The bipartisan panel created by Congress in 1997 to assess the
ballistic missile threat has concluded that there is a growing security risk to the United
States, its deployed forces, and its allies as the result of concerted efforts by several
overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles that could be armed
with biological, chemical, or nuclear payloads. Equally troubling, the independent
commission reported, is that the threat to the United States posed by nations with
emerging missile capabilities is both broader and more mature, and evolving more rapidly,
than has been reported by U.S. intelligence agencies.
In their 15 July report to Congress, the
nine commission members unanimously recommended that "U.S. analyses, practices, and
policies that depend on expectations of extended warning of [ballistic missile]
deployments be reviewed and, as appropriate, revised to reflect the reality of an
environment in which there may be little or no warning." The commission stated
pointedly that its assessment of the ballistic missile threat differs from U.S.
intelligence estimates that have been published.
Reaction to the report in the nation's
capital was immediate, with some members of Congress describing its findings as the most
serious national security warning the American public has received since the end of the
Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), chairman
of the House National Security Committee, took the unusual measure of interrupting a
House-Senate conference meeting on 16 July to allow the commission, chaired by former
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, to present its conclusions in an open hearing.
"I continue to believe that the American people have been lulled into a false sense
of security," Spence said, "and I hope the commission's report will serve as a
wake-up call for all Americans." Spence expressed the hope that some or all members
of the commission would return to his committee, possibly in September, to brief members
in greater detail on the commission's classified findings.
Weldon Bill Urges
Deployment "To Protect Americans"
Iran added an international punctuation
mark to the report's release with its testing of a medium-range ballistic missile on 22
July. Department of Defense (DOD) spokesman Kenneth Bacon said that the test of the
Shahab-3, while worrisome, does not mean that Iran has an operational ballistic missile
capability. Other U.S. officials said that several more tests will be required before Iran
has operational confidence in its missile system, which is based on the North Korean
Nodong missile. With a range of 1,300 kilometers, the Pentagon said, the Iranian missile
would be capable of hitting targets in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and other
countries in the region.
Congressional action to force a decision
by the Clinton administration to accelerate deployment of a national missile defense (NMD)
system quickly followed almost immediately after the release of the Rumsfeld report. In
early August, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), and
Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) headed a bipartisan group of more than 40 members of Congress
that introduced legislation to make it official U.S. policy "to deploy a national
missile defense system to protect Americans from missile attack."
Current U.S. NMD policy, under the
so-called "three-plus-three" program, postulates completing a three-year
development program for missile defenses that can be ready for deployment three years
after a deployment decision is made. According to DOD's Ballistic Missile Defense
Organization (BM-DO), a decision to deploy a limited national missile defense system could
be made in 2000 if the threat warrants at that time, with operational capability achieved
by the end of 2003.
Following public release of the Rumsfeld
commission report, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said that the
"three-plus-three" NMD program is technologically challenging, but is being
pursued as quickly as possible. "We assess the program on a regular basis," he
said, "and believe that funding is adequate and appropriate."
The Rumsfeld panel, formally established
by the fiscal year 1997 National Defense Authorization Act as the "Commission to
Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States," worked intensively for six
months to complete its report. In addition to receiving full access to classified
data--and to U.S. government officials--the commission drew on experts from outside the
intelligence community; the panel also sponsored several studies--by experts in the
several fields of technology essential to the development and deployment of ballistic
missiles--that it felt would be needed in preparing its 307-page classified report.
Despite acknowledged differences about
how the United States should respond to known or suspected ballistic missile threats, the
commissioners were unanimous in reaching the following conclusions:
- "Concerted efforts by a number of
overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or
nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces, and its
friends and allies. These newer, developing threats in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are in
addition to those still posed by the existing ballistic missile arsenals of Russia and
China, nations with which we are not now in conflict but which remain in uncertain
transitions. The newer ballistic missile-equipped nations' capabilities will not match
those of U.S. systems for accuracy or reliability. However, they would be able to inflict
major destruction on the United States within about five years of a decision to acquire
such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the
United States might not be aware that such a decision had been made.
- "The threat to the United States
posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly
than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community.
