Presentation to the 7th ISODARCO Beijing Seminar on Arms Control, Xi’an, People’s Republic of China, October 8-12, 2000



The drive to deploy a National Missile Defense System in the United States is not driven primarily by threats or technology, but by politics. The ballistic missile threat to the homeland of the United States has substantially decreased over the past 15 years. Despite years of effort and over $60 billion spent on research, there remain major technological obstacles to effective ballistic missile defense. The push for a national missile defense is motivated primarily by deeply-held conservative political and strategic views on the nature of international conflict.


Conservative analysts see a dangerous world with mounting threats. They believe that American security cannot be safeguarded by international agreements but primarily by military might. If the United States is to continue to project its military power, it must have defenses to thwart any nation's potential nuclear-armed missiles. Some conservatives also see war with a rising China as possible, even inevitable, requiring robust missile defenses. The Clinton Administration has tried to "triangulate" the issue, hoping to deploy a limited system that would not overturn existing arms control arrangements or antagonize Russia or China. The Clinton strategy failed diplomatically and technologically, but succeeding politically in neutralizing missile defense as a issue in the 2000 presidential campaign (though it does not seem that defense would have been a significant issue, in any event.). The international consequences of this strategy, however, are still severe, and an presidential decision in the future to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty would destabilizing the entire non-proliferation regime.


This paper outlines the decreasing missile threats to the United States, the technical weaknesses of proposed missile defense systems and details the political divide at the root of the missile defense debate

Section One: The Decreasing Ballistic Missile Threat

Official Estimates

The unclassified version of the 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015," released on September 9, 1999 represents the official U.S. government view of the ballistic missile threat.


It presents a limited view of some of the ballistic missile threats to the United States. The estimate lowers the established intelligence agency standards for judging threats and thus presents known missile programs as more immediate threats than previous assessments. While some officials within the Administration may disagree with the assessment, they have not publicly expressed their views.


The NIE projects forward some current technological and development trends, but, by assessing "projected possible and likely missile developments by 2015 independent of significant political and economic changes," (emphasis added) it overestimates potential ballistic missile threats from still developing countries such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and poorly prepared policy-makers for the sharply deteriorated international security environment that would emerge should the non-proliferation regime weaken or collapse. The NIE cautions that it tried to balance what could happen, with what is most likely to happen.


Every since the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission report asserted, somewhat hysterically, that a new nation could plausibly field an ICBM "with little or no warning," government 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 notes a dissenting opinion from one of the intelligence agencies involved in producing the consensus report:


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


This "could" issue is perhaps the most striking difference between the 1999 NIE and those published in 1993 and 1995. "Could" is a highly ambiguous word. For some it means "remotely possible," for others it means "will." The shift to the "could" standard represents one of the three major changes made to the assessment methodology from previous assessments. The other two shifts are:



    1. substantially reducing the range of missiles considered serious threats by shifting from threats to the 48 continental states to threats to any part of the land mass of the 50 states; and,




    2. changing the timeline from when a country would first deploy a long-range missile to when a country could first test a long-range missile.



The shift on potential US targets represents a range change of some 5,000 kilometers (the distance from Seattle to the western-most tip of the Aleutian island chain). It essentially means that an intermediate-range ballistic missile, such as the Taepo-dong II, could be considered in the same class as an intercontinental-range missile. The timeline shift represents a difference of five years (what previous estimates said was the difference between first test and likely deployment). The Indian experience with the Agni II missile provides some indication the original standard may be the more accurate. An Agni II was first tested in April 1999 with a potential range of 2,500 kilometers, but despite Indian declarations of intent to deploy, the missile has yet to enter production. The Agni program began in the mid-1980s.


These three changes account for almost all of the differences between the 1999 NIE and earlier estimates. Thus, the new estimate, rather than presenting a new, dramatic development in the ballistic missile threat, represents a lowering of the standards for judging when a system would be considered a threat. This NIE may lead some observers to conclude that there has been a significant technological leap forward in Third World missile programs, when, in fact there has been only incremental development in programs well-known to analysts for years.


