October 6, 2008
By Peter Brookes
Despite Iran's runaway nuclear program, North Korea's atomic
assistance to Syria, and robust ballistic missile production and
testing by Russia and China, a missile defense system for
protecting the homeland and U.S. interests overseas remains a
controversial idea in some corners. It should not be. The security
challenge arising from the proliferation of ballistic missiles and
the dangerous payloads they might carry, including weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) like nuclear arms, is a threat that -- in fact --
may be growing.
While the Bush administration has taken significant steps to
develop sea- and land-based missile defense systems, the next White
House and Congress should continue supporting missile defense
programs to enhance our national security. Indeed, just this
summer, the Washington Post broke a story claiming the
international nuclear smuggling ring once run by the prodigious
Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan had also managed to acquire the
blueprints for an "advanced nuclear weapon."
Owned by three Swiss members of Khan's international cabal, a
laptop containing 1,000 gigabytes of data (roughly equivalent to
the information contained in a local library) on designs and
engineering for nuclear weapons was discovered by investigators.
Regrettably, according to the story, the United Nations'
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes the nuclear
weapons designs found on the laptop could be mated -- in theory --
to the ballistic missiles used by "more than a dozen developing
In fact, the IAEA, which reportedly verified the destruction of
the data by Swiss authorities, cannot guarantee the nuclear warhead
designs were not shared with others, according to a report by David
Albright, a weapons expert who has been investigating the Khan
network. While North Korea, Iran and Libya -- the three states with
which Khan had the most intimate contact -- are the most likely
recipients of the Pakistani's atomic assistance, there may be
others who received this nuclear know-how as well, although some
experts view the report as alarmist. (Not surprisingly, Khan, who
has been under house arrest in Pakistan since 2004, denied that he
was involved in any way in proliferating nuclear weapons designs.
Of course, others in his nuclear network may have done so.)
With Israel's strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear site in
September 2007 and news of nuclear power programs popping up across
the Middle East (which may be hedging against Iran's nuclear
efforts), this sort of dire speculation about possible
proliferation makes security experts increasingly nervous. Indeed,
the ballistic missile and nuclear proliferation trend is not
positive. Ten years ago, there were only six nuclear-weapons
states. Today there are nine members of the once-exclusive
nuclear-weapons club, with Iran perhaps knocking at the door.
Twenty-five years ago, nine countries had ballistic missiles. Today
there are 28 countries with ballistic missile arsenals of varying
Among present proliferation problems, Iran may be the most
troubling to American security analysts, especially considering its
longstanding enmity toward the United States, sponsorship of
terrorism, involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and regional
Tehran, naturally, insists its burgeoning nuclear program is for
little more than peaceful power generation, designed to augment
Iran's already significant oil and natural gas reserves. (Iran has
the world's third largest oil and second largest natural gas
reserves.) But like a sledgehammer, new intelligence continues to
blast away at Iran's rock-like insistence that its nuclear program
is purely peaceful and not a weapons effort as many in the region
and beyond increasingly believe.
The most serious blow comes out of the United Nations' nuclear
watchdog in Vienna, the IAEA, which drafted and released a
troubling nine-page report in late May casting serious doubt on
Iran's claims to a purported pacifist power program. In a dramatic
change, based on new multi-source, multilateral intelligence
received over time from a number of its member states, the IAEA has
shifted its position from being unable to prove Iran has a nuclear
weapons program to being unable to prove Iran does not have one.
(Indeed, in late June, IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei commented on
Arab television that Iran could build a nuclear weapon in six
months to a year if it decided to do so, considering its current
centrifuge capacity and the quantity of processed uranium it
already has on hand.)
Ten years ago, there were only six nuclear weapons states. Today
there are nine, with Iran perhaps aiming to be the tenth.
Based on 18 hard-copy and electronic documents, the
nuclear-monitoring agency expressed concerns about the increasingly
questionable nature of Iran's nuclear program, especially its
possible military dimensions, which would violate Iran's Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments. (The NPT allows
signatories to pursue nuclear programs for scientific or power
purposes, but not military ends, which include weapons production.
