September 29, 1999

September 29, 1999 | Backgrounder on Missile Defense

Assessing the Intelligence Community's Report on the Missile Threat

Six nations have tested long-range ballistic missiles over the past 18 months, and there are over a thousand Chinese and Russian missiles capable of striking the United States. The ballistic missile threat to the United States is real and it is growing. To respond to these and other threats, policymakers rely on the information and analysis prepared by the Intelligence Community.

On September 9, 1999, the National Intelligence Council1 released its latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), entitled "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Though 2015."2 It is the first comprehensive ballistic missile threat assessment released by the Intelligence Community since the controversial 1995 NIE.3 The 1995 report was heavily criticized for discounting the threat posed by long-range missiles from Russia and China, for basing its assessment on the vulnerability of only the United States' 48 contiguous states, for underestimating the time it would take a rogue nation to develop a long-range ballistic missile, for downplaying the impact of foreign assistance on the missile programs, for undervaluing the effect of space launch vehicle development on missile proliferation, for being unrealistic about the potential sale of long-range missiles and space launch vehicles (SLVs), and for dismissing the threat of accidental or unauthorized ballistic missile launch.4

Dissatisfaction with the 1995 estimate prompted Congress to convene the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, popularly known as the Rumsfeld Commission after its chairman, the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This bipartisan group of experts released an unclassified version of its executive summary in July 1998.5

The Rumsfeld Commission took more fully into account factors that the 1995 NIE had neglected. For example, it acknowledged that ballistic missile development programs in the Third World follow patterns different from those set by the United States and Soviet Union. It recognized that a nation could obtain foreign assistance to develop ballistic missiles, and it understood that a nation is capable of concealing elements of its ballistic missile program. Furthermore, it assessed threats posed to all 50 states, and it included threats from ballistic missiles deployed on the territory of third-party states and from ships at sea. For these reasons, the Rumsfeld Commission's report is viewed as a much more accurate and comprehensive assessment of the ballistic missile threat to the United States.

The Rumsfeld Commission made recommendations for the Intelligence Community to consider in preparing its next ballistic missile threat assessment. These recommendations helped the National Intelligence Council achieve a more complete description of the ballistic missile threat in the 1999 estimate.

THE INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE OF THE BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT

The 1999 NIE examines a number of important factors that the 1995 estimate does not. Among them are the possibility of converting SLVs into intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the availability of foreign missile technology, and the chance of a missile attack from the sea against the United States.

The Role of Space Launch Vehicles

The 1995 NIE finds that "North Korea is unlikely to obtain the technological capability to develop a longer range operational ICBM."6 Less than three years after that assessment was made, North Korea tested the Taepo Dong-1, a three-stage rocket with ICBM potential. The 1999 NIE reflects a more realistic view of the North Korean threat. It states that "North Korea could convert its Taepo Dong-1 space launch vehicle (SLV) into an ICBM that could deliver a light payload to the United States."7 It goes on to warn that "North Korea is more likely to weaponize the larger Taepo Dong-2 as an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to the United States."8

SLVs are used by a number of countries for peaceful uses like launching communications satellites. Unlike the 1995 NIE, the 1999 assessment recognizes that "space launch vehicles...have significant ballistic missile potential.... Nations with SLVs could convert them into ICBMs relatively quickly with little or no chance of detection before the first flight test."9 Furthermore, the new report suggests that "Iran is likely to test an SLV by 2010 that...could be converted into an ICBM capable of delivering a...payload to the United States."10 China has already demonstrated how easily a country can interchange SLVs with ICBMs by developing ICBM derivatives of Long March SLVs. Likewise, much of India's Agni ballistic missile program is based on SLV technology.

Use of Foreign Technology

The 1995 NIE states that "developmental flight-testing normally would provide a minimum of five years warning before deployment."11 If the Third World followed Soviet, Russian, or U.S. development models, which stress reliability and accuracy, this statement would be correct. But as Pakistan, India, and Iran have demonstrated over the past 18 months, this is not how Third World countries develop ballistic missiles.

These countries base their missile programs on proven missile technology and know-how developed by other countries. The Iranian Shahab-3, for example, is closely related to the North Korean Nodong-1 and was likely developed with North Korean assistance. Its July 21, 1998, testing was conducted as much to demonstrate to the world that Iran possessed the technology as to advance its missile program. Pakistan offers another example. If extensive testing were necessary, then Pakistan would not have been able to respond to India's April 1999, Agni-2 test with two tests of its own just days later. Pakistan was able to respond confidently with untested missiles because they were based on proven Chinese and North Korean technology.

