A Much Less Explosive Trend

By Joseph Cirincione

Originally published in the Washington Post, March 10, 2002

The president says the ballistic missile threat is growing and warns us how much more terrible Sept. 11 could have been if the terrorists had missiles. The CIA director says the proliferation of missile designs and technology has "raised the threat to the U.S. . . . to a critical threshold." Congress appropriates $8 billion a year to research missile defense systems -- the largest weapons program in the budget. The prevailing wisdom in Washington is that missile threats are mushrooming.

But are they? Ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads are the most dangerous weapons ever invented. Within minutes of launch they can destroy a distant city the size of Washington. However, the threat they pose now is less than in the past and is steadily declining. Today there are many fewer ballistic missiles in the world than 15 years ago, fewer nations trying to developthem, and only four potentially hostile nations trying to develop long-range versions. Moreover, the limited attack we most fear now from a rogue state would be much smaller than the nuclear holocaust we feared during the Cold War.

Of the more than 190 nations in the world, 35 of them, including the United States, have ballistic missiles. These are missiles that, like the V-2s first used by Nazi Germany, have a brief period of powered flight, then coast through space or the upper atmosphere on a ballistic trajectory that brings them back to Earth. Although the number of states with such missiles grew steadily during the Cold War, it is now decreasing. Over the past year, for example, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have destroyed their small arsenals of Soviet-supplied Scud missiles; only Bahrain has joined the missile club with the purchase of some short-range missiles from the United States.

The existence of three dozen countries with ballistic missiles would still seem very dangerous but for two factors: Almost all these nations are friends of the United States, and almost all have only short-range missiles that threaten only their neighbors.

The United States is protected from most missile threats by the oceans. Almost any nation wishing to attack America from its own territory must build a missile capable of traveling thousands of miles. Fortunately, it is very difficult and expensive to do that. This is why 21 of the 35 nations possessing missiles have been able to deploy only short-range missiles, much like the V-2s, that can't go farther than 200 miles. Three others have short-range missiles capable of traveling 600 miles. Many of the missiles are old, poorly maintained and unreliable.

Of the other 10 nations besides the United States that have ballistic missiles, most only have medium-range systems that travel about 600 to 1,800 miles. That is far enough for Israel and Iran to hit each other, but not far enough for either to strike the United States.

Only China and Russia are able to attack the United States with nuclear warheads on long-range, land-based intercontinental missiles. This has not changed since Russia and China deployed their first ICBMs in 1959 and 1981 respectively. Even this threat is dwindling. Over the past 15 years, arms control agreements have cut arsenals capable of hitting the United States by 57 percent. The size of the Russian force, because of financial constraints,is expected to shrink further, from 1,022 to about 400 long-range missiles by the end of this decade; China might modernize and add to its 20 long-range missiles, but will probably deploy fewer than 40.

Not only is the American homeland less threatened by ballistic weapons; so are U.S. allies and troops in Europe. Arms control treaties with Moscow eliminated the entire class of intermediate-range ballistic missiles from the arsenal that once threatened Europe. Only three percent of the 680 missiles once in this class remain worldwide: China, with about 20 missiles, is the only nation that still possesses them.

What about the prevailing anxiety over newly emerging missile powers? The number of countries trying to develop ballistic missiles also has decreased and the nations still attempting to do so are poorer and less technologically advanced than were those trying 15 years ago. In the 1980s, we worried about missile programs in Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, Libya, India, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and South Africa.In 2002, the Soviet Union is long gone; former Soviet republics Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have given up their missiles. Brazil, Argentina, Egypt and South Africa have abandoned their programs, Libya's is defunct, and Iraq's has been largely shut down. Only North Korea and Iran have started new programs.

The most significant proliferation threat today comes from the slow but steady increase in the number of states testing medium-range ballistic missiles. This development is often cited as evidence of a larger proliferation threat. Seven nations -- China, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and Saudi Arabia -- now have missiles in this range. Of these, three potentially could come into conflict with the United States -- China, Iran and North Korea.