For example, the 1993 NIE said:


"Only China and the CIS strategic forces in several states of the former Soviet Union currently have the capability to strike the continental United States (CONUS) with land-based ballistic missiles. Analysis of available information shows the probability is low that any other country will acquire this capability during the next 15 years."


The 1995 NIE, as summarized by publicly by Richard Cooper, Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, found:


"Nearly a dozen countries other than Russia and China have ballistic missile development programs. In the view of the Intelligence Community, these programs are to serve regional goals. Making the change from a short or medium range missile—that may pose a threat to US troops located abroad—to a long range ICBM capable of threatening our citizens at home, is a major technological leap….The Intelligence Community judges that in the next 15 years no country other than the major declared nuclear powers will develop a ballistic missile that could threaten the continuous 48 states or Canada."


Several leading members of congress harshly attacked the 1995 and 1993 estimates. In December 1996, a congressionally-mandated panel headed by former Bush administration CIA director Robert Gates reviewed the 1995 NIE and agreed that the the continental United States was unlikely to face an ICBM threat from a third world country before 2010 "even taking into account the acquisition of foreign hardware and technical assistance, and that case is even stronger than was presented in the estimate."


With the three altered measurement standards and in the wake of the Rumsfeld Commision report, the new 1999 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."


By making the analysis so specific, the NIE does a real service. It 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. However, by projecting "possible and likely missile developments by 2015 independent of significant political and economic changes," the NIE limits its value as a risk assessment tool. The adoption of the "could standard" and the selective and partial inclusion of political factors in analyzing the threat are the two greatest weaknesses of this NIE.


Some might argue, for example, that the diplomatic developments in North Korea made the NIE obsolete two weeks after it was publicly released. If North Korea does not flight test the Taepo-dong II and if that nation can be further convinced not to export missiles or related technology, we would eliminate the greatest source of an additional ICBM threat to the United States. If North Korea were taken out of the equation, there would be very little left to this estimate. Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command Admiral Dennis Blair said "The North Korean development and the Taepo-Dong launch is clearly one of the key, if not the key factor, in determining the parameters and the deployment schedule and the capabilities of [the national missile defense system]." So if the Korean problem were resolved, "it would have a very big effect" on the program schedule and direction. No mention was made in the report of these diplomatic efforts or their potential significance.


Similarly, under some other plausible scenarios, North Korea may collapse; 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. These, of course, are political risk assessments, not the kind of technology estimates the 1999 NIE details, although they were included in previous NIEs. The international political, diplomatic and legal environment is highly relevant to the prospects for global development of ballistic missiles.

Declining Global Arsenals


It has now become common wisdom and certainly common political usage to refer to the growing threat of ballistic missiles. But is this true? The threat is certainly changing, and is increasing by some measures. But by several other important criteria, the ballistic missile threat to the United States is significantly smaller than it was in the mid-1980s.


1. Decreasing ICBM Arsenals.

The number of intercontinental ballistic missiles has decreased dramatically since the height of the Cold War. During the 1980s, the Soviet Union deployed over 9,540 nuclear warheads on 2,318 long-range missiles aimed at the United States. Currently, Russia has fewer than 5,200 missile warheads deployed on approximately 1,100 missiles (a 52-percent decline).


2. Eliminated IRBM Arsenals.

There has been a near-100 percent decrease in the threat from intermediate-range ballistic missiles (with ranges of 3,000 to 5,500 kilometers) since the mid-1980s. President Ronald Reagan negotiated and implemented the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Soviet Union destroyed 1,846 missiles in this range, eliminating this entire class of missiles from U.S. and Soviet arsenals. China has some 20 missiles in this range, and no other nation has developed intermediate-range ballistic missiles (though the launch of North Korea’s developmental Taepodong-2 would add a few missiles to this category).


