Joseph Cirincione, Senior Associate

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Service Journal, November 2000

President Clinton wisely put off the decision on whether to build a ballistic missile defense. But the question will haunt our next President.

Over the past 15 years, international treaties have destroyed over 3,000 long-range ballistic missiles that posed immediate threats to the United States. Over that same period, active missile defenses systems have intercepted none. Yet for the past year, Washington has been consumed with a fierce debate over the administration’s proposal to build a complex national missile defense system and Republican counters for larger, more expensive weapons.

On Sept. 1, President Clinton announced, "I simply cannot conclude with the information I have today that we have enough confidence in the technology, and the operational effectiveness of the entire NMD [national missile defense] system, to move forward to deployment." He also cited the diplomatic obstacles, including the sharp opposition to deployment from both Russia and China and the deep consternation among our key European allies. These nations share strong concerns over what American pursuit of a technological defense means for the existing treaty regimes and what it portends for U.S. global ambitions.

In the end, these technical and diplomatic hurdles proved too high to vault. But, as former Secretary of State George Shultz wryly observed, in Washington nothing really ends. The missile defense debate will be back next year. The discussion will be less intense without presidential politics to fuel the passions, but it must still wrestle with the unresolved issues of threat, technology and impact on international security.

A Growing Missile Threat?

President Clinton declared in his September speech that the missile threat "is real and growing and has given new urgency to the debate." But is it really growing? This perception is based almost exclusively on the program and exports of North Korea. At first glance, this appears an unlikely threat; U.S. officials have had a difficult time convincing allied nations of its seriousness. North Korea, after all, is a small nation whose population of 21 million is the same as that of Taiwan, but which struggles to produce a $14 billion gross national product that is less that 4 percent of Taiwan’s. The entire North Korean defense budget is an estimated $2 billion per year.

North Korea, however, maintains one million men under arms, is the only nation in the world in an active military confrontation with the United States, and has steadily pursued a program to turn short-range Scud technology into longer-range rockets. In the 1990s, North Korea tested and then deployed a 1,000-kilometer range missile, the Nodong, based on a scaled-up Scud engine. On Aug. 31, 1998, North Korea tested a Taepo-Dong 1 missile in a failed attempt to orbit a small satellite. The Taepo-Dong 1 is believed to be a Nodong with a Scud-like second stage and a small third stage kick-motor. It flew only 1320 km, but its international impact was enormous.

It seemed the dramatic denouement of tumultuous year. In 1998, the world had witnessed nuclear tests in South Asia, the Iranian test of a medium-range Shahab-3 missile, congressional investigations of alleged Chinese nuclear espionage, the report of the commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld that warned a new nation might acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles "with little or no warning," and the frenzied drive to impeach President Clinton.

Intelligence officials scrambled to cover their assessments. After years of steady criticism of previous estimates from conservative congressional Republicans, the 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat issued a prediction more to their liking. It concluded that over the next 15 years the U.S. "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 judgment that North Korea might be able to develop a long-range missile within five years made headlines and was interpreted by Defense Department officials as a firm deadline, driving their timetable for a deployment decision on a national defense system. A closer reading of the NIE reveals that it actually highlights the very narrow nature of the missile proliferation threat.

Moreover, Robert Walpole, the CIA analyst primarily responsible for producing the NIE, testified that non-missile delivery means and non-identifiable adversaries are the most likely threat:

"In fact, we project that in the coming years, U.S. territory is probably more likely to be attacked with weapons of mass destruction from non-missile delivery means (most likely from non-state entities) than by missiles, primarily because non-missile delivery means are less costly and more reliable and accurate. They can also be used without attribution."

Assessing the Assessments

However, the current NIE, like the report of the Rumsfeld Commission, contributed to an exaggerated sense of the missile threat by focusing only on programs in these few developing nations, then magnifying the apparent dangers by adopting a series of worst-case assumptions. It deviated from all previous estimates by emphasizing what "could" happen over the next five to 10 years. Conflict within the intelligence community over this shift is evidenced by the inclusion in the NIE of an unusual dissenting opinion (that is thought to be from State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research -- one of the intelligence agencies involved in producing the 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."

A net assessment is of developments in all ballistic missile arsenals over the past 15 years, reveals that, overall, the ballistic missile threat is confined, limited and changing relatively slowly. Missile proliferation is a serious problem, but it’s primarily a regional problem involving short-range missiles. The long-range missile threat to America is actually decreasing, with the number of missiles and the countries trying to build them going down, not up. *[footnote: Missiles are generally categorized by (among other things) how far they can fly: Intercontinental ballistic missiles have a range of over 5,500 km; intermediate-range missiles—3,000 to 5,500; medium-range—1,000 to 3,000; short-range—under 1,000 km.]

