One of the most important proliferation debates of the past ten years has concerned the assessment of the ballistic missile threat and efforts to deploy missile defenses. When the end of the Cold War largely eliminated the likelihood (if not the capability) of a global thermonuclear war, policymakers turned their attention to the very real danger that weapons of mass destruction could be used in smaller, but still horrifically deadly, numbers. Ballistic missiles garnered the lion's share of attention, though they are only one--and perhaps the most difficult--method of delivery of these weapons.

The Proliferation Threat

Globally, there are some fifteen nations that have nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons or research programs (listed below). Approximately 95 percent of the global arsenals are held by the United States and Russia. Of the 31,000 nuclear weapons in the world, the United States has approximately 10,000 and Russia 20,000 and both have pledged to further reduce their holdings. The United States is now destroying the 30,000 tons of chemical weapons and agents it accumulated during the Cold War and Russia is destroying its 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. Both have ended their biological weapons programs as well. In all three cases, these reductions and eliminations have been done under the auspices of international treaties that established global norms and global procedures, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The current U.S. approach to proliferation emphasizes non-treaty methods and military means, including the effort to deploy a national missile defense system. The system faces formidable technical challenges and is unlikely to be militarily effective anytime in this decade. Every system within the missile defense program is behind schedule, over budget and under performing. Representative John Spratt (D.-SC), a leading defense expert in the U.S. Congress, recently noted the "dangerous drift in U.S. arms control policy." He warned that "ballistic missile defense is a prime example of how the emphasis on counterproliferation comes at the expense of non-proliferation" with missile defense consuming almost $8 billion in the national defense budget while all non-proliferation programs get less than $1.8 billion total. 1

Table 1. Fifteen States with Offensive Nuclear, Biological or Chemical Weapons or Weapons or with Research Programs

Country Nuclear Biological Chemical
Russia W W W*
United States W   W*
China W W W
Israel W W W
France W    
United Kingdom W    
India W R W
Pakistan W R R
Iraq   W? W?
North Korea W? W W
Iran R W W
Egypt   W W
Syria   R W
Libya   R W
Sundan   R R

W = known or suspected weapons or agents
R = known or suspected research program
* = awaiting destruction

At present, neither the United States nor Europe faces a serious threat from nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Russia still fields some 5200 warheads on over 1000 intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, but absent an accidental or unauthorized launch it is very unlikely that these missile would be used against another nation. We expect Russia's forces to shrink dramatically over the next 10 years to under 1000 warheads on a few hundred missiles. China fields only 20 warheads on 20 intercontinental ballistic missiles, though it is trying to replace its aging force with a new generation of missiles it hopes to field by the end of the decade. No other potentially hostile nation has long-range missile that can reach Europe or the United States from their territory.

What then causes the concern over ballistic missiles?

Many experts and officials view ballistic missiles as a particularly menacing, difficult to detect, and rapidly proliferating technology. Several threat assessments and reports followed the lead of the 1998 study by the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (known as the Rumsfeld Commission for its chair, Donald Rumsfeld):

"With the external help now readily available, a nation with a well-developed, Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructure would be able to achieve first flight of a long range missile, up to and including intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) range (greater than 5,500 km), 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." 2

The Commission identified two countries as particularly dangerous: North Korea and Iran. These nations apparently had made a decision to achieve first flight of an ICBM:

Although neither the North Korean or Iranian ICBM programs appear to have made significant progress since 1998, United States policy still seems guided by this out-dated assessment. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate submitted in December 2001 and released in unclassified form in January 2002 concluded that before 2015 the United States

"…most likely will face ICBM threats from North Korea and Iran, and possibly Iraq - barring significant changes in their political orientations - in addition to the strategic forces of Russia and China. One agency assesses that the United States is unlikely to face an ICBM threat from Iran before 2015." 3

The report states "The probability that a missile with a weapon of mass destruction will be used against US forces or interests is higher today than during most of the Cold War and it will continue to grow as the capabilities of potential adversaries mature." (emphasis in original) This assessment and the previous 1999 estimate were heavily influenced by the Rumsfeld Commission and reversed earlier intelligence estimates from 1993 and 1995. Both the 1993 and 1995 estimates had concluded that no new nation other than Russia and China was likely to field an ICBM in the next 15 years.

The most recent assessment does note, however, that

"U.S. territory is more likely to be attacked with [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] materials from nonmissile delivery means-most likely from terrorists-than by missiles, primarily because nonmissile delivery means are less costly, easier to acquire, and more reliable and accurate. They can also be used without attribution."4 (emphasis added)

These cautions and caveats are often brushed aside in the political discussions and program decisions concerning the ballistic missile threat. For example, the Quadrennial Defense Review presented to Congress from the Department of Defense on October 1, 2001, argues that "In particular, the pace and scale of recent ballistic missile proliferation has exceeded earlier intelligence estimates and suggests these challenges may grow at a faster pace than previously expected." 5

Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet went beyond the official intelligence assessment and told the Senate select Committee on Intelligence on February 6, "The proliferation of ICBM and cruise missile designs and technology has raised the threat to the US from WMD delivery systems to a critical threshold."

However, by February 2003, Director Tenet's anxiety about the ballistic missile threat assessments seemed to have been significantly reduced. His testimony to Congress had only three short paragraphs on the missile threat:

"The United States and its interests remain at risk from increasingly advanced and lethal ballistic and cruise missiles and UAVs. In addition to the longstanding threats from Russian and Chinese missile forces, the United States faces a near-term ICBM threat from North Korea. And over the next several years, we could face a similar threat from Iran and possibly Iraq.

"Short- and medium-range missiles already pose a significant threat to US interests, military forces, and allies as emerging missile states increase the range, reliability, and accuracy of the missile systems in their inventories.

"And several countries of concern remain interested in acquiring a land-attack cruise missile (LACM) capability. By the end of the decade, LACMs could pose a serious threat to not only our deployed forces, but possibly even the US mainland." 6

Whether one thinks the ballistic missile threat is greater than the terrorist threat or not, and somewhat independent of one's views on the feasibility of ballistic missile defenses, there remains within the US Department of Defense a general sense that the threat is increasing. But is this true? More precisely, is the risk to U.S. cities from ballistic missile attack greater now than in the past and will it get worse? This is a significant question, for it is largely the perceived threat to the United States and Europe that drives the rush to deploy missile defenses.

Global Ballistic Missile Trends

The blurring of short, medium, intermediate, and intercontinental ranges for the world's missile inventory often results in the misinterpretation of the oft-quoted assessment that over 25 nations possess ballistic missiles. This statement is true, but only the United States, China, and Russia possess the ability to launch nuclear warheads on land-based intercontinental missiles. This has not changed since Russia and China deployed their first ICBMs in 1959 and 1981 respectively. 7

  • Analysis of global ballistic missile arsenals shows that there are far fewer ICBMs, and long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) in the world today than there were during the Cold War.
  • The number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), i.e. missiles with a range of 3000 -5000 km has decreased in the past 15 years by an order of magnitude.
  • The overall number of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), i.e. missiles with a range of 1000-3000 km, has also decreased. Four new countries, however, have developed or acquired MRBMs since 1989.
  • The number of countries trying to develop ballistic missiles has also decreased and the nations still attempting to do so are poorer and less technologically advanced than were the nations 15 years ago.
  • The number of countries with short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), i.e. missiles with ranges up to 1,000 km, has remained fairly static over the past 20 years and is now decreasing as aging inventories are retired.
  • Today, fewer nations potentially hostile to the United States and Europe are trying to develop MRBMs as there were 15 years ago (1980s: China, Iraq, Libya, Soviet Union; 2002: China, Iran, North Korea).
  • The damage from a ballistic missile attack on the U.S. territory, U.S. forces and European allies today with one or two warheads is also lower by orders of magnitude than fifteen years ago when thousands of warheads would have destroyed the country, even the planet.

Long-Range Ballistic Missiles

Force reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals have dramatically decreased the number of long-range ballistic missiles in the world from their Cold War levels.

In 1987, the Soviet Union deployed 2,380 long-range missiles in its combined ICBM and SLBM arsenals.8 The United States deployed 1,640 long-range missiles.9 As of April 2003, Russia has 1022 long-range missiles carrying 4804 warheads10 and the U.S. has 982 long-range missiles carrying 4868 warheads. 11

France has reduced its nuclear arsenal overall, but now has 48 long-range SLBMs that it began deploying at the very end of 1987.12 Similarly, the United Kingdom has reduced its arsenal but now fields 58 long-range Trident SLBMs that it did not have in 1987. 13

Status Quo
During this period China has maintained a force of about 20 Dong Feng-5 ICBMs. 14 No other country has developed an ICBM or long-range SLBM during this time period.

Net Decrease
By January 2003, the total number of long-range ballistic missiles in the world (including those of the United States, the United Kingdom and France) has decreased 47 per cent to 2,130 from the 4,040 deployed in 1987. 15 More significantly the total number of long-range missile potentially threatening the United States has declined from 2400 fielded by the Soviet Union and China in 1987 to 1042 fielded by Russia and China today. This is a decrease in the number of ICBMs that threaten U.S. territory or interests of 57 percent.

Intermediate- Range Ballistic Missiles

Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile arsenals have undergone even more dramatic reductions. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated this entire class of missiles (with ranges from 3,000 to 5,500 km) from the Soviet/Russian arsenal over a three-year period.16 Changes in the structure of both the French and British nuclear forces have resulted in the elimination of intermediate-range SLBMs from these countries' arsenals as well.

Final INF inspections took place on May 31, 2001, verifying the destruction of 660 intermediate-range Soviet ballistic missiles.17 France has replaced the 16 M4A intermediate-range SLBMs it possessed in 1987 with long-range systems.18 France also deactivated its limited arsenal of 18 land-based IRBMs in 1996 and has since destroyed them.19 The United Kingdom has also replaced the 64 Polaris A-3T and Chevaline intermediate-range SLBMs it possessed with the long-range Trident system. The United States did not then and does not now field IRBMs.

Status Quo
China has maintained about 20 DF-4 missiles of this range.20 No other nation has deployed an IRBM during this time period, though India is developing the Agni III with a potential range greater than 3000km. 21

Net Decrease
Overall, IRBM arsenals have declined from the global total of 778 to 20 today. The decrease from 680 IRBMS potentially threatening the United States, its forces and European allies in the 1980s to 20 today, represents a 97 per cent reduction from Cold War levels.



Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles

The broad scope of the INF Treaty also covered medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). Thus, the treaty resulted in the elimination of this class of missiles (with ranges between 1000 and 3000 km) from Soviet/Russian and U.S. ballistic missile arsenals. Changes in the French nuclear forces also resulted in the elimination of MRBMs from its arsenal as well.

A total of 149 Russian SS-4 and 234 U.S. Pershing II missiles were destroyed under the INF treaty.22 France possessed 64 medium-range M20 SLBMs in 1987 that it had replaced with longer-range systems by 1991. 23

Increases Geographically

The most significant proliferation threat comes from the slow but steady increase in the number of states possessing medium-range ballistic missiles, even as Russia, France and the United States eliminated their arsenals. This development has attracted a great amount of attention and is often cited as evidence of a larger proliferation threat. China, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia now possess land-based MRBMs. China also possesses a medium-range SLBM capability, though its operational status is in question.24 Only India, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea have developed or obtained their missiles since 1989, and Iran and Pakistan base their missiles primarily on assistance or technology received from North Korea.

Status Quo
China has maintained its force of 40 DF-3 MRBMs, 48 DF-21 MRBMs and 12 CSS N-3 sea-launched MRBMs. 25

Net Decrease Numerically
Numerically speaking, even though MRBMs are now in the hands of more countries than in 1987, the total number of MRBMs in existence in 2002 is smaller than the 547 MRBMs in the combined U.S., French, Russian, and Chinese forces in 1987.26 Since then, Israel is believed to have deployed 50 operational Jericho II MRBMs 27 while Saudi Arabia has 40 CSS-2 MRBMs that it purchased from China.28 North Korea is believed to have deployed 10 No Dong MRBMs 29 but has possibly produced up to 100 missiles of this type.30 MRBMs in India, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea's Taepodong are still in operational testing. Assuming each of these countries could deploy one to five missiles in a crisis during the next five years, the global total of MRBMs today is no more than 310 and likely as low as 200. This represents a 43 and 63 per cent decrease, respectively, in global MRBM arsenals from the 1987 level.

