets far from the country’s border. Iran already has medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in its arsenal, which can reach targets not only in neighboring states, but also in Israel. Moreover, given the heavy concentrations of U.S. troops in the region, even Iran’s shorter-range missiles can easily and quickly put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.

Anti-shipping cruise missiles – along with mines – provide one of Iran’s most credible deterrent threats, because they enable Tehran to effectively exploit its geographical position by threatening to interrupt maritime traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, which carries a third of all the world's seaborne traded oil. Such a disruption, even short-term, would have incalculable effects on the international economy.

Iranian missile forces loom large in relative significance because of inadequacies in Iran’s air and ground forces. These forces “are sufficient to deter or defend against conventional threats from Iran’s weaker neighbors…but lack the air power and logistical ability to project power much beyond Iran’s borders or to confront regional powers such as Turkey or Israel,” according to a recent official U.S. assessment. [1] U.S. domination of the seas and skies in any military confrontation drives Iran into a disproportionate reliance on threatening to use missiles to level the odds. Even so, the practical utility of Iranian missiles is primarily limited at present to being an instrument of intimidation or terror when targeted against cities, given that Iran’s ballistic missiles lack accuracy against point targets and Iran’s cruise missiles are not suited to land-attack.

By acquiring nuclear warheads for its medium-range ballistic missiles, Iran could gain the ability to destroy specific targets. The deployments of missile defenses in Israel and the Persian Gulf are unlikely to give the defenders confidence that nuclear devastation would be averted in the event of an actual Iranian nuclear missile attack. Moreover, missile defenses are likely to spur rather than retard Iranian efforts to improve their missiles. Fortunately, Tehran would also be aware that its use of nuclear weapons would provoke retaliation that could result in its annihilation as a nation – a risk disproportionate to any conceivable gain.

What Did the Exercise Actually Demonstrate?
The majority of missiles launched over the course of the exercise were either short-range, battlefield weapons, such as the solid fuel Fateh 110 or cruise missiles, such as the Tondar and Khalije Fars that were claimed to be effective against ships and fixed targets in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. Of some two dozen missiles fired, only one was a medium-range missile with sufficient power and available space to carry a future nuclear warhead, the liquid fuel Shahab 3, a derivative of North Korea’s No Dong MRBM. Yet the Shahab 3’s range of approximately 1,000 km (with a 750 kg warhead) is not sufficient for it to reach Israel from a secure position in Iran. Iran has developed an advanced version of the Shahab 3, the Ghadr 1, to extend the system's range. This was accomplished by lengthening the airframe, using high-strength aluminum, and changing the shape of the missile’s warhead section. Yet the Ghadr 1 did not appear in the recent exercises.

The Iranian media also displayed, for the first time, underground missile silos, allegedly loaded with liquid fuel Shahabs. However, outside experts doubt the accuracy of the descriptions provided in the video coverage of the exercise and question whether Iran has any MRBMs operationally deployed in silos. In any case, such missiles would be far more likely to survive attack in a mobile basing mode than in fixed silos, which can be located in advance and effectively destroyed with little warning by the precision weapons available to the United States.

Iranian television reported further that Iranian forces had been equipped with a new, long-range radar system, the Ghadir, which was featured in the exercises.    

What Was the Intended Message?
Based on the statements of Iranian military leaders and reports in Iran’s media, the main messages of “Great Prophet 6” for friends and foe were: that Iran’s strength is increasing in spite of the UN sanctions; that Iran is not dependent on other nations for its defense; that Iranian missiles could not be effectively preempted or intercepted; and that any attack on Iran would be met with devastating retaliation.

The new radar and missile silos were offered as evidence than Iran cannot be disarmed and that retaliation was inevitable. The salvo launches of missiles were a reminder that missile defenses can be overwhelmed by numbers. The longer-range Shahab 3 symbolized Iran’s reach across the Middle East region, far beyond its own borders. Each of the systems displayed were described as the product of Iranian scientists and engineers, independent of reliance on foreign purchases or technical assistance.

Reading Between the Lines
There are, however, other conclusions to be drawn from Iran’s flexing of missile muscles.  For those seeking to prevent or dissuade Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, the most important question is how much progress the exercises demonstrate toward Iran developing and deploying the missiles, which would carry nuclear warheads.

Realistically, medium-term delivery boils down to two existing systems: the liquid fuel, single stage Ghadr 1 MRBM, an advanced derivative of the Shahab 3, and the solid fuel Sejjil 2 MRBM, a two-stage system with sufficient range to target Israel from launch sites throughout Iran, but not yet operational. Neither missile was flown during “Great Prophet 6.”

The only MRBM launched was announced to be a Shahab 3, an unlikely candidate for fulfilling Iran’s likely nuclear delivery capability aspirations. It is possible that the Iranians foresee using the Ghadr 1 as a nuclear weapons platform, in spite of the disadvantages inherent to liquid fuel mobile missiles – in terms of their limited mobility and greater vulnerability to attack.

It is more likely that the Iranians see the Sejjil 2 as the preferred carrier for a possible future nuclear warhead. Iran is apparently feeling no need to exercise its only operational missile suited for the nuclear mission and the missile best suited for the nuclear mission has not yet reached an operational status appropriate for exercising. Thus, if the U.S. Government is correct in assessing that Tehran has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons, there would appear to be time for dissuading it from doing so.

A Long-Range Missile Threat Not Yet in Sight
In a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. intelligence community projected that Iran could test an ICBM within “a few years.” Most analysts predicted back then either “even odds” or a “likely chance” that Iran would test an ICBM by 2010. However, in 2009, senior military and defense officials testified to Congress that shifting from deployment of strategic interceptors to Europe in a third site to a program for deploying theater interceptors in a “Phased Adaptive Approach” was appropriate since the Iranian ICBM threat was evolving more slowly than previously thought.

The Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis reported to Congress in 2011 that Iran was fielding increased numbers of SRBMs and MRBMs, “continuing to work on producing more capable MRBMs, and developing space launch vehicles, which incorporate technology directly applicable to longer-range missile systems.” [2] The still unofficial Report on Sanctions of the UN Panel of Experts completed in May 2011 revealed that the Iranians had conducted two unannounced tests of the Sejjil 2 MRBM (in October 2010 and February 2011) [3] in addition to the five flight tests it had conducted since 2007. (A senior Iranian Republican Guard Corps Commander recently confirmed two previously unannounced “1,900 km-range” missile flights tests in February.)

The Iranians launched their second satellite in May 2011, using the Safir Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) and predicted that it would be followed by another satellite launch in the summer. Unlike the larger Samorgh SLV that had been displayed as a mockup in February, conversion of the Safir SLV to a ballistic missile would still only deliver a nuclear-sized payload about 2,100 km, according to the IISS Strategic Dossier, [4] roughly the same as the Sejjil 2 MRBM.

This summer’s “Great Prophet 6” exercise provides more evidence that, while Tehran makes steady progress on augmenting its stocks of enriched uranium and while R&D work continues on its most likely MRBM candidate for being able to deliver a future nuclear weapon within the region, Tehran’s present military focus is on demonstrating and enhancing its conventional capability to deter and defeat a preventive attack on the Islamic Republic itself. It has not flight-tested, or indeed even asserted a need for, an IRBM or ICBM – the missile categories most relevant to threatening the territories of NATO Europe and the United States.


1. Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran (Congressionally Directed Action), April 2010, p.7

2. Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2010, p.3

3. Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1929 (2010), Final Report, p.26, http://www.innercitypress.com/1929r051711.pdf

4. The International Institute for Strategic Studies: “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment,” May 2010, p.31


Volume 2, Issue 10, July 12, 2011

In light of justifiable concerns about Iran’s potential as a nuclear weapons state, the country’s latest military exercise, ending last week, provided some grounds for qualified relief. Although the official commentary was predictably defiant in tone, the overall choreography and the weapons actually fired bespoke neither the intent nor a current operational capability for Iran to strike at Israel or Europe. The absence in the exercise of systems likely to serve as nuclear weapons delivery vehicles belies contentions that Tehran is moving rapidly to achieve such a capability.

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Opening Pandora’s Box



Assessing the “Military Option” for Countering Iran’s Nuclear Program

Volume 2, Issue 8, June 10, 2011

Neither sanctions, cyber sabotage, nor off-and-on multilateral diplomacy has yet convinced the government of Iran to end its pursuit of activities that could give it the capability to build nuclear weapons some time in the next few years.

Iran continues to produce and stockpile low enriched uranium in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that have repeatedly called for a suspension of its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities while a diplomatic solution is pursued. Despite increasingly tougher international sanctions, Tehran is expanding its nuclear infrastructure without fully complying with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations. On June 9, Tehran announced its intent to accelerate its enrichment of uranium at the 20% level, substantially closer to that needed for bomb material.

Not surprisingly, some policy makers and commentators argue that the United States should consider-or threaten-the use of force to stop or damage Iran’s nuclear program. However, a closer examination of the limitations and severe costs and consequences of “the military option” suggest that for all intents and purposes it is neither serious nor prudent.

Military Experts Advise Against

It is no accident that some of those who have had to professionally consider the option of using a “preventive” attack to counter Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons are among the least enthusiastic about seeing it exercised. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, referred last month to the possibility of an Israeli Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”[1] Dagan later claimed that Israel’s last military chief of staff and the just-retired director of internal security were like-minded in opposing any such “dangerous adventure.” [2]

U.S. military leaders and senior defense officials, who possess many more assets than Israel to apply to such a task, sound no more enthusiastic. Former CENTCOM Commander Adm. William Fallon was conspicuously opposed while he had responsibility for U.S. forces in the region. Continued advances in Iran’s nuclear program have apparently not changed Fallon’s mind. He said at an American Iranian Council symposium June 7 that the best strategy would be to set aside the use of force against Tehran. [3]

While serving as 5th Fleet commander in the Persian Gulf, now retired Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff also warned publicly about the negative consequences of a preventive attack. Moreover, it is no secret that outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen and outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have expressed strong reservations about resorting to the “military option.” Members of Congress and the public would be well advised to take heed.

Unfortunately, “leaving all options on the table” has become standard political trope in Washington with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. In this context, the “military option” means an unprovoked “preventive” attack to eliminate Iran’s future nuclear weapons capability. But such an attack would not stop Iran’s program, and the international consequences would be severe.

It Won’t Work

The first point to consider in evaluating the military option is whether or not an aerial assault would be able to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security noted in a 2007 article that such a scenario was built on “a false promise because it offers no assurances that an Iranian nuclear weapons program would be substantially or irreversibly set back.” [4] There is even less doubt today that Iran would retain its relevant human capital and production base following an attack, and would still be able to launch a crash program to develop a bomb.

Experts differ on how long an aerial assault would set Iran back-from a couple of years to as much as five years-but most agree the setback would not be permanent. This reality helps explain why Vice JCS Chairman Gen. James Cartwright agreed with Sen. Jack Reed’s statement in 2010 Senate testimony that: “(T)he only absolutely dispositive way to end any (Iranian nuclear weapons) potential would be to physically occupy their country and to disestablish their nuclear facilities.” [5]

In this context, it is instructive to look anew at the conventional wisdom about Israel’s 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Generally regarded as a spectacular success, the attack did indeed delay Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. But Iraq’s determination to succeed was strengthened, its commitment of personnel and resources skyrocketed, [6] and its success at hiding its activities from the IAEA and Western intelligence collectors increased.