All activities must be declared to the IAEA Of note, not all states
have signed the NPT, most notably India, Pakistan, and Israel;
North Korea withdrew.)
In its first formal assessment of Iran's nuclear efforts since
February, the IAEA states in the most "diplomatic" of terms: "The
agency [IAEA] is of the view that Iran may have additional
information, in particular on high explosives testing and
missile-related activities, which could shed more light on the
nature of these alleged studies and which Iran should share with
The IAEA considers these unanswered questions on Iran's nuclear
work "a matter of serious concern" because the existence of this
sort of activity might indicate Tehran is secretly developing a
nuclear weapon, contrary to Iran's repeated public protestations.
Moreover, the report states, "Iran has not provided the agency with
all the information, access to documents and access to individuals
necessary to supports Iran's statements," despite the new
intelligence, which is "detailed in content, and appears to be
The first charge is that Iran is suspected of conducting
high-explosives testing. This includes work with exploding bridge
wire (EBW) detonators and a detonator firing unit, which could be
used for triggering a nuclear weapon; 500ebw detonators were
tested, according to the IAEA
In addition, a five-page document describes experiments for a
"complex multipoint initiation system" to "detonate a substantial
amount of high explosive in hemispherical geometry" that could be
employed in an implosion-type nuclear device. Tehran is further
accused of developing plans for underground explosives testing,
which could be utilized for detonating a nuclear weapon similar to
the testing done by North Korea in October 2006. The documents also
include a technical diagram for a "400m deep shaft located 10km
from a firing control point," showing "the placement of various
electronic systems such as a control unit and a high-voltage power
It seems military-related institutions are involved in
procurement activities for Iran's "peaceful" nuclear power
There is also a mysterious piece of information the IAEA report
calls the "uranium metal document," which is related to the "actual
design or manufacture by Iran of nuclear material components of a
nuclear weapon." The document allegedly describes procedures for
machining highly enriched uranium metal into a hemispherical shape,
key to producing the rounded "pits" used in modern implosion-type
nuclear weapon warheads. Strikingly, the report notes that
"Pakistan has confirmed, in response to the Agency's request, that
an identical document exists in Pakistan" to the one found in Iran
-- possibly showing connections to Pakistan's nuclear weapons
Another IAEA concern is work on a new ballistic missile warhead,
known as "Project 111," for Iran's medium-range ballistic missile,
the Shahab-3, which can reach all of the Middle East as well as
parts of southern Europe. According to six technical documents in
the IAEA's possession, Iran appears to have been involved in the
redesign of the payload chamber of the current "Shahab-3 missile
re-entry vehicle to accommodate a nuclear warhead."
The IAEA report also questions the Iranian military's apparent
involvement in Tehran's civilian nuclear efforts. It seems
military-related institutions are involved in suspicious
procurement activities for Iran's ostensibly "peaceful" nuclear
power program. There are also concerns, according to the report,
about an unexplained letter published by the chairman of Iran's
high-ranking Expediency Council in September, which makes
"reference to possible acquisition of nuclear weapons."
If this is not unnerving enough, it gets worse. The report notes
that Iran continues uranium enrichment, the proverbial "long-pole
in the tent" in producing a nuclear weapon -- at least in
comparison with developing a delivery platform or warhead. As the
American IAEA representative, Ambassador Gregory Schulte, told the
press in May: "At the same time that Iran is stonewalling its
[IAEA] inspectors, it's moving forward in developing its enrichment
capability in violation of [UN] Security Council resolutions."
Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz is already using at
least 3,500 centrifuges. Theoretically, if operating efficiently,
this line could produce enough weapons-grade fissile material to
build one bomb in the time indicated by El Baradei. (The uranium
enrichment process can produce fuel for a nuclear power reactor or
fissile material for a nuclear weapon. To date, Iran has publicly
stated enrichment rates of over 4 percent, suitable for reactor
fuel if produced in sufficient quantities; weapons-grade uranium is
usually enriched to above 90 percent.)