- "The Intelligence Community's ability
to provide timely and accurate estimates of ballistic missile threats to the United States
is eroding. This erosion has roots both within and beyond the intelligence process itself.
The Community's capabilities in this area need to be strengthened in terms of both
resources and methodology.
- "The warning times the United States
can expect of new, threatening ballistic-missile deployments are being reduced. Under some
plausible scenarios--including re-basing or transfer of operational missiles, sea- and
air-launch options, shortened development programs that might include testing in a third
country, or some combination of these--the United States might well have little or no
warning before operational deployment."
Explaining the Divergence
The commission explained that its
divergence with authoritative estimates of the ballistic missile threat by the U.S.
intelligence community stemmed primarily from the panel's use of a more comprehensive
methodology in assessing ballistic missile development and deploy- ment programs.
Earlier this year, Secretary Cohen, in
his Annual Report to the President and Congress, stated that the U.S. intelligence
community had concluded that the only "rogue nation" missile in development that
might conceivably have the range needed to strike U.S. soil--in Alaska or the far-western
Hawaiian Islands--is the North Korean Taepo Dong 2.
The likelihood is "very low,"
however, Cohen said, that this missile would be operational by 2005. With that one
exception, Cohen further asserted, no country, other than already declared nuclear powers,
would be able to develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years
that could threaten the United States. The defense secretary tempered his assessment by
noting that outside assistance is a "wild card" that could shorten timelines to
The Rumsfeld panel draws a different
conclusion--foreign assistance "is not a wild card," the commission found.
"It is a fact." The commission's assessment gives greater emphasis to the
possibility that credible ballistic missile threats to the United States might develop
much earlier than previously estimated. Its report found that any nation that wants to
develop ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) "can now obtain
extensive technical assistance from outside sources." In the commission's words,
"Foreign assistance is pervasive, enabling, and often the preferred path to ballistic
missile and WMD capability."
The commission's even more alarming
assessment was explained in a finding that newer ballistic missile and WMD development
programs no longer follow the patterns established several decades ago by the United
States and the Soviet Union. "These [newer] programs," the commission pointed
out, "require neither high standards of missile accuracy, reliability, and safety nor
large numbers of missiles and therefore can move ahead more rapidly." Pakistan's
April 1998 test launch of its Ghauri medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) could not be
predicted, the commission said, because it did not follow any known pattern of technical
development either for MRBMs generally, or for Pakistan in particular.
Nations seeking to develop and deploy
advanced-technology weapons are increasingly able to conceal important elements of their
ballistic missile and associated WMD programs, the study group reported, "and are
highly motivated to do so." This departure from what previously had been the norm was
demonstrated convincingly during India's nuclear weapons test series in May 1998. India
also is developing, in concert with its nuclear weapons program, a number of ballistic
missiles from short-range weapons to those with intercontinental capabilities, the
commission reported, as well as a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a short-range
system that could be launched from a surface ship.
Recent world developments could bolster
the panel's finding about the easy concealment of WMD development programs. Front-page
stories in the New York Times and Washington Post in mid-August claimed
that U.S. intelligence analysts have detected a vast secret underground complex in North
Korea believed to be the centerpiece of Pyongyang's efforts to revive its nuclear weapons
program. The Clinton administration was reported to be monitoring the situation closely.
Nonetheless, senior members of Congress are almost certain to call for new hearings if
credible evidence exists that North Korea has been ignoring its agreement with the United
States to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for financial aid.
NMD: Sooner Rather Than
The legislation introduced by Weldon and
his cosponsors would, for the first time, make it official U.S. policy to deploy a
national missile defense system to protect the United States from missile attack.
Weldon, a longtime leading advocate of
developing and deploying a national missile defense system, said that recent world events
make it clear that the United States should move forward immediately with the development
of a defensive system. "We have seen Iran test a missile that the Intelligence
Community only one year ago said would not be deployed for another decade," Weldon
said in a press release describing his bill. "We have seen North Korea publicly state
that it would continue to proliferate missile technology and missile systems unless the
United States lifted its embargo and pay its government 'compensation,'" he added.