Of course, 2011 is a far cry from 1981 and Iran is not Iraq. But in most respects, Iran is considerably less vulnerable to a single strike than Iraq was and much further along in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. So it is realistic to assume that an attack on Iran can offer only delay, not prevent acquisition of nuclear weapons.

A Complex, Costly Operation

Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not limited to one well-defined facility that could be damaged with a quick, surgical strike. Because Iran’s nuclear facilities and support network is extensive and geographically dispersed, any military operation against it would probably require a “major air campaign,” lasting days or weeks, according to Jeffrey White, Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute and former career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking at an Arms Control Association briefing on June 7.

White added that the target list would likely extend far beyond Iran’s 25 declared nuclear facilities and related sites to include air defense sites, command-and-control nodes, and ballistic and cruise missile launchers. Beyond the strike assets, additional resources would be required for personnel recovery and post-strike battle damage assessments. A campaign of this magnitude would necessarily involve phases, allowing some Iranian assets not initially hit to be removed and hidden before being struck. The United States would soon confront difficult decisions concerning the need to go back in and re-attack surviving facilities or to disrupt the reconstruction of those that had been destroyed.

Little International Support

Few other countries would support a U.S. preventive attack and even fewer would participate in it, according to Career Ambassador Thomas Pickering at the June 7 Arms Control Association briefing. “Aside from Israel, no countries would be waiting in line to join (a U.S. attack),” said Pickering, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and five other countries, including Russia and India. Even those Arab governments that would welcome a diminution of Iranian power, including most of Iran’s Sunni neighbors in the Persian Gulf, would keep their enthusiasm well under wraps, avoiding provocations to popular sentiment in the face of yet another U.S. attack on a Middle Eastern Muslim country.

All of the countries whose continuing logistical support is critical to U.S. combat capabilities in the region-Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, and Pakistan-are strongly opposed to a U.S. attack on Iran.  A precipitous reaction to an attack from any one of them could easily cripple U.S. war efforts. China, which has increased its trade with Iran even after the imposition of UN sanctions, as well as Russia, would strongly oppose use of force and likely would block any effort to secure UN Security Council authorization for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Creating All the Wrong Incentives for Iran

According to Rand Corporation analyst Alireza Nader, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, currently absorbed in a huge and divisive power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be quickly reunited by an outside attack.

Nader, who also spoke at the June 7 Arms Control Association briefing, noted that Iran’s “very nationalistic” population, which is overwhelmingly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program and jealous of Iran’s sovereignty, would likely demand retaliation for a Western attack.

Such retaliation could take a number of forms, from ballistic missile attacks against U.S. military bases in the region and the cities, ports, and oil terminals of U.S. allies in the Gulf to missile and rocket attacks against Israel. The Jewish state could be attacked by Iran directly or indirectly through Tehran’s ally Hezbollah and ally of convenience, Hamas. Iran could also use the IRGC to attack U.S. troops indirectly by aiding and provoking Shia militias in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Energy Insecurity

A more direct target would be the petroleum tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, which carry nearly 40% of the world’s total traded oil. Iran’s regular and IRGC Navy elements have several methods for laying mines in the shipping channels of the narrow strait. Iran’s mobile anti-ship missiles on its Persian Gulf coast could do “a lot of damage” to shipping and be very difficult to hunt down, according to the Washington Institute’s Jeffrey White. Restoring safe passage for shipping could take days or weeks.

Delays and uncertainties in the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf and spiking insurance rates for tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz would exert strong upward pressure on the price of oil-with a potential of quadrupling prices at the pump in the United States, according to some experts. Although Iran would have a disincentive for hurting the oil traffic on which much of its economy depends, it seems unlikely that it would tolerate military action against Iranian vessels without striking back at those ships vital to the economies of the United States and its Persian Gulf allies.

A Third Ground War?

As noted by Pickering, even a military attack on Iran with the narrowly defined objective of incapacitating Tehran’s nuclear weapons capability would run a serious risk of mission creep. Once engaged militarily, there could be pressures for incursions of U.S. ground forces to deny territory for missile launches against shipping, to rescue captured pilots, to aid anti-regime uprisings, or to secure nuclear materials. For the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, already stressed from a decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, such additional commitments would raise serious questions about long-term sustainability and personnel retention.

If using military force cannot foreclose Iranian nuclear weapons potential and the consequences of a preventive attack are so onerous that security officials have already taken this option off the table, it makes no sense to pretend otherwise. Indeed, as Fallon warned at the June 7 American Iranian Council event, extended public discussion of the military option against Iran could harm prospects for alternative resolution to the nuclear problem. [7]

Sit on the Box and Use Your Head

U.S. security officials continue to testify to Congress that Tehran’s leaders have not yet decided to build and deploy nuclear weapons. Iran experts, like RAND’s Alireza Nader, believe it is not too late to dissuade Iran from taking such a course. Sanctions are in place, which impose heavy costs on Tehran’s refusal to open Iran up to more transparent cooperation with the IAEA, and they have been sustained while maintaining solidarity among the Permanent Members of the Security Council.

The United States needs to continue looking for diplomatic pathways to expanding IAEA access to Iranian nuclear capabilities and personnel, and stop rattling Pandora’s box as if it contained a key to the Iranian nuclear puzzle.-GREG THIELMANN



1. Yossi Melman, “Former Mossad chief: Israel air strike on Iran ‘stupidest thing I have ever heard’,” Haaretz, May 7, 2011.