Some experts think Iran could have as many as 6,000 centrifuges
online, spinning at supersonic speed in the near future, turning
uranium hexafluoride gas (uf6) into some level of enriched uranium
for reactors, weapons or both. Tehran has steadfastly insisted that
it has the right to enrich uranium for nuclear reactor fuel as
stipulated under the terms of the NPT (ironically, Iran violated
the NPT by failing to declare its nuclear program to the IAEA for
some 20 years.)
Iran, with Russian assistance, is continuing construction of its
first nuclear reactor at Bushehr.
The new IAEA report also notes the previously undisclosed
development of a new generation of centrifuge. The "IR-3" (for
third generation Iranian) centrifuge improves upon previous models
based on the less efficient Pakistani design, procured from Khan's
network. Moreover, agency inspectors raise concerns about the fact
that "substantial parts of the centrifuge components were
manufactured in the workshops of the [Iranian] Defense Industries
Organization," hoisting a red flag about the blurring of the lines
between Tehran's civilian and a possible military program.
The bottom line concern here, besides the fact that Iran did not
declare this new equipment (and capability) to the IAEA as
required, is that the new, more efficient centrifuges will allow
Iran to produce more enriched uranium -- for reactors or bombs --
more quickly. Iran, with Russian assistance, is also continuing
construction of its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. A good deal
of the reactor's fuel is already in place, having been shipped in
from Russia beginning last December. (Unfortunately, Russian
support at the UN Security Council for slowing Iran's nuclear
program through the imposition of economic sanctions is likely to
diminish following this summer's action in Georgia.) The IAEA is
also monitoring construction of an Iranian nuclear research
reactor, which experts are concerned could be used for
experimentation on reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel into
fissile material (e.g., plutonium) for use in nuclear weapons.
Interestingly, in all of this Iran does not see an indictment of
wrongdoing on its part. On the contrary, Tehran views the report as
an exoneration of guilt. Iran's IAEA envoy, via the Iranian news
service, called the report: "[a] vindication and reiteration of the
peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities." In addition, Tehran
officially said the IAEA documents "do not show any indication that
the Islamic Republic of Iran has been working on a nuclear weapon,"
adding that many of the documents had been "forged" or
"fabricated," especially since they were in an electronic format.
In some cases, Iran did not quibble with the information, instead
insisting that "the events and activities concerned involved civil
or conventional military applications," such as the testing of
detonators for use in the oil industry. While Iran has promised to
address all concerns, many of these questions are likely to remain
a mystery due to Iran's regular refusal to allow the IAEA access to
procurement personnel and scientists or to open suspect sites to
the agency's atomic sleuths.
The IAEA reports starkly call into question the intent of Iran's
nuclear efforts, leaving Tehran's claims to a purely civilian
nuclear power program increasingly in doubt. As a result, the IAEA
has called upon Tehran to increase transparency by signing an
"Additional Protocol," which would give agency inspectors access to
any facility suspected of undeclared nuclear activity.
This is a fundamental requirement in a large country like Iran
(four times the size of California), where sites are numerous and
sometimes well-hidden -- even below ground. Verification of
compliance, even under the best of conditions, is likely to be
difficult. But old habits die hard. Tehran will likely continue to
obfuscate and dissemble, preventing the IAEA from gaining a
realistic assessment of the nature of Iran's nuclear program --
which unfortunately places time squarely on Tehran's side.
Iran's interest and involvement in a nascent space program is
not comforting either. While enriching uranium is a key capability
in developing nuclear weapons, Iran may also be working on another
important aspect of a military program: a long-range delivery
system; that is, a new ballistic missile. Like its "civilian"
nuclear efforts that remained undeclared for two decades,
long-range ballistic missiles are likely being developed under
cover of another supposed nonmilitary effort: Iran's space program.
Indeed, Tehran's budding space work could lead to the development
of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching
all of Europe and the United States with a WMD payload.
For example, on February 5 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
led the countdown for the launch of a ballistic missile described
as a "space launch vehicle," or SLV, from a new space center
inaugurated the same day. While there is controversy about the
success of that day's test, Iran claims it was setting the stage
for the future launch of the first Iranian-built satellite -- the
Omid (Hope) -- which is expected to be ready for service by
mid-2009. Undeterred, Iran conducted a second space-related missile
launch this summer.