Decreasing ICBMs Arsenals

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. This is a 52 percent decrease in the number of missiles capable of striking the territory of the United States and a 45 percent decrease in the number of nuclear warheads on these missiles.

If this treaty process is allowed to continue—some in Congress are opposed—over the next 10 years, Russia’s force will shrink dramatically. Moreover, in the wake of the Kursk submarine disaster, President Vladimir Putin announced in September that Russia would reduce its military forces overall by almost 25 percent and slash its nuclear forces. Unless relations with the United States deteriorate sharply, Russia says it will reduce down to 1,500 deployed strategic warheads, or half the number they are allowed under the START II Treaty. About 500 of these warheads would be on ballistic missiles—a remarkable 94 percent decrease from peak Cold War levels.

China, meanwhile, has about 20 DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles. If the treaty regimes remain intact, intelligence officials expect China to modernize this fleet over the next 10 years, but not substantially increase the numbers deployed. No other potential adversary has a missile that can strike America.

In addition, the number of deployed intermediate-range ballistic missiles (with ranges of 3,000 to 5,500 km) has also decreased dramatically over the same period. President Ronald Reagan negotiated and implemented the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty, eliminating this entire class of missiles from U.S. and Soviet arsenals. China has some 20 DF-4 missiles in this range, with the first deployed in 1981. No other nation has developed intermediate-range ballistic missiles, though the deployment of a North Korean two-stage Taepo Dong-2 would add a few missiles to this category.

Fewer, Smaller Missile Programs

The number of countries trying or threatening to develop long-range ballistic missile is 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.

We now worry 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 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 or a likely exporter of missile technology.

Fears of America’s vulnerability grow 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.

The most accurate way to summarize existing global ballistic missile capabilities is that, apart from the five recognized nuclear-weapon states, there are 33 nations with ballistic missiles, but the vast majority, or 27 nations, have only short-range missiles under 1,000 km in range. In fact, 22 of the 33 nations only have Scuds or similar short-range missiles of 300-km range or less (Iraq officially has only short-range Scuds but may have assemblies for extended-range Scuds hidden in the country). Only six nations have medium-range missiles over a 1000-km range (Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran). Only four of these nations (India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran) have active programs for developing intermediate-range missiles of over 3,000 kilometers in the next 10 years. (A complete list of countries and capabilities is available at:

Moreover, diplomatic trends are moving favorably towards peaceful resolution of proliferation concerns. North Korea has followed up an historic summit with South Korea with continuing high-level exchanges, has reaffirmed a ban on missile tests, and is opening trade with the West. The first cases of Coca-Cola have already arrived. In Iran, reformers are gaining political strength, and Congress is considering ending our embargo on food and medical sales. Iraq is still under tight UN sanctions to prevent development of new missile systems; the greater threat is considered to be chemical or biological weapons delivered by conventional means—not by missiles.


Unfulfilled Technical Dreams

It would still make sense to eliminate a threat with catastrophic consequences, no matter how improbable, if we could do it. But there is not now and never has been an effective national missile defense system. After a wrenching national debate, the United States briefly deployed in the early 1970s a system of nuclear-tipped interceptors to defend the ICBM base in Grand Forks, N.D. After spending $22 billion (in today’s dollars) then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered the system shut down in January 1976 as militarily ineffective. The Russians retained their equivalent system deployed around Moscow, but Russian defense officials report that they have now removed the nuclear warheads from the interceptors—completely eliminating whatever capability for city defense the system may have had.

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

The original SDI program during the Reagan and Bush administrations went through space-based X-ray lasers, chemical lasers and particle-beam weapons, ground-based free-electron lasers, ground-based interceptors, space-based kinetic-kill vehicles, and finally a smaller kill vehicle dubbed "Brilliant Pebbles," among others.

All were generously funded. None worked. The space- and sea-based systems proposed in the waning days of the Bush administration were hardly the ready-to-go weapons that advocates now fondly remember. Outside of those with a direct financial or career interest in the programs, few experts or military officers thought any of these programs could deliver real, near-term military benefit.

What might work are short-range or "theater" systems like an improved Patriot system. These are designed to intercept Scuds and other missiles that fly under 1000 km, that is, the threat systems that troops actually face in the world today. The improved Patriot system could be deployed as early as 2001, while a naval version, known as the Navy Area-Wide System, could be deployed aboard Aegis cruisers and destroyers as early as 2003. There are no existing systems that can intercept long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles, despite the expenditure of over $60 billion since 1983.