The one-line bipartisan legislation
introduced by Weldon and his House colleagues simply states that it is the policy of the
United States to deploy a national missile defense system. House Majority Leader Dick
Armey announced that the House would vote on the legislation in September. "It is
immoral for this government not to deploy available, cost-effective technology in defense
of the American people," Armey said in announcing the fast-track treatment planned
for the Weldon bill.
House lawmakers sponsoring the
missile-defense legislation believe the U.S. commitment to deploy an NMD system is
essential for a number of reasons. The first, in their view, is that it will send a clear
message to the military and to U.S. defense contractors that the United States is prepared
to move from an indefinite study phase to a serious program of planning, design,
development, and implementation. House members say they also believe it is important to
send a clear message of resolve to rogue nations seeking to acquire an offensive missile
capability that the United States will take all measures necessary to protect its
citizens. An early deployment decision would allow more timely efforts with Russia to
amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, if necessary, supporters of the legislation also
Extended Debate Possible
The release of the Rumsfeld commission
report has rekindled the legislative debate over U.S. missile defense policy. A spokesman
for Sen. James M. Inhofe confirmed that the Oklahoma Democrat wrote Joint Chiefs of Staff
(JCS) Chairman Gen. Henry H. Shelton two days after the report's release. Inhofe asked
Shelton if he believes that the current "three-plus-three" policy is
"prudent and adequate," the spokesman said, and if the Joint Chiefs would
support an accelerated effort to deploy a limited national missile defense system as being
in the national defense interest.
Washington Times Pentagon
correspondent Rowan Scarborough reported in August that the JCS position, following
Inhofe's inquiry, was still to adhere to the administration's previous
"three-plus-three" NMD policy. Responding to an inquiry from Sea Power,
a Pentagon official declined to discuss Shelton's reply, but confirmed that the JCS
chairman remains committed to protecting the United States against the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction and the missiles that deliver them. "The Rumsfeld
commission report is an important and serious contribution to an understanding of the
ballistic missile threat," the official said, "and it will be taken into full
consideration as the JCS assess its findings and prepare their advice for the secretary of
defense and the president."
A BMDO spokesman told Sea Power that it
would be extremely difficult, because of the schedule now in place, to accelerate what is
already a high-risk NMD program. "The time constraints properly space out intercept
tests scheduled to begin in early spring 1999 at the Pacific Missile Test Range,"
said Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Lehner. Lehner voiced confidence in DOD's ability to meet the
technical challenges associated with next year's projected "full system test" of
the overall NMD operational scenario, but he did not minimize the difficulty of
successfully intercepting a ballistic missile warhead. "At a closing speed of about
25,000 miles per hour, it is even more challenging than shooting a bullet with a
bullet," Lehner said.
There were other calls, in the wake of
the Rumsfeld report, for more vigorous, and earlier, NMD action. Some security affairs
organizations, notably the Center for Security Policy (CSP), advocated that U.S. Navy
Aegis ships be given funding priority for the development and early deployment of
missile-defense systems. The CSP also called on Congress to enact legislation, introduced
in May by Senators Thad Cochran (R-Ms.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hi.), that would make the
deployment of effective national missile defenses, as soon as technologically possible,
the formal policy of the U.S. government.
The political controversy over the
urgency for and ability of the United States to accelerate its NMD program seems almost
sure to intensify in September when Congress returns from its summer recess. The Rumsfeld
commission stated that debate and agreement on the appropriate response to the ballistic
missile threat are needed, and its members voiced the hope that their assessment will be
helpful in this regard.
Since 1980, ballistic missiles have been
used in six regional conflicts, the panel pointed out, commenting that the continued
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems poses a direct
and growing threat to U.S. national security, and to U.S. military and allied forces
deployed around the world. The study group documented the robust, and continuing,
ballistic missile development efforts by North Korea, Iran, and Iraq--Iran was described
as placing "extraordinary emphasis" on its ballistic missile program and weapons
of mass destruction. By increasing public awareness of the ballistic missile threat to the
United States and by rekindling political debate over U.S. missile defense policy, said
one cosponsor of the Weldon bill, the nine study commissioners have served a valuable
public purpose "well beyond their initial objectives."