A newly released intelligence assessment presents a sober, balanced view of the ballistic missile threats to the United States, but contains important findings that may be overlooked in the rush to use the report to push narrow political agendas.

The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015," was released on September 9 by the Central Intelligence Agency. It is available in full on the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project web site, below, along with links to previous assessments, news coverage and independent analysis.

The assessment projects forward current trends, but, by assessing developments "independent of significant political and economic changes," it may overestimate third world threats and underestimate the dangers from existing arsenals.

Two of the most important findings are found in the first and last paragraphs:

  • The report repeatedly cautions that it tries to balance what could happen, with what is most likely to happen.
  • Any country that could flight test an ICBM will be able to develop "numerous countermeasures" to penetrate a missile defense system.

The Rumsfeld Effect

Every since the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission report asserted, somewhat hysterically, that a new nation could plausibly field an ICBM "with little or no warning," analysts have struggled to cover all possibilities, while still preserving their value for policy-makers by reporting what is most likely to happen. This conflict is evident in the introduction to the NIE, which warns:

"Some analysts believe that the prominence given to missiles countries ‘could’ develop gives more credence than is warranted to developments that may prove implausible."

The report further notes that the report "projected possible and likely missile developments by 2015 independent of significant political and economic changes." The NIE finds that over the next 15 years the US:

"most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China and North Korea probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq, although the threats will consist of dramatically fewer weapons than today because of significant reductions we expect in Russian strategic forces."

The report notes the "evolving missile threat," means fewer missiles globally than during the Cold War, but warns of several possible ominous developments. Unfortunately, some may use these hypothetical possibilities to accelerate the already hectic pace of missile defense efforts, ignoring or harming proven means of reducing or preventing the threats.

The NIE does a real service by making the analysis so specific. Doing so highlights the very narrow nature of the missile proliferation threat, one confined to a few countries whose political evolution will be a determining factor in whether they remain threats to the United States.

For example, under some scenarios, North Korea may collapse before the earliest possible missile defense system could be fielded in 2007. (This would also eliminate the main source of missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.) Democratizing trends in Iran could alter the direction of that nation’s program, while a post-Saddam Iraq could restore friendly relations with the West.

On the other hand, the assessment assumes that China and Russia will follow essentially status quo paths.

The Russian threat will continue to be "the most robust and lethal" says the report, "considerably more so than that posed by China, and orders of magnitude more than that posed by the other three." This should mean that policy-makers should focus most of their efforts on reducing the threats posed by the 4,500 Russian missile warheads. The report notes that budget constraints will force this number down dramatically and concludes an unauthorized or accidental launch "is highly unlikely so long as current technical and procedural safeguards are in place." But there is considerable evidence of major problems with Russian command and control systems and the continuing Russian decline could severely weaken current safeguards, increasing the risk of launches in error or missile sales to third countries.

The NIE also finds that China will only field a few tens of ICBMs (which is its current "minimum deterrent" plan). That, too, could change dramatically if the U.S. and Japan deploy missile defenses in East Asia. China might well believe it must preserve its nuclear deterrent by increasing the number and sophistication of its missiles.

Countering Missile Defenses

The NIE concludes with several warnings, also likely to get lost in the rush by some to pick and chose from the findings. It provides the most elaborate unclassified intelligence description to-date on the steps nations are likely to take in response to U.S. theater and national missile defenses.

The report discusses in greater detail than previous unclassified assessments the dangers posed by delivery vehicles other than ICBMs, including forward-based launchers (sea-based short- or medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft) and "covert delivery" by ship, plane or land which is cheap, easy, and "could offer reliability advantages over a missile."

Most importantly, the report concludes with a warning of what to expect should the U.S. deploy missile defenses. First, it notes, "Russian and China each have developed numerous countermeasures and probably are willing to sell the requisite technologies." Even easier:

"Many countries, such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq probably would rely initially on readily available technology—including separating RVs, spin-stabilized RVs, RV reorientation, radar absorbing material, booster fragmentation, low-power jammers, chaff, and simple (balloon) decoys—to develop penetration aids and countermeasures."

The report says these countries could develop these countermeasures "by the time they flight test their missiles." In short, deploying defenses are likely to trigger the very arms races defense proponents seek to deter. Future NIEs promise to include more on the impact of political and economic changes. Policy-makers would do well to do the same.

Joseph Cirincione is the director of the Non-Proliferation Project.