But China is the only potentially hostile nation with both ballistic missiles that can reach the United States and the nuclear warheads to put on them. North Korea might in the next 10 years develop a missile with a nuclear warhead that could reach the United States, but it does not have that capability now. Iran has neither long-range missiles nor nuclear warheads. Iran's effort to import and duplicate North Korean missiles appears in disarray after its Shahab-3 missiles blew up in two of the three tests it conducted in 1998 and 2000. We could also include Iraq in this threat mix. But Iraq's missile and nuclear ambitions are constrained by U.N. sanctions and prohibitions. It has neither nuclear warheads nor long-range missiles and it would take years for it to fully reconstruct its former programs. While theoretically possible, it appears unlikely that either Iran or Iraq will have a nuclear-armed long-range missile within the next 10 to 15 years.

Still, even if there are fewer missiles and fewer nations with missiles, if one of these three nations deployed a long-range missile by 2010, wouldn't that mean the missile threat was more acute? Not necessarily. Capability does not necessitate use. Each of these countries would almost surely be deterred from attacking the United States by the certainty that swift retaliation would follow even a failed or thwarted attack. It is also likely that the United States would preemptively destroy a missile as it was being assembled for launch.

Even our worst-case scenarios aren't as bad as they once were. If deterrence or preventive defense failed, the damage that countries such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq could inflict with one or two warheads would be a major catastrophe. But compare that to the nuclear exchange we feared 15 years ago -- in which thousands of Soviet warheads would have destroyed our country, or even the planet. The United States and NATO spent hundreds of billions of dollars, fielded dozens of military systems and endured numerous diplomatic crises precisely because we fearedthose missiles. We lived through decades of anxiety, from civil defense drills in classrooms to dueling deployments of Soviet SS-20s in Eastern Europe and U.S. Pershing and cruise missiles in Western Europe. In no sense can the missile threat today be considered more imminent or lethal than the threat 15, 20 or 40 years ago.

Then why do so many people feel it is?

It may be the psychology of threat assessments. Proliferation experts invariably see the future as more threatening than the past. It is, after all, the unknown. In addition, historical revisionism has transformed the Soviet Union to an almost benign, predictable and deterrable foe, in contrast to today's supposedly unpredictable, less easily deterred rogues. This was not how the Soviet threat was viewed at the time, however.

More concretely, the estimates of the ballistic missile threat prepared by the intelligence community over the past few years have focused on Iran, Iraq and North Korea, rather than assessing the entire global picture. This approach distorts the threat. Like a fun-house mirror, it makes objects appear larger than they really are.

This is not primarily the fault of the agencies, which, in fact, have sophisticated and varied opinions on the threat. After the Republican Party won control of Congress in 1994, congressional leaders relentlessly attacked government analysts who presented balanced assessments for understating the missile threat. Congress mandated its own assessment by a hand-picked commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld. His 1998 report warned that a ballistic missile attack could come from a hostile state "with little or no warning." This fit with preconceived positions for increased defense budgets and a crash program to field a national missile defense system. U.S. intelligence agency analysts fell in line, giving Congress the worst-case scenarios some lawmakers sought. As Richard Perle said at the beginning of the Reagan presidency, "Democracies will not sacrifice to protect their security in the absence of a sense of danger." Exaggerated views of the missile threat provided that sense of danger.

Sept. 11 showed us real danger. And it had nothing to do with missiles. The ballistic missile threat today is confined, limited and changing relatively slowly. There is every reason to believe that it can be addressed through diplomacy and measured military preparedness. If missile defenses prove feasible, particularly those designed to counter the more prevalent short-range missiles, they can be an important part of these efforts. But they should never dominate our policy. The sooner we restore balance to our assessments, budgets and diplomacy, the better prepared the country will be for the genuine threats we face.