The 1999 NIE recognizes these realities. It states that, "Emerging long-range missile powers do not appear to rely on robust test programs to ensure a missile's accuracy and reliability--as the United States and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War....With shorter flight test programs...the time between the initial flight test and the availability of a missile for military use is likely to be shortened...."12

Missile Attacks from the Sea

The 1995 estimate discounts the ability of a developing country to attack U.S. soil with ballistic missiles from the sea. It states that "launching ballistic missiles from a surface vessels...is so technically challenging as to be a highly unlikely approach."13 The 1999 estimate, however, takes a more realistic view. It concludes that "several countries are technically capable of developing a missile-launch mechanism to use from forward-based ships... against the United States....If the attacking country were willing to accept significantly reduced accuracy for the missile, forward-basing on a sea-based platform would not be a major technical hurdle."14

RUMSFELD PROVIDES THE BETTER ASSESSMENT

Though superior to the 1995 NIE, the 1999 NIE is still not as credible or as comprehensive as the Rumsfeld Commission report. For example, the 1999 estimate neglects some key areas and misinterprets others that are addressed thoroughly by the Rumsfeld Commission. Among them:

  • Re-basing and testing in third countries.
    The Rumsfeld Commission considers the possibility of a country basing a missile system in or testing it from a third country; the 1999 NIE does not. According to the Rumsfeld Commission, re-basing or testing in third countries could cause the U.S. to have "little or no warning before operational deployment."15 The United States' recent agreement to lift economic sanctions levied against North Korea in return for North Korea's promise not to test its Taepo Dong-2 ICBM could make this increasingly likely. North Korea is known for its disregard of international norms, and could choose to transport its Taepo Dong-2 to a third country, such as Iran or Pakistan, for testing. By doing so, it would be technically holding up its end of the agreement, while preparing the missile for offensive use or advertising it to potential buyers. This model is similar, in fact, to the pattern of development for Iran's Shahab-3 and Pakistan's Ghauri-1. Both missiles are based on North Korea's Nodong-1. When North Korea tested its Nodong-1, it was, in essence, testing Iran's Shahab-3 and Pakistan's Ghauri-1. This international movement of missile components is what brought the Rumsfeld Commission to the conclusion that "[A] nation with a well-developed, Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructure would be able to achieve...ICBM range, within about five years of deciding to do so. During several of those years the U.S. might not be aware that such a decision had been made."16

  • The threat from existing Russian missiles.
    Russia currently has around 1,000 strategic ballistic missiles with 4,500 warheads. Both the Rumsfeld Commission and 1999 NIE reports agree that the size of Russia's strategic missile force will decrease. The 1999 NIE, however, stops at that. The implication is that the overall lessening of Russian ballistic missiles will result in a decrease in threat. The Rumsfeld Commission, however, observes that "Russian ballistic missile forces continue to be modernized and improved...."17 Russia's total forces probably will decrease in coming years but advances in missile technology will make Russia's strategic forces increasingly potent. Russia, in fact, tested its new and most advanced ICBM, the SS-27 Topol-M, on September 3 ,1999.

  • The danger of an unauthorized or accidental launch.
    The 1995 and 1999 NIEs characterize the probability of an unauthorized or accidental launch of a Russian or Chinese missile as "remote"18 and "highly unlikely,"19 respectively. Why the Intelligence Community would reject this threat outright is perplexing. Institutional breakdown in either country would likely sever the chain of command governing the use of nuclear weapons. As the Rumsfeld Commission points out, "[T]he risk of an accident or of a loss of control over Russian ballistic missile forces...could increase sharply and with little warning if the political situation in Russia were to deteriorate."20 Russia's current political and economic difficulties certainly demand that such a possibility be considered.

The threat of an accidental launch was powerfully demonstrated in 1995 when Russian radar operators spotted an unidentified rocket that apparently was headed for Russian territory. The immediate thought was that a U.S. submarine had launched a preemptive strike. Russian authorities were within minutes of initiating a retaliatory strike when the incoming object fell into the sea. Not until hours later did Russia learn that the object was really a Norwegian scientific rocket.

CONCLUSION

The 1999 NIE improves substantially upon the 1995 NIE. It recognizes that nations can convert SLVs relatively easily into ICBMs, that foreign assistance is widely used in ICBM development programs, and that nations could choose to attack the United States from sea-based surface vessels. Nevertheless, the 1999 NIE neglects or downplays several important considerations. The Rumsfeld Commission report, however, examines the possibility of a nation re-basing or testing from third-party countries, considers Russian ICBM technological advances, and is more realistic in its approach to the possibility of an accidental or unauthorized launch. Policymakers looking for the most comprehensive and realistic assessment of the ballistic missile threat to the United States should turn to the Rumsfeld Commission.

Jack Spencer is a Research Assistant in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


1. The National Intelligence Council consists of senior experts drawn from the 13 U.S. agencies and organizations that make up the Intelligence Community as well as experts from outside the government.

2. The text of the unclassified report is available at www.cia.gov/cia/publications/nie/nie99msl.html  

3. For a summary version of the 1995 NIE, called the "President's Summary," see "Do We Need a Missile Defense System?" The Washington Times, May 14, 1996, p. A15. (The 1995 NIE has not been declassified.)

4. For a complete analysis of the 1995 National Intelligence Estimate see Baker Spring, "Flawed Intelligence Report No Guide To Missile Threat," Heritage Foundation F.Y.I No. 3, May 5, 1996.

5. "Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States," Executive Summary, July 15, 1998. The full text of the unclassified Executive Summary is available at ftp://fedbbs.access.gpo.gov/gpo_bbs/cia/bmt.htm.

6. "Do We Need a Missile Defense System?"

7. "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015," p. 4.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 13.

10. Ibid., p. 10.

11. "Do We Need a Missile Defense System?"

12. "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015," p. 8.

13. "Do We Need a Missile Defense System?"

14. "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015," p. 14.

15. "Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States," p. 6.

16. Ibid., p. 10.

17. Ibid., p. 9.

18. "Do We Need a Missile Defense System?"

19. "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015," p. 11.

20. "Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States," p. 9.

About the Author

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity