The Growing Ballistic Missile Threat: How Much, How Soon, and How Dangerous?

Report Defense

The Growing Ballistic Missile Threat: How Much, How Soon, and How Dangerous?

February 1, 1999 17 min read
The Hon. Donald Rumsfeld
Health Policy Fellow


My name is Tom Moore. I'm director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation and am delighted to welcome not only our distinguished guests, but our audience as well.

Donald Rumsfeld, Chairman of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, is well-known to all of us who have followed defense and foreign policy issues. He has had a distinguished public career starting as a naval aviator. He was a Member of Congress, then Chief of Staff at the White House from 1974 to 1975, later our ambassador to NATO, then Secretary of Defense from 1975 to 1977. He is now the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Gilead Scientists, Inc. In 1977, he received the Medal of Freedom.

He will be followed by Dr. Barry Blechman, who is President and founder of DFI International. He is also the Chairman and co-founder of the well-known Henry Stimson Center. He served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1977 to 1980. He has been affiliated with the Center for Naval Analyses, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a well-known author on subjects of international security, including the books Face Without War and The Politics of National Security. Dr. Blechman has a Ph.D. in international relations.

He will be followed in turn by Dr. William R. Graham, Chairman of the Board and President of National Security Research Inc., a Washington-based company conducting technical and policy research and analysis for various agencies of the federal government. In the Reagan Administration, he was Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and served as Science Advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Prior to that, he was Deputy Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and led NASA's recovery as Acting Administrator in the aftermath of the tragic Challenger accident. He was also a first lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He has a bachelor of science degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology and a master of science and Ph.D. in electrical engineering, both from Stanford University.

I am delighted to have all three of these members of the commission who recently released their report on the ballistic missile threat. I have to call attention to how timely their report has been. It seems quite extraordinary that the ink was hardly dry when a series of world events began to occur that validated the seriousness of the threat of ballistic missiles and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The nuclear detonations in India and Pakistan, then the test of a long-range missile from North Korea, the test of an intermediate-range missile in Iran, all point to the validity of the work that the Rumsfeld Commission has done.

I would ask that as you listen to what is essentially going to be a report on technology, strategy, and policy, please consider the broader moral context in which this important work has been done and in which we find ourselves today. Certainly, while not all members of this commission agree on the remedy to the threat, they did agree unanimously that the threat is real and imminent.

I would ask you to reflect how extraordinary it is that the most technologically advanced and wealthy power that the world has ever seen continues to allow such a threat to exist without making any serious and meaningful steps to reduce it. It really calls into question what kind of people we have become, and whether we are really indeed truly a self-governing republic. What does it tell us about ourselves when we live in a state of denial and complacency that allows the most threatening weapons that the world has ever seen to continue to proliferate, and largely pretend as a people that the threat does not exist?

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Secretary Rumsfeld and his nine colleagues for bringing home the seriousness and the reality of the threat of ballistic missiles to the continental United States. I now give you Secretary Rumsfeld.

Thomas Moore is Director of The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Thank you very much, Mr. Moore. As I look around this room, there are plenty of people who know a lot about this subject and can, I think, probably illuminate the subject.

Our charter asked us to do some things and explicitly did not ask us to do some other things. We did look at the ballistic missile threat to the United States, not so much the threat to U.S. forces overseas or to allies and friends. We looked at ballistic missiles as opposed to other types of threats such as terrorism, cruise missiles, or conventional threats.

We looked at the threat and did not look at the possible responses to the threat. That was our charter. We were nominated by the Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and Senate and then technically appointed by the Director of Central Intelligence Agency. We came to the task with different backgrounds: some technical like Dr. Bill Graham and Dr. Richard Garwin, a scientist; some public policy people; a couple of generals, Larry Welch and Lee Butler. All of the commission had a good deal of experience dealing with the intelligence community and with intelligence community products over several decades.

We started with, I suppose, different views. Every time we seemed to be drifting in different directions, we called for more briefings. We had some 200 briefings over six months and were briefed by over 300 individuals. We were briefed on the same subject in some instances three times, for a variety of reasons: some cases where we wanted more information, some cases where we didn't get the full background or information we should have the first time.