In terms of missiles potentially threatening the United States, the threat has gone from 249 Chinese and Soviet missiles in 1987 to 100 Chinese, as many as 100 North Korean No Dongs, possibly one or two Taepodong missiles and a few Iranian Shahab-3 missiles.31 This tabulates to a total of about 205 missiles that could threaten U.S. forces or Europe, representing an 18 percent decrease in threat systems.

Short-Range Ballistic Missiles

Aging Scud Arsenals
In addition to the five recognized nuclear-weapon states, there are 30 nations with ballistic missiles. Of these 30 nations, the vast majority have only missiles with a range under 1000 km. Twenty-one of the 30 nations only have Scud-B or similar missiles with an approximate range of 300 km or less. Many of these missiles, many of which are quite old and have not been well maintained, are declining in military utility. Though new production by some nations, such as Syria and North Korea could replace or increase inventories wishing to retain short-range missile capabilities.

Number of Countries with Ballistic Missile Programs

Another factor by which proliferation can be measured is the number of states with missile development programs. The number of countries with ballistic missile development programs has also decreased from the number of countries pursuing missile programs during the Cold War. In addition to the five recognized nuclear-weapon states, countries such as Israel, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, South Africa, Iraq and Libya had programs to develop long-range or medium-range missiles in 1987. By 2003, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt and South Africa had abandoned their programs, and Libya's remains largely defunct. And Iraq's threat has now been eliminated (although we still count this country as possessing short-range ballistic missiles).

Countries with active intermediate-range or long-range ballistic missile development programs (apart from Five NPT Nuclear-Weapon States)

1987 2003
Argentina India
Brazil Israel
Egypt Iran
India Pakistan
Israel North Korea
South Africa  

Today, the nations pursuing long-range missile development programs are also smaller, poorer and less technologically advanced than were the nations with missile programs 15 years ago. U.S. threat assessments such as recent National Intelligence Assessments on the Ballistic Missile Threat (NIEs) note that Iran and North Korea currently possess active programs. Syria and South Korea have active short-range ballistic missile programs, but have not yet demonstrated interest in or the capability to produce MRBMs. Egypt and Libya may be pursuing purchases of MRBMs (from North Korea) but do not appear to have active indigenous development programs. Thus, even with the inclusion of U.S. allies India and Pakistan the recent NIEs highlight the limited nature of the missile proliferation threat, one that is confined to a few countries whose political evolution will be a determining factor in whether they remain threats to global security.

Nor have these programs advanced as quickly as predicted by the worst-case assessments that came to dominate U.S. policy on missile proliferation and missile defense. The 1998 Rumsfeld Commission report asserted that "Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructures would be able to achieve first flight of a long-range missile, up to and including intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ranges, within about five years of deciding to do so." The report concluded that Iran and North Korea had decided to do so: "The extraordinary level of resources North Korea and Iran are now devoting to developing their own ballistic missile capabilities poses a substantial and immediate danger to the U.S." The commissioner said, "Each of these nations places a high priority on threatening U.S. territory, and each is even now pursuing advanced ballistic missile capabilities to pose a direct threat to U.S. territory." 32 However, five years later, neither country has achieved first flight of an ICBM.

Iran's "Shahab-3" program (a missile largely based on and perhaps nothing more than a North Korean No Dong missile) has progressed in fits and starts. The missile blew up in two of its three tests in 1998 and 2000, though a recent test in May appears to have been successful. The latest test in July 2002 failed. The 2001 NIE notes "All agencies agree that Iran could attempt to launch an ICBM/SLV about mid-decade, although most agencies believe Iran is likely to take until the last half of the decade to do so. One agency further judges that Iran is unlikely to achieve a successful test of an ICBM before 2015." 33

North Korea
North Korea has had only two missile flight-tests in the past ten years, one of a No Dong in 1993 and one of a Taepadong-1 in 1998. North Korea is observing a self-declared moratorium on missile tests through 2003.