Of course, Iran has a lot of relatively benign reasons to want a
space program. National pride in such an achievement might distract
the restive populace from its social and economic suffering,
helping to legitimize the increasingly unpopular regime. The
program could also build prestige for the ambitious state: Iran
would be the first Muslim state with a space-launch capability.
Neighbors would be envious as Tehran propels itself toward
leadership of the Middle East and the Islamic world.
It is also useful to be able to launch your own communications,
intelligence or scientific satellites rather than relying on others
to launch them for you. (Russia launched Iran's only other
satellite into orbit back in October 2005.) Iran would surely argue
that it needs to be self-reliant for space launches, just as it
(self-servingly) insists it needs to be self-sufficient in
enriching uranium to produce fuel for Bushehr despite Russian
Experts think a two-stage ballistic missile from Iran could
reach all of Europe -- and America's East Coast.
There are other advantages. Satellites could enhance Iran's
military might, relaying secure communications, gathering
intelligence, providing early warning and targeting opposition
forces, such as U.S. naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf. In
addition, a space program, especially a space-launch capacity, is
critical to developing an ICBM capability. Remember: Moscow's
launch of its first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 meant not only that
the Russians had bested us scientifically, but that a Soviet ICBM
capability was not far behind. Theoretically, if you can launch a
ballistic missile that can place a satellite into Earth orbit, you
have the scientific wherewithal to hit a target anywhere on Earth
with a warhead, including a WMD.
Similarly, Iran's space efforts follow an unnerving
proliferation pattern. In the late 1990s, North Korea also used a
"civilian" space program to clandestinely manufacture and test a
Taepo Dong ballistic missile with intercontinental potential.
Fortunately, the 1998 multi-stage missile launch landed in the
Western Pacific after overflying Japan, while North Korea oddly
insisted the launch had successfully put a small satellite into
orbit, transmitting patriotic songs back to eager listeners on the
ground in impoverished North Korea.
Also striking, Iran's defense ministry plays a prominent role in
the putative civilian space effort. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard
Corps, which is close to Tehran's political leadership, manages
Iran's Shahab medium-range ballistic missile program. Some experts
believe the Shahab, which is based on the North Korean
(medium-range) No Dong missile, could easily morph into an SLV/ICBM
program. Indeed, the Taepo Dong is believed to be based on various
No Dong rocketry configurations.
Fortunately, without a Manhattan Project-like effort, an Iranian
ICBM is not just around the corner: Iran still needs a more
energetic (i.e., multistage) missile to carry a nuclear-sized
payload (1,000-2,000 pounds) to intercontinental ranges. Although
Iran has not yet been totally successful in testing a multistage
missile, experts estimate a two-stage ballistic missile from Iran
could reach all of Europe -- as well as America's East Coast. A
ballistic missile with three stages could range the whole of the
The downside is that Iran could move forward with alacrity if it
receives outside assistance on its space and/or missile program.
The most likely candidates for that assistance are North Korea,
Russia, or a Khan-like network of ballistic missile "guns for
Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Iran could in the end
just be working on a space program -- not an ICBM program. But
considering Tehran's record of nuclear denial and deception, it is
hard to believe Iran's space program is not just more of the same.
Equally troubling, in the view of many analysts, is that absent a
political decision by Tehran to stay non-nuclear, it will be almost
impossible to prevent Iran from a nuclear breakout, meaning that at
some point in the future an Iranian ICBM may be capable of being
mated with an Iranian nuclear warhead.
From a threat perspective, unfortunately, there is not much good
news out of North Korea, either, regarding its nuclear or ballistic
missile programs. While the situation is perhaps not as volatile as
Iran's, North Korea remains a cause of concern.
North Korea is already a confirmed nuclear weapons state,
lighting off its first nuclear test in a subterranean event in
October 2006 -- in another of its irascible "I will not be ignored"
moments. Containing, much less rolling back, North Korea's nuclear
program (beginning in the early years of the Clinton
administration) has been a tough, frustrating slog. At times, it
looked as if the nuclear standoff could lead to another Korean
Even today, despite North Korea's rhetoric and some actions to
the contrary, there remains serious concern about Pyongyang's
ultimate willingness to fully denuclearize, since its nuclear
arsenal is a strong bargaining chip -- and a great equalizer
against the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Complicating matters, North Korea is believed to have a
clandestine, parallel uranium-based nuclear program in addition to
its well-known plutonium-based program centered around its
Russian-made nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.