We ended up with a report that was classified--over 300 pages, some 200-plus pages of classified backup material. Unfortunately, only about 36 pages in an executive summary are public. That being the case, it seems to me that if you had a report that was not classified, where there was divided opinion, then the public could read it and make their own judgment. But a classified report with divided opinion leaves people able to be dismissive of it. So I was very pleased that we were able to achieve unanimity.

And it was not achieved by diving for the middle. The report has plenty of sharp edges. It diverges from what the intelligence community's judgments had been. As Tom mentioned, there had been many events throughout the six-month period that served as a backdrop for our work.

--Donald Rumsfeld is Chairman of the Board of Directors of Gilead Sciences, Inc. He also has served as a Member of Congress, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, and presidential envoy to the Middle East.


It's a pleasure to be here, and it was a privilege to serve on the commission.

We looked first at the existing threats to the United States from the missile forces of Russia and China. Both countries, of course, will continue to be able to threaten this country. In the Russian case, their forces are being modernized, although at a slower rate than we had been used to and not at a rate sufficient to maintain the numbers that we see now. So their forces will come down in number although they continue to be modernized qualitatively.

We looked hard at the problem, or potential problem, of accidental or inadvertent launches of Russian missiles. As you know, many commentators have expressed concern about that. We did not find reason for concern about technical failures at this time, but we did conclude that there was serious risk of political failure. Because of the political situation in Russia, if a civil conflict developed, there could be much greater risk of accidental or inadvertent launch there.

The Chinese have lived with a small, older force of unready intercontinental ballistic missiles for some time, but China seems on the brink of modernizing its missile forces now. It seems clear that in the next decade we will confront a much larger and much more modern Chinese missile force. In effect, with its last round of nuclear tests, China is bringing itself to the sophisticated level of ICBMs that the U.S. and the Russians have had for a considerable amount of time.

We spent most of our time looking at emerging missile threats. Based on information available in the intelligence community and, importantly, based on the advice of teams of engineers from rocket manufacturing companies, we concluded that any country with an advanced Scud infrastructure could develop a missile capable of threatening the United States, or attacking the United States, within five years of a decision to do so. The two countries that have such an infrastructure now are North Korea and Iran.

Moreover, we concluded that the U.S. would not necessarily know when such a decision had been taken. We're not talking about a threat five years from now, or five years from when we issued our report, but five years from a decision to invest the resources and take the steps necessary to convert this Scud infrastructure into ICBM capabilities. Events since our report seem to bear this projection out, particularly in the case of North Korea.

There is a third country which had an advanced Scud-based infrastructure: Iraq. That infrastructure was dismantled as a result of the Gulf War. Because of that, and because of the system of sanctions and inspections maintained since the war, we concluded in the report that it would take Iraq ten years to develop a missile capable of striking the U.S.

Since the report was issued, though, it seems as if the inspection system is being allowed to deteriorate very substantially. As a result, when the commission last got together, we concluded that Iraq now should be added to this category of countries that would take five years to develop a capability to strike the United States.

Our conclusion, of course, differed measurably from the general view of the intelligence community. We view the threat as broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than had previously been reported.

Moreover, we concluded that the warning time available to the intelligence community and to the U.S. is being reduced as a result of a variety of actions. Therefore, we concluded that any U.S. policies based on assumptions of extensive warning of the deployment of new ICBMs need to be reviewed.

--Dr. Barry Blechman, President and founder of DFI International and Chairman and co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1977 to 1980.


I have had the pleasure of serving for the last nine months on the commission with Dr. Blechman, chaired by Don Rumsfeld, and it has been a real privilege to work with them and the other individuals on the commission and on the staff.

Just a few words about technology transfer and deception, cover, and denial in the intelligence information areas. After reviewing the technology transfer in ballistic missiles and associated warheads, particularly weapons of mass destruction--nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads--we came to the conclusion that the only individual we could identify who had not had help from others in the construction of rockets was Robert Goddard. He was the initial developer of the liquid fuel rocket. From there on, everybody built on the knowledge that had been gained before him--Wernher von Braun on Goddard, the U.S. on von Braun, the Russians on other German activities, and the rest of the world following the Russians and the U.S.