In recent years, missile defense has had a shaky track record. On Oct. 2, 1999, the first intercept test of the Clinton administration’s proposed national missile defense system scored a direct hit. The Defense Department made clear in its press release that it believed its "hit to kill technology" was a winner that could destroy incoming missiles. Coming on the heels of two successful hits last year (after five misses) for the Army’s medium-range defense system, the THAAD, this test boosted confidence that we had leaped over the major technical hurdles.

(In the last year, that picture has changed. In January 2000, the missile defense system failed its second test because of a faulty cooling system. On July 7, 2000, the third intercept test of the system suffered a humiliating failure when the interceptor failed to execute a routine booster separation. In total, the Department of Defense has now conducted 15 intercept attempts outside the atmosphere since 1982. Of these, only 4, or 26 per cent, actually hit their targets.

But last fall, the successful October 2 test seemed to promise a solution to a political problem for the president. Republicans were pushing to make missile defense an issue in the 2000 campaign, just as they had in 1996. Though the gambit failed to ignite voter interest four years ago, administration political advisors didn’t want to take any chances. They would neutralize the issue, they believed, with a classic Clintonian "triangulation" approach of finding a solution midway between the revived "Star Wars" system of space-based weapons favored by the conservatives and the arms control approach of the liberals.

A Deal Undone

Officials from the departments of state and defense were dispatched to Europe in early 2000 to brief NATO allies and consolidate their support. They hoped to then go on to Moscow to win Russian agreement for amendments to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, permitting deployment of one interceptor site in Alaska in 2005, and a second possible site in North Dakota within the decade. They could then announce plans to field a limited defense against the limited threat, while preserving the existing treaty regime and good relations with Russia. They would have squared the circle, proving that Democrats do defense better and protecting their right flank during a critical election year.

But it didn’t work out that way. What appeared to be a done deal in January became a deal undone by June.

The war in Kosovo had fundamentally altered Russian views of U.S. intentions, and the Senate defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October 1999 had shaken European confidence in the wisdom and dependability of American leadership. Rather than falling quickly into line, European officials raised serious concerns about the Administration’s plan. They saw neither the threat nor the technology to defeat it, but they did fear the damage an NMD system could do to the interlocking network of treaties and arrangement painstakingly constructed over the past fifty years. Their resistance grew when in January 2000 the second intercept test failed.

Most European officials and commentators were perplexed and alarmed by the American drive to deploy new weapon systems. America, after all, is the most powerful nation on earth and is likely to remain so far into the foreseeable future. Rather than seeing North Korea or Iran as rogue nations threatening international peace through their violation of agreed norms, they see them as weak states that can slowly be brought—through their own self-interest—into the international economy and global structures. It is America they worry about.

America’s European allies were particularly concerned that any missile defense deployment would restart an arms race most had thought had ended with the Cold War. Britain, Germany and France lead the growing European sentiment against any deployments, though with different styles. Britain and France, as nuclear-weapon states, worry that if Russia and China were to be provoked into building their own defenses, it would blunt European nuclear forces, which number in the low hundreds.

If the Senate had not defeated the CTBT, European reaction might not have been as severe. But by rejecting the test ban treaty, the United States was seen to be weakening the nuclear non-proliferation regime. If it then went ahead with national missile defense and abandoned the ABM Treaty, the U.S. might topple the entire interlocking network of nuclear restraints. "What would this [scrapping the ABM Treaty] do to missile control regimes, and what would its effect be on the Third World?" asked one senior British official quoted on the Financial Times. The French have been particularly critical of U.S. deployment plans.

The Russian Reaction

While the Europeans believed they were having no impact on US determination to deploy, they in fact had a great effect on both American public opinion and on Russia. For the European concerns echoed and reinforced growing doubts about the wisdom of deployment among American opinion leaders. Editorial opinion swung decisively against deployment in the spring of 2000—influenced heavily by the failure of the second NMD test in January. Meanwhile, former senior officials and experts (including General John Shalikashvili, Sam Nunn, William Perry, the American Physical Society, and 50 American Nobel Laureates) sent letter after letter to the president urging him to delay a deployment decision.

This growing domestic and international wave of opposition encouraged Russia’s own reluctance. Instead of a feeble Boris Yeltsin, U.S. officials had to deal with a dynamic new president Vladimir Putin. The Clinton-Putin spring summit, which U.S. officials originally billed as an arms control summit where they would lock up Russian agreement for missile defense, turned into the high-water mark for the deployment drive. Putin, taking a page out of the Clinton playbook, triangulated the issue neatly with the Europeans. He offered to cooperate with the U.S. in either solving the North Korean problem diplomatically or jointly building a regional defense system that could intercept Korean missiles in the launch phase (an easier technological solution). Traveling to Europe after the summit, he spoke of a joint system for dealing with threats from the Middle East, without offering any specifics. Although there has been little follow-up on these vague proposals, by presenting such a reasonable response and alternatives to the NMD deployment, Putin has made it all but impossible for the U.S. to proceed unilaterally.