North Korea is the most serious case of a potential new threat. It may be able to test a Taepodong-2 missile that could approach ICBM ranges, but it would require a third stage to be able to deliver a payload to the continental United States. The capability, reliability, and payload of such a missile are highly speculative.

Unclassified photos of the North Korean test facilities revealed what many analysts have long concluded: the missile program is primitive by world standards, not capable of sustaining multiple launches of missiles, and of limited military utility. North Korea, increasingly eager to open normal trade relations with the West, and desirous of food and energy assistance seems be willing to suspend a dubious program for real material gain.

The NIEs and the Rumsfeld Commission assume an optimistic and fairly straightforward path for North Korea to scale up their existing missiles to true intercontinental range. Only the United States, Russia and China have been able to build missiles in this range thus far. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that North Korea could develop a missile with enough range to reach the continental United States within ten years. However, the obstacles are formidable. As previous intelligence estimates have reported, the Taepodong -2, -3 or -4, would have to make remarkable progress in propulsion, guidance and reentry vehicle technology. Moreover, as the size of the missile increases, it requires a difficult manufacturing and engineering shift from the steel bodies employed by Scuds to low-weight, high-strength alloys. Finally, for a nuclear-capable delivery system, North Korea would have to manufacture a nuclear warhead small enough and sturdy enough to fit on the tip of the missile. There is no evidence that North Korea has mastered these techniques, only speculation that it might be possible. Finally, if the new negotiations with North Korea go well, this entire problem may be eliminated through mutual agreement.

Iraq is, of course, now gone from the list of the three "imminent threat" states to develop a long-range missile over the next 15 years.

Net Assessment

Missile proliferation remains primarily a regional problem, though with global implications. In South Asia and the Middle East, strategic interest and political dynamics have fueled continued development of ballistic missile technology as both a means of gaining international prestige as well as obtaining a strategic advantage vis-à-vis regional rivals. Though relatively limited, this proliferation and the transfer of ballistic missile technology originating in North Korea and China does continue to destabilize regional, and therefore global, security.

It is worth noting that the Joint Chiefs of Staff rejected the conclusions of the Rumsfeld Commission in 1998. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Henry Shelton wrote:

"While the Chiefs and I, along with the Intelligence Community, agree with many of the Commission's findings, we have some different perspectives on the likely developmental timelines and associated warning times.

"After carefully considering the portions of the report available to us, we remain confident that the Intelligence Community can provide the necessary warning of the indigenous development and deployment by a rogue state of an ICBM threat to the United States.

"For example:

  • We believe that North Korea continues moving closer to the initiation of a Taepo-Dong I Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) testing program. That program has been predicted and considered in the current examination.
  • The Commission points out that through unconventional, high-risk development programs and foreign assistance, rogue nations could acquire an ICBM capability in a short time, and that the Intelligence Community may not detect it. We view this as an unlikely development.
  • I would also point out that these rogue nations currently pose a threat to the United States, including a threat by weapons of mass destruction, through unconventional, terrorist-style delivery means. The Chiefs and I believe all these threats must be addressed consistent with a balanced judgement of risks and resources." 34

The Chiefs' judgments were overturned by political decisions, but in hindsight their assessment and the intelligence estimates provided in 1993 and 1995 have proven more sound than the assessments subsequently produced by the intelligence agencies.

Finally, those debating the urgency of the ballistic missile threat often lose sight of the vastly different scale of possible destruction that we face today compared to the threat we feared just fifteen years ago. Then the threat was a global thermonuclear war. A first strike of some 5000 Soviet warheads would have delivered 2.75 million kilotons of destructive force on the United States.35 On several occasions, the world seemed very close to that war. Today, we fear that a few missiles carrying warheads of some 10 to 40 kilotons might destroy part of a city or at least impact somewhere in Europe or the United States. Though still a catastr