2. Ethan Bronner, “Former Spy Chief Questions Israeli Leaders’ Judgment,” The New York Times, June 3, 2011.

3. Elaine M. Grossman, “Former Diplomat, Admiral See U.S. Strike Against Iran as Unlikely,” Global Security Newswire, June 8, 2011.

4. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, “A Witches’ Brew? Evaluating Iran’s Uranium-Enrichment Progress,” Arms Control Today, November 2007, p. 10.

5. Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2010.

6. See, for example: Bennett Ramberg, “Preemption Paradox,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2006, p. 51.

7. Elaine M. Grossman, “Former Diplomat, Admiral See U.S. Strike Against Iran as Unlikely,” Global Security Newswire, June 8, 2011.



Assessing the “Military Option” for Countering Iran’s Nuclear Program

Volume 2, Issue 8, June 10, 2011

Neither sanctions, cyber sabotage, nor off-and-on multilateral diplomacy has yet convinced the government of Iran to end its pursuit of activities that could give it the capability to build nuclear weapons some time in the next few years.

Iran continues to produce and stockpile low enriched uranium in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that have repeatedly called for a suspension of its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities while a diplomatic solution is pursued. Despite increasingly tougher international sanctions, Tehran is expanding its nuclear infrastructure without fully complying with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations. On June 9, Tehran announced its intent to accelerate its enrichment of uranium at the 20% level, substantially closer to that needed for bomb material.

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

The Missile Gap Myth and Its Progeny

Greg Thielmann

Public misperceptions in 1959 and 1960 that the Soviet Union had opened up a dangerous and growing lead over the United States in the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had fateful consequences beyond influencing an exceedingly close presidential election. What was then labeled “the missile gap” also helped establish patterns in the nuclear arms race that persisted throughout the Cold War and beyond.

For the U.S. public, the missile gap burst forth spectacularly toward the end of the 1950s as a result of two developments in 1957. The first was the successful flight test of the Soviet SS-6 ICBM in August and the Soviet Union’s launch several weeks later of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the same rocket type. Both launches represented Soviet technological achievements not yet matched by the United States. Sputnik, visible in the night sky over the United States, was the more dramatic symbol of Soviet progress, but the ICBM test that preceded it had the more ominous and immediate security implications.

The second development was the secret completion in November and public discussion shortly thereafter of a presidentially commissioned review of U.S. nuclear policies by an outside and predominantly civilian committee, chaired by Horace Rowan Gaither. The Gaither Report, as it was called, warned that the Soviet Union could have a “significant” ICBM capability by the end of 1959, making the Strategic Air Command’s bomber fleet vulnerable to surprise attack “during a period of lessened world tension.” [1] Although classified top secret, some of the report’s conclusions, including its alarmist view of Soviet ICBM capabilities, were leaked to the press.

The shock of being bested in space by the United States’ superpower rival and the prediction by an independent, blue-ribbon commission of future Soviet strategic advances set the stage for the appearance of the missile gap. A sense of alarm spread, along with a narrative that the Eisenhower administration had been complacent in the face of an acute military threat. Influenced by a combination of inadequate information and partisan political motives, Democratic politicians cultivated the notion that the aging incumbent had been asleep at the switch and that a new team was needed to reinvigorate government and restore U.S. nuclear superiority.

In one sense, the Gaither Report’s findings and the January 1959 joint Senate hearings on missile and space activities merely led to a necessary and overdue adjustment in the U.S. psyche as a new and unpleasant reality of the nuclear age sank in: The United States had become profoundly vulnerable to foreign attack. However, the press and politicians outside the White House made little effort to discuss root causes or to put the report in perspective. Press characterizations were even less restrained than the language of the report itself. For example, The Washington Post provided its influential readership this description of the report’s contents: “[The report] pictures the Nation moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power. It shows an America exposed to an almost immediate threat from the missile-bristling Soviet Union. It finds America’s long-term prospect one of cataclysmic peril in the face of rocketing Soviet military might.”[2]

Hyping Sputnik and the Gaither Report was very much in the political interests of Democratic contenders for the presidency in 1960. Judging from what is now known about the missile numbers, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) consistently mischaracterized the strategic trend lines. For example, in an October 1960 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, the Democratic nominee said, “The Soviet Union made the great breakthrough in space and in missiles, and, therefore, they are going to be ahead of us in those very decisive weapons of war in the early 1960s.”[3]

In other cases, Kennedy could gain advantage merely by describing the new reality objectively because of its unpleasant shock value to the U.S. public, which was only beginning to absorb the full implications of living in the nuclear age. Thus, he could say without hyperbole in his Senate floor remarks of February 29, 1960, “For the first time since the War of 1812, foreign enemy forces potentially had become a direct and unmistakable threat to the continental United States, to our homes and to our people.”[4]

The fault in Kennedy’s argument was not so much the inaccurate characterization of the Soviet missile numbers, for the intelligence community had provided him with estimates it later revised downward on the basis of subsequent intelligence collection and analysis. A more serious flaw was that he implied that a new administration somehow could alter the fundamental reality of U.S. nuclear vulnerability, which was not the case. Moreover, his focus on simple side-by-side numerical comparisons was misplaced; the more important question was whether the U.S. ability to threaten devastating nuclear retaliation was really in jeopardy.