This is not just a diplomatic chess game. Russians have deep concerns about U.S. intentions, as President Clinton noted in his September speech, "Russia has been reluctant to agree, fearing, I think, frankly, that in some sense this system or some future incarnation of it could threaten the reliability of its deterrent and, therefore, strategic stability."

Russian opposition might be minimal for a site that was truly limited and capable of intercepting only a few warheads, as originally described by U.S. officials. As plans for the site increased, however, so did Russian worries. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe told Congress on Oct. 13, 1999 that while the first site would begin operations with only 20 interceptors, plans called for expanding to a full 100 interceptors over the first year to achieve the capability "of defending all 50 states against a launch of a few tens of warheads accompanied by simple penetration aids." Between 2010 and 2011 the goal was a capability to intercept "up to a few tens of … warheads with complex penetration aids launched from either North Korea or the Middle East."

Russia fears that the radar and sensor infrastructure required for this mission would provide the base for a "breakout" from even an amended ABM treaty. While a defense against even a few tens of warheads would not affect Russia’s nuclear deterrent force, a rapid multiplication of interceptors and sensors could theoretically defeat hundreds of warheads, or about what Russia could expect to have available by 2010 under current plans.

The Next President’s Decision

As we’ve noted, the first successful test of the administration’s missile defense system in 1999 was followed by two failures—in January 2000 and again in July 2000. The test program has been thrown into disarray, with the cause of the third failure still unknown, the development of a new booster a year behind schedule, and further tests postponed until next January, at the earliest. So from a strictly technical viewpoint, it made sense for President Clinton on Sept. 1 to formally defer any action on the program until next year --when a new president will assume office.

The international reaction was a collective sigh of relief. The secretary-general of NATO, George Robertson, praised President Clinton’s "prudent course of action." Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, said he welcomed Clinton’s "measured approach" while a spokesman for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder praised the "wise decision."

International skepticism of the American justification for deploying a missile system has now grown so strong and is so firmly entrenched in allied governments, as well as in Russia and China, that it is increasingly unlikely that the next American president will unilaterally abrogate the ABM treaty.

After the elections, the political imperatives for rushing a deployment of a system will have disappeared. With the deflation of the domestic presidential politics and the growth of international opposition, the next president will have a fundamentally different calculation to make.

Vice President Al Gore, if elected, will likely slow down deployment schedules, recognizing that the technology does not support a quick decision. Emphasis may well shift, as it should, to deploying at least a minimal defense against short- and medium-range missile that U.S. forces are likely to confront in theater operations.

Governor George Bush has promised to deploy a system as soon as possible, but if elected, he will be forced to confront a hard reality: there is nothing to deploy. Ten years after the Gulf War, the country still does not have a reliable defense against even the short-range Scuds encountered in that conflict. (The improved Patriot system is still not tested against realistic threats.) Bush will be told by Pentagon briefers that the earliest they could deploy the kind of ship-based missile defenses he prefers will be 2008, and even then they will have only limited capability. Space-based interceptors could not even be considered until well into the next decade. Meanwhile, abrogation of the ABM Treaty—a move favored by some of his more far-right advisers—would trigger an international crisis that could cast a shadow over his first term in office. In other words, abrogating the treaty would not result in any demonstrable increase in military capability during his presidency, but would bring a heavy political price.

A skirmish at the July Republican convention may have given some indication of Governor Bush’s inclinations. His supporters beat back conservative efforts to insert one clause in the Republican platform saying that Bush would give "prompt notice" that the United States was withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, and another scrapping his position that the U.S. would make unilateral nuclear reductions.

Under these circumstances, it is more likely that Bush will at least wait for the results of the strategic assessment he has promised to conduct, and then seek a middle path. For example, he might do what his father and President Reagan did on missile defenses: Talk tough, spend profusely, but not deploy anything and remain within the ABM Treaty.

The next president would do well to conduct a thorough independent reassessment of the threat and various available diplomatic and military options, much as the commission headed by Brent Scowcroft reassessed the "window of vulnerability" and deployment options for the MX missile after President Reagan’s election. The president could also call upon the American Physical Society, for example, to review the technological feasibility of kinetic energy weapons for missile defense.

Such independent assessments could go a long way towards forging a not just a domestic but an international consensus on how to most effectively confront global missile proliferation. If joined by a new Nuclear Posture Review that avoided the failures of the last review (detailed by Janne Nolan in her brilliant study, The Elusive Consensus) it may be possible for the next president to develop, finally, a plan for deep reductions in global nuclear arsenals and increased safeguards against the spread of the most dangerous weapons ever invented.