The flow of information today and in recent years has been very, very strong and pervasive from Russia to China and thence to the developing world, and from Russia directly to the developing world and, in the case of North Korea, I would say the underdeveloping world. It turns out you cannot be too poor and too destitute and too isolated to be unable to build ballistic missiles and the warheads that go with them, as North Korea has demonstrated. Europe, Asia, and the U.S. also provide dual-use technologies, and in some cases illicit exports, to the developing world as well as to China and to Russia.

What we in the U.S. see as Russian proliferation the Russians, in candid moments, admit to us is really relationships with client states. They don't view the proliferation problem the same way we do. They have their other means of discouraging people in the neighborhood from becoming too aggressive toward them, like having an ample supply of nuclear weapons that I think most of their neighbors are convinced they would use--a policy that the Russians repeatedly confirm.

However, we found another disturbing trend: substantial cooperation among the developing countries themselves. There is more or less a co-op or a condominium that has been developed among countries that are trying to build ballistic missile capabilities and weapons of mass destruction to go with them, in which they help each other in various areas of expertise. That has gotten to the point that if all help from Russia, China, the U.S., Europe, and Asia were ended today and the developing world was left to its own devices, they would still move forward quite rapidly because among them they have very substantial information, data, facilities, capabilities, and intelligence.

One of the most valuable assets the developing world has in developing ballistic missile systems is the knowledge and the skill base to do it. Today, at any given moment, the West is educating something on the order of 100,000 foreign graduate students, most of them in technical fields, many of them from mainland China and from other countries of the developing world.

Many of them stay here. Many of them make great contributions to U.S. industry and culture. I certainly have nothing against immigrants, but at the same time we should realize that we are educating the cadres of essentially all the countries of the world on how to develop ballistic missile and other weapons of mass destruction systems.

We also have a fantastic traffic on the Internet today, and the government has in recent years declassified a large number of documents which bear on both ballistic missiles and space launch capability, which are essentially the same until you get to the point where you decide to deploy a satellite or a re-entry vehicle. You can find an excellent discussion of this in a book called The Proliferation Primer, which was put out by Senator Cochran's Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. It was written by the majority staff about a year ago, and I'm told it's on the Internet as well. Senator Cochran's office can steer you to the right site.

Finally, I would like to say a word about deception, cover, and denial--the difficulty in continuing to collect intelligence. The tricks in intelligence are time-honored, and not very many new ones are developed over time.

The U.S. has suffered from a large number of intelligence compromises over the last several decades, Aldrich Ames being an extreme case, but certainly not the only one. Undoubtedly, such compromises are still going on today. That means that the people we are trying to gather information about know a lot about how we're trying to gather it and do go to a lot of trouble to deny us that information.

In addition to that problem, the U.S. government has a practice centered on the idea that we have to inform a developed country about how they are transferring technology to a less-developed country so that they will understand what they're doing. Perhaps the working theory is that this is being done illicitly and without government knowledge.

The result is that we tend to, by demarche and other means, disclose how technology is being transferred, and then we discover that the sources of the information suddenly dry up. There is reason to believe that in many cases the technology transfer does not stop; it's just our access to the technology transfer that stops. That is a self-inflicted form of denial.

So, on the one hand, the problem of collecting intelligence information is getting more difficult. On the other hand, the transfer of technical information is becoming greater. Today there is no reason to believe that if a technology exists anywhere in the world, it cannot be assimilated by the developing world in very short order.

--Dr. William R. Graham, Chairman and President of National Security Research, has served as Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as Deputy Administrator of NASA.


I'll make a few points in closing before turning to questions.

First, ballistic missiles are attractive. Countries around the world learned in the Gulf War that it's not an easy task to overcome conventional armies, navies, and air forces of the West. Therefore, they look for asymmetrical methods of dealing with us. Clearly, terrorism is one. Cruise missiles are a possibility that will likely be increasingly attractive in the years ahead.