Congressional hearings provided an ideal platform for amplifying the general theme that the United States was falling behind in the missile race and that numerical inferiority in nuclear missiles would be a game-changer. During January 1959 hearings, Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), who was also to be a candidate in the following year’s Democratic presidential primary, pounced on Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy’s stated unwillingness “to try to match the Soviets missile for missile”: “Then as I understand it your position is that we are voluntarily passing over to the Russians production superiority in the ICBM missile field because we believe that our capacity to retaliate with other weapons is sufficient to permit them that advantage despite the great damage that we know we would suffer if they instigated an attack?”[5]

CIA projections of Soviet ICBM numbers had been falling from initial estimates in late 1957 of 100 by 1960. By early 1960, the CIA was predicting 36 by the end of the year, based on an “orderly” production rate, reaching 100 by mid-1961. The Air Force intelligence estimate for 1960, which was 500 in late 1957, remained higher than that of the CIA throughout this period.[6] The first Soviet ICBM actually went on “combat duty” in January 1960,[7] and only two had been deployed by the end of the year.[8] The first U.S. ICBM, the Atlas D, had achieved operational capability in September 1959.[9]

Soon after the Kennedy administration took office, the missile gap started officially to evanesce. In a February 1961 press backgrounder on U.S. defense programs, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted that there were “no signs of a Soviet crash effort to build ICBMs” and concluded that “there is no missile gap today.”[10] By the end of 1961, it was clear and acknowledged officially that the United States, not the Soviet Union, held the lead in ICBMs and in most other categories of nuclear weapons as well.

It now is well established that the number of deployed U.S. ICBMs was never lower than the number of deployed Soviet ICBMs during the period of the alleged missile gap. Instead, it was the United States that enjoyed an early lead in ICBMs and maintained it until 1968.[11]

It is impossible to know how much a more accurate U.S. assessment of the strategic balance in 1960 would have altered history. With the benefit of half a century’s hindsight, however, it is worth reflecting on the factors contributing to this monumental error and on the ways the public can be alert in avoiding serious threat inflation in the future.

Possible Versus Probable

During the missile gap debate, as with many threat debates since, there was confusion about the numbers being compared. For the most part, the missile gap misperception grew from an “apples and oranges” comparison. The intelligence community projected how many missiles the Soviets could deploy in the future, not how many they would be likely to deploy. This number was only an estimate, less certain than the number planned for U.S. forces over the same time frame. Moreover, the projection for Soviet forces represented a worst-case estimate.

Only in January 1960 did the Department of Defense introduce into its estimates the notion of a probable rather than a possible outcome. In House Appropriations Committee hearings, Defense Secretary Thomas Gates emphasized the change: “Heretofore we have been giving you intelligence figures that dealt with theoretical Soviet capability. This is the first time that we have an intelligence estimate that says, ‘This is what the Soviet Union probably will do.’”[12] Even so, the growing potential gap forecast for the early 1960s described a circumstance in which all Soviet missile production resources would be focused on maximizing the number of deployed ICBMs. As it turned out, Moscow switched its focus to developing a newer type of ICBM, the SS-7, contributing to a slower rise in ICBM numbers. It also diverted significant resources from ICBMs into the production of SS-4 medium-range and SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. These shorter-range missiles could not reach the United States while based in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the later Soviet decision to base SS-4s in Cuba secretly was made in part to redress the overall strategic imbalance that Moscow accurately perceived as the Kennedy administration came into office.

The next decades of the Cold War featured many instances of U.S. actions premised on the worst-case interpretation of future Soviet force deployments. However prudent the inclusion of such estimates in executive branch strategic planning efforts, they regularly were interpreted by congressional overseers and the public at large as predictions of what was likely to happen. Throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the United States overestimated Soviet anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capabilities. Fears in the 1960s that the strategic missile defense system protecting Moscow was the harbinger of a nationwide network turned out to be unfounded. The Reagan-era depictions of Soviet progress in developing exotic directed-energy weapons proved greatly exaggerated.[13]

The virulent impact of worst-case analysis continued into the post-Cold War era. The Rumsfeld Commission’s 1998 report on the foreign ballistic missile threat concluded that several emerging missile states could develop and deploy ICBMs within five years. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat was less alarmist than Rumsfeld’s report and included “most likely” as well as “could” projections, but it still gave pride of place to the worst case, as evidenced in the first two bullets of the NIE’s Iran section:

• “Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to many parts of the United States in the latter half of the next decade, using Russian technology and assistance.”

• “Irancould pursue a Taepo Dong-type ICBM and could test a Taepo Dong-1 or Taepo Dong-2-type ICBM, possibly with North Korean assistance, in the next few years.”[14]

Iran did not test either Taepo Dong system “in the next few years” and still has not tested an ICBM although “the latter half of the next decade” has come and gone. Furthermore, 13 years after the Rumsfeld Commission’s clarion call, no additional state has acquired ICBMs. Each of these predictions played a role in justifying a massive U.S. strategic missile defense effort and U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. The financial costs have far exceeded $100 billion, and the opportunity costs for reducing strategic offensive arms have been considerable.[15]

Source Bias

When estimates provide a range of possibilities—entirely reasonable from an analytical standpoint—the highest (or lowest) numbers in the range can be emphasized for political reasons. Postmortems on the missile gap myth note that Air Force projections of future Soviet ICBM levels were consistently higher than those of the other services and that Kennedy “chose to believe the Air Force numbers rather than the information he received from Eisenhower administration officials in both open and closed hearings.”[16] It is difficult to reach definitive conclusions about the motives of the Air Force or of the Democratic presidential candidates who relied on Air Force estimates. Nevertheless, the Air Force derived institutional benefits from rendering inflated Soviet missile threat estimates, and the Democrats derived political benefits from relying on them. The synergism between these two fueled the public perception of a gap, which turned out to be bogus.

It is the nature of the intelligence assessment process that those rendering the expert judgments are often the commercial or bureaucratic entities that benefit from the most alarming projections being accepted as reality. To obtain the “best” technical assessments of foreign missile defense capabilities, the government often hires firms that could be the recipients of contracts to develop offensive countermeasures or to establish a parallel program of U.S. defensive interceptors. Technical assessments of foreign submarine capabilities logically might be performed by the makers of U.S. sonars or torpedoes. This does not mean these projections should be dismissed or that good alternative sources are available, but it does mean that source bias needs to be considered.