3. More MRBM Programs.

Apart from China and Russia, a few countries have conducted tests of medium- range ballistic missiles (with ranges of 1,000 to 3,000 km) which do not threaten the territory of the United States. India intends to begin production of the Agni II, with a range of about 2,000 km and may be working on a longer- range "Surya" missile. The only other significant medium-range threats come from missiles derived from the North Korean No Dong: Pakistan’s Ghauri (1,300-km range) and Ghauri II (2,000-km range) missiles and Iran’s Shahab-3 (also 1,300-km range), all of which have been flight tested.


4. Aging Scud Inventories.

Almost all the other nations that possess ballistic missiles have only short-range missiles. For most, their best missiles are aging Scuds bought or inherited from the former Soviet Union and now declining in military utility over time.


5. Fewer, Poorer Programs.

The number of countries trying or threatening to develop long-range ballistic missiles has not changed greatly in 15 years, and is actually smaller than in the past. The nations now attempting to perfect long-range missiles are also smaller, poorer and less technologically advanced than were the nations with missile programs 15 years ago.


Only China and Russia have the capability to hit the United States with nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles. This has not changed since Russia and China deployed their first ICBMs in 1959 and 1981 respectively. Confusion arises when policy-makers speak of threats from missiles to the United States or U.S. interests, such as forward-deployed troops or allied nations. This merges threats from very short-range missiles, of which there are many, with long-range missiles, of which there are few.


In short, the ballistic missile threat is confined, limited and changing relatively slowly.

Declining Ballistic Missile Arsenals




Status (1985 vs. 2000)


ICBM (>5500 km)

52 % decrease.


IRBM (3000-5500 km)

99 % decrease.


MRBM (1000-3000 km)

3 new national programs.


SRBM (<1000 km)

Static but declining as Scud inventories age.


Number of nations with ballistic missile programs of concern

Fewer, less advanced
(8 in mid-1980s, 7 today).


Potentially hostile nations with ballistic missile programs

More (3 in mid-1980s, 5 today).


Potential damage to the United States from a missile attack

Vastly decreased.





By focusing on developments in a small number of missile programs in developing nations, current intelligence estimates neglect dramatic declines in global ballistic missile arsenals. As a result, official statements of the ballistic missile threat to the United States have been distorted by an exaggerated sense of the military dangers the nation faces from long-range missiles.


The missile threat is certainly changing, and is increasing by several important criteria. Globally, however, compared to the threats the United States confronted in the 1980s, there are far fewer intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, almost no intermediate-range ballistic missiles, fewer nations with missile programs (and those that exist are less technologically-advanced), and, compared to the threat of a global thermonuclear war that would have ended life on the planet, the potential damage from a missile attack is vastly decreased.


The United States is now legitimately concerned primarily about five nations, in addition to Russia and China: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, India and Pakistan. Fifteen years ago, North Korea was not a concern, but India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, South Africa and perhaps Libya were all involved in programs to develop long-range missiles. All but India have since terminated such efforts. Israel retains the capability to develop long-range missiles, but is not considered a threat to the United States nor a likely exporter of missile technology.


The Carnegie Non-Proliferation Project maintains a comprehensive list of all nations with ballistic missiles of all ranges. The list is available at the Project web site at:

Section Two: Technical Obstacles to Effective Ballistic Missile Defense


None of the dozens of national missile defense systems proposed over the past 20 years has ever proven to be technical feasible. This includes the wide-range of systems researched and developed under the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program and the current candidates proposed by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) and missile defense advocates.

It is highly unlikely that any candidate system can be shown to be militarily effective during the next eight years. That is, during the next two presidential terms neither the technology nor our testing methods will provide an assured capability to defeat long-range ballistic missiles. It is possible that the next president may decide to proceed with deployment of a national missile defense system during that time, but that decision will be based on political considerations or the perception that the threat justifies early deployment, not on demonstrated ability to defeat the likely threats.