While the United States has accused North Korea directly of
having a uranium-based nuclear program, Pyongyang has been evasive,
even contradictory, about the existence of this second nuclear
program since Washington first confronted North Korean officials
about it in the fall of 2002 in Pyongyang. (A major news outlet
reported that traces of highly enriched uranium were found on some
of the 18,000 pages of North Korean documents provided to the
United States in June as part of a nuclear declaration. Some
observers, however, believe this story is apocryphal.)
The multilateral effort to address North Korea's nuclear program
has labored for several years under a Six-Party Talks process,
which includes the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and North
and South Korea, hosted by the Chinese in Beijing. The forum was
unable to prevent North Korea from going nuclear, and has evolved
from the six-member format into what are now essentially bilateral
talks between Washington and Pyongyang, with frequent consultations
with the other four players.
Though some progress has been made in capturing the nuclear
reactor at Yongbyon, an important site for producing fissile
material for weapons, the next steps in addressing North Korea's
existing nuclear weapons capability and the uranium-based program
remain an open question. (Of course, the issue of verification and
compliance of any nuclear agreement with the ultra-secretive North
Koreans has to weigh heavily on the mind of any Washington
policymaker contemplating an effective, enduring settlement with
North Korea is still developing a long-range missile capability
to reach out and touch the United States.
Making the future of the nuclear weapons issue more than a
matter of regional importance is North Korea's ballistic missile
prowess. In addition to the 1998 Taepo Dong launch, North Korea is
still developing a long-range capability to reach out and touch the
United States. In 2006, North Korea test-fired another Taepo Dong
missile that malfunctioned approximately 40 seconds after launch,
landing a few hundred miles west in the Sea of Japan. Naturally,
once again, Pyongyang claimed a test of an SLV; once again, very
few outside the Hermit Kingdom were swayed by the claim. While the
exact capabilities of the Taepo Dong series of ballistic missile
are unknown, mostly due to their largely-failed launches, it is
believed the missile is capable of reaching well into the Pacific
Ocean, including Hawaii, and possibly the West Coast of the United
States. (The deployment of American missile defenses at Vandenberg
Air Force Base in California and Fort Greeley in Alaska, totaling
24-30 ground-based interceptors, is meant to provide a rudimentary
defense against the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile
North Korea poses a threat to U.S. forces stationed in-theater
with its single-stage No Dong missile. The No Dong, which serves as
the rocketry building block for the Taepo Dong, can reach American
bases and forces in Japan, which might be called upon in a Korean
Peninsula contingency. On the peninsula, the 25,000 or so American
troops also face a North Korean ballistic missile threat,
consisting of several hundred short-range Scud-b/c tactical
ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets in the South within
minutes of launch. While there are still questions about the
ability of Pyongyang to successfully mount a nuclear warhead
capable of withstanding the great heat and pressure common to
medium and long-range missile flight, the North Koreans likely can
mate chemical and biological weapons to scuds.
Adding to the anxiety about North Korea's nuclear and ballistic
missile capabilities are recent reports about Pyongyang's
proliferation activities off the Korean Peninsula: North Korea may
have been furtively assisting Syria with a nuclear program of its
own. Last September, in a still-secretive raid, Israeli fighters
leveled a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in the northern part of
the country at al Kibar, which, as details dribbling out into the
media have shown, may have been supported by North Korean
technology and technicians.
While this sort of negative exposure is not good for Pyongyang's
public image on the world stage, the destitute North Koreans are
likely willing to work with any number of state actors on nuclear
and ballistic missile matters if the price is right.
While not an avowed adversary of the United States, China is --
without question -- involved in an intense competition with America
for power and influence in the Asia-Pacific region and, with little
doubt, globally. Chinese great power ambitions are buttressed by a
robust military modernization effort, which has been growing at a
double-digit rate for over a decade now. Indeed, China now has the
world's third largest defense budget, according to the Pentagon,
growing at an average of 18 percent for the last two years alone.
Moreover, according to some security analysts, China has the most
active ballistic missile program in the world, most likely a
reflection of the unresolved situation surrounding the longstanding
political stand-off with China's cross-strait rival, Taiwan.
Since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the PRC has
considered Taiwan to be a province of the People's Republic. While
progress on any form of political reconciliation has been lacking,
China has not renounced the use of force in resolving Taiwan's
political future. And while the United States does not have a legal
obligation to defend Taiwan, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act,
aggression against the island would be considered a serious threat
to American interests as well as a violation of longstanding U.S.
policy of promoting a peaceful, mutually agreeable resolution of
the issue. Consequently, if the PRC were to move against Taiwan
with force, it is widely believed in Washington policy circles that
the United States would militarily oppose such a move, bringing
U.S. and Chinese forces into direct military contact in the Western
To deter Taiwanese movement toward independence or other acts
China considers "hostile," the PRC has deployed vast numbers of
df-11/15 (css-6/7) short-range ballistic missiles along the coast
opposite Taiwan; Pentagon estimates run in the range of 1,000 to
1,100. Moreover, China is believed to be deploying roughly 100 new,
highly accurate ballistic missiles a year to augment an already
overwhelming force opposite Taiwan. Some have asserted that the
number of new missiles may be pushed to 200 per year.
These missiles not only provide strong Chinese deterrent to
unwanted Taiwanese political or military actions, but also could be
used to great effect in a "bolt from the blue" scenario to
decapitate Taiwan's political leadership or strike critical
military targets such as ports, airfields, and air defenses.
Apropos of what it considers outside interference in an internal
matter, China does maintain limited medium-range,
intermediate-range and ICBM forces for deterring, delaying or
denying the threat of foreign military involvement in a Taiwan
contingency, such as by the United States and Japan, as well as
other potential military contingencies with the likes of Russia or
China has modernized its land-based strategic nuclear deterrent
too, adding road-mobile, solid-fueled ICBMs to its arsenal,
increasing its deterrent effect and survivability. A new concern is
China's plans to put its nuclear deterrent to sea, equipping its
Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear submarines with the new jl-2 missile
with intercontinental range; a jl-2 was tested in late May. Of
equal concern, beyond the growing capacity of China's ballistic
missile force, is the continuing potential for witting -- or
unwitting -- proliferation of WMD and ballistic missile technology
or materials. While China's proliferation record has improved,
concerns still exist about ties with North Korea and Iran.
The Russian Federation, like China, is not an enemy of the
United States, but it, too, desires to play a leading role on the
world stage, balancing other centers of power such as the European
Union and NATO with its political, economic, and military might.
Russia has readjusted its foreign policy orientation from one that
was Western-looking to one that is increasingly independent in
recent years -- even anti-West, deepened by the war in Georgia this
summer over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As
many have asserted, today's Russia is confident, prideful, wealthy,
and interested in reasserting Russia as a great power.
Indeed, some would argue that Russia's chief global foreign
policy objective is nothing less than recreating its superpower
status. While Russia isn't necessarily looking to become the Soviet
Union again, it would like to exert decisive leverage on the
international system, as the Kremlin did during the Cold War. To
achieve these ends, Russia today maintains its position as the
world's second mightiest nuclear weapons state, with over 600
strategic offensive weapons, buttressed by a significant military
modernization program to revitalize the once-proud Russian
Its ballistic missile force is part of that effort. Russia has
one of the world's most active ballistic missile testing programs,
planning to test-launch nine ballistic missiles in 2008, according
to a senior military commander in May. Russia is putting an average
of three mobile and three to four of their newest silo-based
Topol-m (ss-27) ICMBs into operation every year. Moscow may double
its test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles after
2009, based on Russian military claims. According to some sources,
Russia is already working on a follow-up to the ss-27, based on
reports of testing in May. The new version is expected to be
equipped with multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles
(MIRVS). Moscow is also testing a new submarine-launched ICBM.