An additional source bias in the case of the missile gap and in many subsequent threat assessments is so obvious that it often is overlooked. Potential enemies usually have an incentive to exaggerate their capabilities. After the launch of Sputnik, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bragged that his country’s factories “were turning out missiles like sausages” and greatly exaggerated the size and operational capabilities of the Soviet ICBM force.[17] Asked at the time by his son why he was doing so, he explained that “the number of missiles we had wasn’t so important.… The important thing was that Americans believed in our power.”[18] That potential U.S. opponents from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Ali Khamenei’s Iran want to exaggerate their capabilities is logical, but the U.S. bias in considering such governments’ claims is to assume they are masking hidden capabilities.

Misunderstanding the Numbers

President Dwight Eisenhower commissioned the Gaither Report because he wanted a second opinion on options for improving early warning of a Soviet attack and, in the event of such an attack, reducing the vulnerability of the civilian population. Eisenhower and two consecutive defense secretaries in the latter half of his second term displayed a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the nuclear balance of terror than many of his critics who raised the alarm of an impending missile gap. U-2 reconnaissance flights over Russia were collecting information that undermined some of the worst-case projections. U.S. programs to build and deploy ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles were well underway. However, the president and other senior officials failed in effectively conveying the strategic realities of the nuclear age to the public. “Their attempts to dismiss the Sputnik launch as a ‘scientific bauble,’ intended to be reassuring, were seen in many quarters as an indication of presidential complacency (or worse).”[19] Eisenhower’s unwillingness to divulge the U-2 information “led to the impression that his reassurances were based on nothing at all.”[20] When Eisenhower’s defense secretaries sought to explain to Congress that missile-for-missile comparisons alone conveyed a misleading impression about the U.S.-Soviet balance, they were interpreted as admissions that the U.S. administration “had conceded a crucial strategic advantage to its adversary.”[21]

The tendency for politicians to simplify the complicated logic of nuclear issues for partisan purposes did not end with the disappearance of the original missile gap. At the very time when the U.S. lead in strategic warheads was widening dramatically as a result of accuracy improvements and the equipping of ICBMs with multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles, an opposite impression was being conveyed by arms control critics. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), one of his party’s leading voices on defense issues, compared the size of U.S. and Russian ICBMs to the linemen of two competing football teams, implying that missile size was the only important metric of capability. As the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) yielded progress in capping the growth of strategic arsenals, SALT opponents made effective use of desktop ICBM models displaying U.S. (white) missile types and much larger Soviet (black) missile types side by side. The not-so-subtle message was that SALT had failed to prevent a new and ominous missile gap from arising. The impact was visceral; intellectual explanations of the significance of superior U.S. accuracy and warhead numbers and the invulnerability of U.S. ballistic missile submarines often fell on deaf ears.


It is tempting to dismiss the missile gap as a quaint artifact from an earlier time, an interesting historical example of the negative effect election politics can have on assessing threats. However, it also should be recognized as a phenomenon that has arisen repeatedly since the “cataclysmic peril” of the first missile gap quickly evaporated 50 years ago. During the three remaining decades of the Cold War, the United States often sought to close strategic gaps that the Soviet Union was perceived to be opening, only to discover much later that Moscow had been struggling mightily merely to catch up with the technological advances and superior resources of the United States. The rise and fall of the missile gap myth is a cautionary tale, which should continue to inform efforts to achieve more realistic and sober appraisals of the threats faced today.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, where he directs the Realistic Threat Assessments and Responses Project. He previously served as a senior professional staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 25 years.


1. Office of Defense Mobilization, Executive Office of the President, “Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” November 7, 1957. For a highly regarded analysis of the report, see David L. Snead, The Gaither Committee, Eisenhower, and the Cold War (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1999).

2. Chalmers Roberts, “Enormous Arms Outlay Is Held Vital to Survival,” The Washington Post, December 20, 1957, p. 1.

3. Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee, Freedom of Communications, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, S. Rep. 994, pt. 3, p. 250.

4. John Kennedy, Congressional Record, 86th Congress, 2nd sess. (February 29, 1960): S3801.

5. Senate Armed Services Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee and Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Joint Hearings on Missile and Space Activities, 86th Congress, 1st sess., 1959, p. 53.

6. Jeffrey T. Richelson, “U.S. Intelligence and Soviet Star Wars,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1986, pp. 12-13.

7. Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Forces (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 182.

8. Robert S. Norris and Thomas B. Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook: U.S.-USSR/Russian Strategic Offensive Nuclear Forces 1945-1996,” January 1997, p. 18.

9. Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris, The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), p. 166.

10. Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980) (quoting articles in The Wall Street Journal on February 9, 1961, and The Washington Post on February 7, 1961).

11. Norris and Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook,” p. 18.

12. Edgar M. Bottome, The Missile Gap: A Study of the Formulation of Military and Political Policy (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1971), p. 120 (quoting testimony by Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates before the House Appropriations Committee in January 1960).

13. David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009), p. 294.

14. National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate: Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015,” September 1999 (unclassified summary) (emphasis in original).

15. See Greg Thielmann, “Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Strategic Arms Reductions,” ACA Threat Assessment Brief, January 26, 2011, pp. 3-4, www.armscontrol.org/system/files/TAB_StrategicMissileDefense_ThreattoFutureNuclearArmsReduction_2.pdf.

16. Daniel Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap” (paper, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, May 29, 1987), p. 33.

17. Richard Ned Lebow, “Was Khrushchev Bluffing in Cuba?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1988, pp. 41-42.