Given the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by offensive nuclear forces, and the enormous technical difficulties inherent in any missile defense, this should not be surprising. It may be possible to someday construct a system that could provide at least some defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, the United States is years away from conducting the kinds of realistic tests that could provide military and political leaders with the minimum confidence they must have before risking the lives of millions of citizens.

Understanding Ballistic Missile Defense Interceptor Tests

The past two decades of efforts to invent a viable national missile defense have been characterized by exaggerated claims of success and promises of performance that later proved false. It is difficult to recall a missile defense proponent who understated the actual performance of a system. The problems began with the false claims of proponents of the X-ray laser that helped launch the SDI program and continue through claims today that Aegis destroyers and cruisers can quickly and inexpensively provide a highly-effective defense against both intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.


For example, many experts and officials believe that countermeasures will not be significant obstacles to effective ballistic missile defense because we have already solved the discrimination problem. This is not true, despite some misleading claims of success. The national missile defense interceptor on 2 October 1999 contained a test element where the interceptor was to distinguish between the target and a decoy object. Ballistic Missile Defense officials provided important qualifying details of the test in briefings before the test that did not make it into their briefings after the test.


The official news release for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs on 2 October stated:


"The test successfully demonstrated ‘hit to kill technology’ to intercept and destroy the ballistic missile target. An exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) weighing about 120 pounds, equipped with two infrared sensors, a visible sensor, and a small propulsion system, located and tracked the target, guiding the kill vehicle to a body-to-body impact with the target and resulting in the target destruction using only the kinetic energy of the collision. This "hit to kill' intercept demonstrates that a warhead carrying a weapon of mass destruction-nuclear, chemical or biological - will be totally destroyed and neutralized."


Hitting a small target at these distances and speeds is a remarkable technological achievement, but not an unprecedented one. Previous tests of similar interceptors have hit targets twice, in 1984 and in 1991. In both previous cases, as in this demonstration, the targets were significantly enhanced to ensure the likelihood of success. The October news release cited above neglected to mention four critical test enhancements:



    1. The target followed a pre-programmed flight path to a designated position.



    2. The interceptor missile also flew to a pre-programmed position.



    3. A Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver was placed on the target to send its position to ground control and the necessary target location information was downloaded to a computer in the kill vehicle.



    4. The decoy released had a significantly different thermal signature than the target, making it easier for the sensors on the kill vehicle to distinguish between the objects.



      Later analysis, disclosed by The New York Times, not by test officials, that the test had very nearly failed due to three other key problems:



    5. Incorrect star maps loaded into the kill-vehicle’s computer prevented the vehicle from ascertaining its position once it had separated from the booster



    6. Back-up inertial guidance systems led to inaccuracies in pointing the sensors used to locate the target.



    7. The sensors finally saw the large, bright balloon decoy, re-oriented, continued searching and located the cooler warhead that it had been programmed to recognize as the correct target.



For test purposes, there is nothing wrong with minimizing the number of variables in order to test key elements of the weapon system. The GPS receiver, for example, was substituting for information that might be provided by future missile defense radars. It is vital, however, that test officials provide full disclosure of test limitations to policy-makers at every stage of the process, lest test results be interpreted to have greater significance than, in fact, they do. The October test was much more a demonstration of two missiles intercepting each other than it was a test of intercepting an enemy missile under combat conditions. It proved only that a kill vehicle can intercept a target if it can see it.


Some officials, such as Department of Defense Director of Operational Test and Evaluation Philip Coyle, have tried to caution lawmakers on the tests. Director Coyle warns that the test are "carefully scripted." In his latest annual report to Congress he notes that the test program for a national missile defense system:


"…is building a target suite that, while an adequate representation of one or two re-entry vehicles, may not be representative of threat-penetration aids, booster or post-boost vehicles. Test targets of the current program do not represent the complete ‘design-to’ threat space and are not representative of the full sensor requirements spectrum (eg., discrimination requirements)."


Misinterpretation of test results is not an abstract concern. The last time the United States conducted a successful high-altitude, hit-to-kill intercept in the presence of