Missile Threats and Defenses

May 19, 2004 Topic: Security

Missile Threats and Defenses

Next week, Congress will consider the Defense Authorization bill for the next fiscal year.

Next week, Congress will consider the Defense Authorization bill for the next fiscal year. In both the Senate and the House, there will be a series of amendments cutting back on US missile defense programs. One amendment, if successful, would cripple the defenses of our homeland against ballistic missiles and possibly delay any further deployments for five years.

Senators Kennedy and Feinstein are leading these efforts, among others. Ironically, however, if they would care to examine the material available on the websites of various arms control organizations, as well as testimony before the Senate by both Clinton Administration officials and former senior Pentagon officials of past Democratic Administrations, they would be surprised to find a very strong case for the deployment of missile defenses for this nation. Even more interesting, the material all predates 2001.

For example, in early 1999, the CIA "Report on Acquisition of Technology for WMD" warned Iran was using foreign assistance to develop the Shahab 3 and other missiles with increased range, as was Iraq.  Libya, too, was seeking to procure ballistic missile technology from Iran, states of the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. Most worrisome, said the report, was that North Korea has stepped up its acquisition of missile technology, especially from China.

Shortly thereafter, on April 27, 1999, Robert Walpole of the CIA, told a Capitol Hill audience that the "ballistic missile threat that we face is real, it's serious and it's growing", and he specifically sited recent missile flight tests in Iran and North Korea.  He further explained that nobody had anticipated the North Koreans achieving the ability to launch a third stage on their Tae Po Dong-a capability demonstrated in August 1998 in a surprising missile test. Even without a third stage, North Korea could still deliver 1,000 kilos 4-6,000 kilometers. "If you place a third stage on that…system, you could reach the rest of the United States with smaller payloads."

Walpole also referenced the Rumsfeld Commission report of a year earlier. Its most controversial conclusion was "that it's possible for a country with a well-based scud technology infrastructure to develop an ICBM in five years." Walpole candidly admitted: "well, I can't disagree with that." Walpole also warned that we might have considerable difficulty being able to identify whether a nation was even building an ICBM, explaining: "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."

Why was this? Well, Walpole emphasized the significance of foreign assistance in this equation, and that countries such as China and others might very well sell or transfer ICBM technology.  (A possibility we now have learned was, in fact, taking place at the very time of Walpole's remarks.) But even more extraordinary was his next revelation. In 1995, said Walpole, a NIE from the CIA was characterized in a letter to Congress as confirming that no ballistic missile threat to the United States would exist from a country such as Korea for at least 15 years. He said this was the conclusion of "key judgments" made available to Congress. But, he revealed, the report itself contained a dramatically different conclusion. In fact said Walpole, the 1995 NIE has concluded that an ICBM could be deployed by North Korea by 2000. 

This and other material could have been found on the website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), an organization that has devoted millions of dollars to crippling and killing US missile defenses. [ed: This statement, when originally published, drew complaints that it is not accurate, that the Carnegie Endowment as an institution takes no official position on the subject and does not lobby against any proposals.  There have also been charges that the positions expressed at Carnegie and their conclusions have been distorted or taken out of context by the author.  Readers are invited to make their own conclusions by visiting the website at www.ProliferationNews.org or www.ceip.org.] Later that same year, on September 10, 1999, the CEIP released a Proliferation Brief, "Ballistic Missile Threats Evolve" which discussed a newly released CIA intelligence assessment that presented, in their words, "a sober, balanced view of the ballistic missile threats to the United States."

CEIP further asserted that, over the next 15 years, the United States would face missile threats from China, Russia and North Korea - and probably from Iran. Aware that such an assessment would inevitably lead the American public to ask what was being done to protect the United States, the CEIP cleverly claimed that at least with respect to the threat from North Korea, we need not worry because the regime in Pyongyang might very well collapse before any US missile defense could be deployed. Their claim that no defense could possibly be deployed prior to 2007 we now know to be false because an initial missile defense for America will be deployed this year. Just to make sure, the CEIP further claimed that with the collapse of the North Korean regime, sales of missile technology to other countries, such as Iran, would cease and solve that problem as well. And even if one didn't believe any such collapse of the communist regime was probable, the CEIP warned us that deploying a US missile defense would so antagonize the Chinese that they would build more nuclear armed missiles and aim them at the United States.

That same month, the CEIP posted another Proliferation Brief on Iraq that would, in retrospect, make the case for regime change in Iraq because of its ballistic missile and weapons programs. The brief went on to explain the dangers of leaving Iraq alone without inspectors, which were in the process of being thrown out by Saddam Hussein. It said, quite correctly, "if inspections were to cease, Iraq would be able to reconstitute much of its former chemical, biological and ballistic missile capability within six months." It went on: "Iraq has presumably continued its efforts to develop a medium to long range ballistic missile capability." It then concluded: "A former Iraqi nuclear scientist, now residing in the US, warned recently of the quickness with which Iraq could resume its nuclear weapons research in the absence of inspections…Iraq is probably 5-7 years away from the possession of enough highly enriched uranium for a rudimentary nuclear explosive device. The illicit acquisition of fissile materials from outside sources could speed this process significantly."

The import of these warnings was not completely lost on the US Senate. Following the early 1999 release of the CIA report, the Senate Armed Services Committee asked a former Democratic Secretary of Defense and Director of Center Intelligence, to testify on this subject. James Schlesinger remarked on April 29, 1999:

"To achieve a suitable ballistic missile defense should be in my judgment a major objective of US defense policy…A BMD would be a complex system-of-systems, selected from a range of possible deployments, combinations of sensors and capabilities of interceptors….to deploy a suitable defense would require…abrogation of the [ABM] treaty…In the period ahead a missile attack on the United States regrettably will become a growing possibility. It could come from a variety of perpetrators. Because of the range and the novelty of such possibilities, it will likely be difficult to achieve an early assessment of missile build-up and pending attacks…We should, therefore, move with all deliberate speed toward an effective defense of the United States."


Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a Maryland defense consulting firm. He is Senior Defense Associate at NDUF. He specializes in nuclear weapons, missile defense, terrorism and rogue states. These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his affiliated organizations.


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