18. Sergei N. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower (University Park, PA: PennsylvaniaStateUniversity Press, 2000), p. 315.

19. Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap,” p. 2.

20. Ibid., p. 3.

21. Ibid.


The misperceived "missile gap" became a significant issue during the period between the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the U.S. presidential election of 1960. The story of how it arose and then quickly disappeared 50 years ago carries relevant lessons for assessing military threats today.

ACA Senior Fellow Discusses Next Steps in Arms Control



What’s Up Next in Arms Control?

Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Grinnell College Roundtable
March 14, 2011

In order to answer the question I have posed, I will first turn to what the Obama administration has said it would do and recall what it has done so far.

The First Two Years

Three months into his term, President Obama delivered a speech in Prague, the Czech Republic, laying out an ambitious agenda to move the world away from reliance on nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them entirely.

Over its first two years, the Obama administration has been extraordinarily busy pushing a number of concrete steps to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons, end nuclear testing, secure fissile material, and strengthen implementation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In April 2010 the administration completed a new Nuclear Posture Review that narrows the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and rules out the need for new types of nuclear warheads.

Later that month, Obama hosted an international Nuclear Security Summit that produced an action plan for securing the most vulnerable nuclear materials within four years instead of the eight years that had been planned.

In May, the U.S. led the 2010 NPT Review Conference to a successful conclusion with a 64-point action plan.  This was in contrast to a disastrous NPT Review Conference in 2005, which could not agree on any action plan, leaving many in despair for the future of the treaty.

At the UN, the administration pushed through a tougher set of targeted sanctions on Iran in response to NPT safeguards violations.  UN and unilateral sanctions have slowed down Iran’s nuclear program, buying some time and leverage for the pursuit of a deal to establish sufficient transparency to ensure the program is not used to produce weapons.

The biggest achievement so far has been negotiating and ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).  The President and his team negotiated the treaty with the Russians within the first year, and then, just in time for Christmas 2010, won Senate approval, turning back treaty-killing amendments that would have required renegotiation with Russia.

New START eventually won bipartisan support, passing 71-26.  Put simply it sets new, modestly lower limits on Russian and U.S. deployed warheads and delivery systems and re-establishes a robust, up-to-date monitoring system to verify compliance.  Later this month, a significant amount of data on strategic forces will be exchanged between the US and Russia.  45 days later, teams of inspectors will travel to sensitive strategic sites in both countries for the first time since the original START treaty expired in December 2009.

New START will increase predictability and transparency through enhanced on-site inspections that will provide more information on the status of Russian strategic forces than was available under the original START accord.

New START has already helped reset U.S.-Russian relations and boosted U.S.-Russian cooperation to contain Iran’s nuclear program and secure vulnerable nuclear material, and of course it opens the way for further Russian and U.S. nuclear arms reductions.

By any measure, there has been considerable progress toward the longstanding U.S. goal—as reiterated by the President in Prague—of peace and security in a “world without nuclear weapons.”

But New START and these other initiatives are just that—a start. There is much more that needs to be done to reduce the nuclear weapons danger.

What’s Now?

Deeper, Broader, and Faster Nuclear Reductions

New START is a vital step, but it will leave the United States and Russia with far more strategic warheads, missiles and bombers than is needed to deter nuclear attack.  In fact, even after New START reductions are implemented, there will still be roughly 19,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, most of which are held by the two treaty signatories.

President Obama and his team have said the United States and Russia can and should pursue further verifiable reductions of all types of nuclear weapons—strategic and tactical, deployed and non-deployed.

Informal, early discussions are now underway. We believe the two sides can and should initiate formal talks before the end of this year.

The goal should be to establish a single, verifiable limit on the total number of nuclear weapons for each nation.  This overall limit would be in addition to a sublimit on the number of deployed strategic weapons—the traditional focus of reductions. This overall limit is important.  As the numbers of deployed strategic weapons shrink, nondeployed and nonstrategic warheads and their delivery systems have to be addressed.  It is also important that the most advanced nuclear arms control process establishes useful precedents for ultimately involving all nuclear-armed states – for example, by adopting a simple unit of measure that can facilitate transparency, accounting, and controls.

How low can U.S. and Russia go in the next round now that the sides have agreed to limits of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons?  From a geo-strategic standpoint, neither Russia nor the United States can justify more than a few hundred nuclear warheads each (including both strategic and tactical, deployed and non-deployed) to deter nuclear attack by any current or potential adversary.

ACA published a study in 2005 (“What Are Nuclear Weapons For?”) that outlines the rationale for a smaller nuclear force, 500 deployed strategic and 500 nondeployed strategic warheads on a smaller, mainly submarine-based triad. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, others have also argued that it is possible to get down to 1,000 warheads without weakening security on either side.

Of course there is the intriguing article in Strategic Studies Quarterly that concludes the United States could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." Those authors argue that such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons.

My own wish is that lower numbers will induce the U.S. military to push for movement away from the triad to a diad.  If we can give up the nuclear bomber leg of the triad, relying on the two most responsive and reliable legs, Navy SLBMs and Air Force ICBMs, we will save a lot of money and more easily move to lower numbers.  Of course many Members of Congress and nuclear theologians seem to confuse the triad with the Holy Trinity, but I note with satisfaction that even the Air Force Association recently argued that bombers should give up their nuclear weapons delivery mission.

For Russia such a negotiation would help address its concerns about the relatively larger U.S. upload potential that exists due to our larger number of delivery systems and reserve strategic warheads.

For the United States, such a negotiation would finally lead to an accounting of and reduction in Russia’s relatively larger and possibly insecure stockpile of stored and deployed tactical nuclear bombs.