Adding to security concerns, Russia is threatening to pull out
of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which
eliminated that class of ballistic missiles in a 1987 arms control
treaty with the United States. Moscow is uncomfortable with the
increase in the number of states around its periphery that now have
intermediate range ballistic missiles that did not have them when
the treaty was signed over 20 years ago, such as India, Pakistan,
Iran, China, and North Korea. This could lead to a bump-up in
Russia's missile arsenal.
Shortcomings in the 1970 NPT and the Missile Technology Control
Regime (MTCR), moreover, provide further reason to look to missile
defenses to help insulate the United States from ballistic missiles
and nuclear weapons proliferation. The NPT, which is
well-intentioned and may have dissuaded some states from pursuing
nuclear weapons, is in dire need of an overhaul. It is rife with
loopholes, such as allowing a wide range of nuclear activities
closely related to nuclear weapons work. The accord also lacks the
requisite teeth to ensure enforcement. North Korea threatened to
leave it and then did so with its requisite 90-day notice before
its 2006 nuclear test; Tehran ignored its tenets for 20 years
before its nuclear activities were disclosed, not by the NPT's
Praetorian Guard, the IAEA, but by an Iranian dissident group.
The proliferation of ballistic missiles is not prohibited by any
international treaty. The MTCR is a volunteer organization, which
has been weakened over time by states that have flouted its
principles when advantageous for hard currency, military
assistance, or strategic influence. As a result, in recent years,
the United States decided that leaving itself deliberately
vulnerable to any weapon system or state -- as it did during the
Cold War -- was foolish. Deliberate vulnerability can lead to
perceptions of weakness, inviting provocation or aggression. In
addition, it can lead a potential adversary to use threats,
intimidation, blackmail, or coercion to achieve its objectives. In
a day of seemingly unstoppable proliferation, the chance that
horrific weapons will be used against peaceful nations is a
Every state has an undeniable right to self-defense. It only
makes sense that all reasonable, necessary steps are taken to
protect and advance one's national security, especially if the
technological capability is emerging to do so, as evidenced by tens
of successful missile defense tests. Hitting a bullet with a bullet
in the atmosphere, or even space, is now possible. Developing and
deploying missile defenses is not about the missile or WMD threat
from a single country or even several countries. Missile defense is
about protection from these weapons no matter where the threat
comes from now -- or in the future.
And despite the range of concerns about missile defense, it
should be emphasized that it is a defensive -- not offensive --
weapon. Indeed, the missile defense interceptor warhead does not
even contain an explosive charge; traveling at 15,000 miles per
hour, it destroys the missile warhead by the sheer force of the
collision. Missile defense is like an umbrella; it is needed only
if it rains. It threatens no one. It only undermines the capability
of one country to threaten or attack another country with its
ballistic missiles or WMD. The idea that the deployment of missile
defense will provoke an attack is a canard meant to encourage
The United States has made it clear to concerned states that
missile defense does not threaten their security, emphasizing that
it is part of an expanding effort to counter the growing ballistic
missile threat -- wherever it comes from. Of course, no country
should expect to have a veto over America's security. Indeed, those
states that oppose missile defense would do better to turn their
protests toward Tehran and Pyongyang and other capitals that are
driving the need for it with their growing offensive ballistic
missile capability, their own missile production, or their
proliferation practices. Moreover, some security analysts speculate
cautiously that the successful deployment of an effective missile
defense may one day convince countries that their pursuit of
missiles and WMD should be abandoned as futile endeavors,
supporting widely accepted nonproliferation goals.
Cold War-like mutually assured destruction or massive
retaliation should not be the only options for policymakers. In the
end, it is clear: Missile defense will improve America's security
against the growing challenge of ballistic missiles and their
Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a
former deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Despite iran’s runaway nuclear program, North Korea’s atomic assistance to Syria, and robust ballistic missile production and testing by Russia and China, a missile defense system for protecting the homeland and U.S. interests overseas remains a controversial idea in some corners. It should not be. The security challenge arising from the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the dangerous payloads they might carry, including weapons of mass destruction (wmd) like nuclear arms, is a threat that — in fact — may be growing.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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