And there are ballistic missiles. Many think of missiles as expensive. In fact, they are quite cheap compared to armies, navies, and air forces. To the extent a country wants to assert influence in the region and does not want to be dissuaded from doing that by a Western country, clearly a ballistic missile with a weapon of mass destruction is attractive. As Al Capone said, "You get a lot more with a kind word and a gun than you do with a kind word alone." You can substitute ballistic missile and you have the picture.

Second, some contend that ballistic missiles may not really be the most appropriate weapons for a developing country to use to threaten or damage another country, because terrorism might be less expensive. But this begs the question. Simply because there are other ways to threaten us does not mean that one ought not be attentive to all the various ways to threaten. The fact that terrorism is something that countries can use effectively against the United States does not mean that we ought not to be sensitive to ballistic missile threats.

Third, as Dr. Bill Graham pointed out, the argument that technology transfer is some sort of a wild card is simply not valid. It's pervasive. It exists. Technology transfer is happening across the globe. People who want to get access to these capabilities can in fact do so. As Dr. Paul Wolfowitz, one of the members of the commission, points out, if your end point is fixed--namely, to have a ballistic missile with a weapon of mass destruction--and years go by and technology transfer is available, as well as technicians, eventually countries are going to get there. We ought not to be surprised that we're arriving at that point where countries are in fact getting there.

To dismiss developing countries' ballistic missile programs as high-risk is to misunderstand the situation. These countries don't need the safety levels that we do. They don't need the accuracy or reliability that United States missiles require. They certainly don't need the high volumes that we have had. So high-risk is a misleading characterization.

To suggest that these countries are not capable of doing this, or that there are not ways that they can shortcut the development program, or to characterize alternative methods as unlikely also misses the point. We know that a country has delivered a complete ballistic missile system to another country overnight, and we didn't know it until after it was done. We know that countries have tested ballistic missiles on other people's real estate. So if your key intelligence method is to watch for a test, but a country tests somewhere else, obviously you're not going to find that important indicator.

We know that countries, including the United States, have placed their missiles on other people's real estate. Tomorrow, Iran could announce that they have decided to put their missiles in Libya to defend Libya, and by doing so, they would end up some 1,500 kilometers closer to the U.S. They wouldn't have to go through the full development cycle to an ICBM range. You can launch ballistic missiles from a ship. It has been done, and there are countries today that already have or are developing those capabilities.

Saying that it is unlikely that indigenous ballistic missile development programs will produce ICBMs within a certain time frame misses the point. There aren't any indigenous ballistic missile programs. As Dr. Graham pointed out, Dr. Goddard's was probably the last truly indigenous missile program. Every country can get some kind of help from somebody, and to the extent they want it, they can get it.

There are a couple of schools of thought. One school is that it is possible for us to stop these capabilities from spreading in the world, that it is possible to stop technology transfer, and that it is possible to keep countries from getting access to these capabilities. Another school of thought is that countries eventually will get them and what we need to do is to see that we are arranged so that our country can live with those risks.

I believe that increasingly sophisticated capabilities are eventually going to get in the hands of other countries and that we will have to live with that. We should try to stop the most critical things, try to delay another tier, but recognize we will not be successful in plugging every hole that exists. We must not ignore the reality that we are going to be living with increasingly sophisticated threats.

Our conclusion is that we are in an environment, potentially, of little or no warning. Our recommendation is that the national security community recognize that we are in an environment of little or no warning and review all policies, procedures, capabilities, and plans that are dependent upon extended warning and adjust them as appropriate.

The Department of State needs to review their focus, emphasis, and priorities. The intelligence community has to recognize that because of deception and denial, and because of the relaxed atmosphere in the world--a relaxation of export controls and espionage continuing--we need to improve our intelligence-gathering capabilities. And the Pentagon needs to look at not just defensive capabilities, but also offensive capabilities so that we can live with the little-or-no-warning environment.

We were talking this morning about Roberta Wohlstetter's book on Pearl Harbor, what warning is, and what is actionable warning. When does it finally connect in your head that you not only know something, but it's time to do something about it and to alter your behavior? That is an important subject. It is a subject that I think possibly Heritage might look at and think about.


The Hon. Donald Rumsfeld

Health Policy Fellow