Such reductions should, ideally, be secured through a New START follow-on treaty with robust verification methods.

However, given that the next round of talks will likely be more complex and time consuming and the new Congress is generally more suspicious of arms control, there are other nuclear risk reduction steps that should be pursued at the same time. For example:

  • The United States and Russia can achieve the reductions mandated by New START well ahead of the 2018 implementation deadline; and
  • President Obama needs to make good on promises to phase-out obsolete Cold War nuclear targeting plans and prompt launch requirements, which help perpetuate excessive deployments and raise the risk of catastrophic nuclear miscalculation. In a September 2009 Q & A published in Arms Control Today, then-candidate Obama said: “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War.”

The NPR recommends consideration of measures to maximize the time the Commander-In-Chief has to make a decision to use nuclear weapons.  A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately, but only the assurance that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems would survive an attack. Now is the time to implement these measures.

The Obama administration and NATO must also work through two other issues that could complicate further, deeper U.S.-Russian nuclear force reductions.

First, Russia is and will likely remain resistant to meaningful limits on tactical nuclear weapons so long as the U.S. continues to deploy even a small number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.  As the new NATO Strategic Concept and U.S. military commanders acknowledge, these weapons have no military role in the defense of NATO.  Some may believe these weapons have a function as a bargaining chip or are symbols of the United States commitment to NATO.  Whether they are or are not, they are clearly obsolete relics of the Cold War.

To clear the way for a potential agreement with Russia on reciprocal measures to account for and reduce tactical nuclear weapons, the United States and NATO should agree to eliminate any formal alliance requirement for U.S. tactical nuclear warheads in Europe.

Second, Washington and NATO must work with Moscow to achieve meaningful U.S.-Russian cooperation on strategic ballistic missile defense.  Otherwise, future deployment of large numbers of U.S. missile defense interceptors targeting Russian strategic missiles could undermine the prospects for future nuclear reductions and exacerbate East-West tensions.

New START sidesteps long-standing U.S. and Russian differences over strategic missile defense – the parties essentially agree to disagree.  But the next agreement cannot avoid the realities of the offense-defense relationship.

When Obama shelved Bush administration plans to deploy an untested strategic interceptor system in Poland within five years, he was attacked by critics for placating Russia.  However Obama’s alternative, the “Phased, Adaptive Approach,” made far more sense from the perspective of Europe and the United States, as well as Russia.  It would provide a better capability to address current threats to southeastern Europe from Iran’s short- and medium-range conventional missiles and would obviously not threaten Russia’s strategic nuclear retaliatory potential through the current decade.  Because the plan is coherent, it automatically raises less Russian suspicions and thus creates the potential for cooperation rather than confrontation with Russia.

However, unless there is meaningful U.S.-Russian cooperation on strategic ballistic missile defense or limits on future deployment of U.S. interceptors, we will be forced to make a trade-off:  Either future reductions in eliminating real U.S. and Russian strategic weapons or nominal gains in defending against future imagined Iranian missiles.

Let there be no mistake, in the nuclear arms race, we are mostly racing with ourselves.  The only potential adversary, other than Russia, with nuclear-tipped strategic missiles is China and we have about 30 times more deployed strategic warheads.  Clearly we can go lower, and if we do, we can start engaging with the other nuclear powers in multilateral reductions.


Not only must the U.S. and Russia further build down their own arsenals, they must work harder to prevent the nuclear arsenals of other states from being built up. To succeed, the United States needs to solidify the global moratorium on nuclear test explosions by ratifying the Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty and to revive efforts for a global ban on fissile material production.

In Prague, President Obama called for ratification of the CTBT.  Today, the national security case for the test ban treaty is even stronger than it was when the Senate considered it in 1999.  Nearly two decades after the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, it is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing.  We have invested heavily in ensuring the reliability of our existing warheads without explosive testing. Over the past decade, life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads.  Last December, the directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories wrote that the administration’s $85 billion funding plan provides "adequate support" to sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal indefinitely.  The lab directors' endorsement should put to rest any lingering doubts about the adequacy of U.S. plans to ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile under the CTBT.

Moreover, we know that further testing by other nuclear weapons states—including China, India, Pakistan—could help improve their nuclear capabilities.  We know that nuclear proliferants like North Korea or Iran cannot develop a reliable arsenal without testing.  So we are essentially abiding by the requirements of the CTBT without accruing the nonproliferation and security benefits.

Reasonable Senators should be able to understand this logic and be able to understand that the old arguments against the CTBT no longer hold water.  As former Secretary of State George Shultz said in 2009, “Republican Senators might have been right voting against the CTBT some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now.”

It is time that the Obama administration seriously engage the Senate on the subject so that the Senate can reconsider and vote on the treaty at the appropriate time—something the White House has not yet done.

In 2009, Obama also pledged to “lead a global effort” to negotiate a verifiable FMCT. The problem is that the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) where this negotiation occurs operates on the basis of consensus.  The FMCT is currently blocked due to opposition from Pakistan, which is locked in an arms race with India.

If talks at the CD do not begin soon, the Obama administration should pursue parallel, open-ended talks involving the eight states with fissile material production facilities that are not legally required to be under international safeguards. Even if talks do begin, they will likely drag on for years.

To hasten progress, the Obama administration should be prepared to act more boldly by proposing that all states with facilities not subject to safeguards should agree voluntarily to suspend fissile material production pending the conclusion of the FMCT.


The next steps in arms control will not be easy but none of the previous steps were either.  The American people expect their leaders to take action to reduce the nuclear weapons threat.  Additional pragmatic steps to reduce nuclear risk are essential and urgent.  Doing nothing is not an option.



Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association at Grinnell College Roundtable.


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