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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 28, July 1998

Missile Defence Developments

On 15 July, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States - popularly known as the Rumsfeld Commission, after its Chair, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - released an unclassified version of its major study into the likelihood of US territory - particularly Hawaii and Alaska - being the subject of ballistic missile attack. The Commission has been working on its report, mandated by the House National Security Committee, for the past six months. The report's major finding is that that likelihood is much higher than was claimed in a controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) prepared for the Clinton Administration in 1995. The NIE claimed no such threat was likely to exist, from any State currently not in possession of ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US, for the next 15 years. The Rumsfeld Commission concluded both that a 'rogue' nation could acquire such a capability within 5 years - or within 10, in the case of Iraq - and that US intelligence may not be aware when such a capability was in place. The report argues: "The threat to the US...is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community... Foreign assistance is pervasive, enabling, and often the preferred path to ballistic and WMD capability." Although not mandated to make specific policy recommendations, the Commission concludes that "US analyses, practices and policies that depend on expectations of extended warning of deployment" should "be reviewed and, as appropriate, revised to reflect the reality of an environment in which there may be little or no warning." A particular threat, singled out in the report, was the North Korean Taepo Dong-2 missile which, if successfully developed, could threaten US territory "in an arc extending northwest from Phoenix, Arizona, to Madison, Wisconsin."

In addition to former Secretary Rumsfeld, the Commission consisted of: Barry Blechman, President of DFI International; retired Air Force General Lee Butler, former Commander of US Strategic Command; Richard Garwin, Senior Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations; William Graham, Chair of National Security Research; William Schneider, President of International Planning Services; retired Air Force General Larry Welch, President of the Institute for Defense Analyses; Paul Wolfowitz, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; and James Woolsey, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Commissioners were appointed by the current CIA Director, George Tenet. In a letter to the House Select Committee in Intelligence, made public on 15 July, Tenet defended the broad conclusions of the 1995 NIE, while denying any accusations of complacency:

"A country could purchase an intercontinental ballistic missile or space launch vehicle or a turnkey facility to produce either - events that could lead to deployments in as little as a few months to a few years... Although our [1995] report made the analytic judgment that such developments were unlikely, this does not mean that we minimize the threat." Commission member General Lee Butler, however, was scathing about the CIA's intelligence-gathering capability, arguing on 16 July:

"In this day and age, ballistic missiles are ubiquitous. They're on every corner of the earth... The intelligence community's ability to provide timely, accurate estimates of ballistic missile threats to this country is eroding... [This situation is] unacceptable. In fact, it's intolerable."

The Chair of the House National Security Committee, Republican Representative Floyd Spence, told a Committee hearing on 16 July: "The intelligence community, and therefore policy-makers, may be seriously underestimating and miscalculating the threat to all Americans posed by ballistic missiles. We don't have a defence... The missile threat is not 15 years away - it is here and now." On 15 July, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Republican - Georgia) claimed that the Commission's report represented "the most important warning about our national security since the end of the Cold War."

Spence, Gingrich, and many of their colleagues in Congress, support the urgent deployment of a comprehensive National Missile Defence (NMD) system; the Administration is exploring possibilities, many of which are encountering serious technical difficulties (see last issue), but argues that there is no need to rush deployment. On 23 June, a report published by the General Accounting Office (GAO - National Missile Defense - Even With Increased Funding Technical and Schedule Risks Are High - cast grave doubt on the wisdom of attempting to deploy an NMD system in the next few years. The report, from the General Accounting Office (GAO), argued that "any decision in the fiscal year 2000 to deploy an NMD system by 2003" - an option the Administration has said it will consider - "would involve high technical risk because the associated compressed schedule will permit only limited testing of the system."

Speaking on 16 July, Senator Carl Levin (Democrat - Michigan) stated that the GAO report "provides compelling evidence that we need to give the NMD program a chance to mature and prove itself rather than pile on deployment pressures that are more likely to lead to failure." Also on 16 July, the Council for a Livable World in Washington released a statement strongly arguing against a rush to NMD-deployment on the back of alarms raised by the Rumsfeld report:

"With little doubt, proponents of national missile defense deployment will seize upon the report to advocate quick deployment of a defensive missile system. There are major flaws in the proponents' case, however; most notably, the United States has not been able to develop a workable missile defense system after 40 years of trying and spending $108 billion.

The Republican quest for a national missile defense is all too reminiscent of France's building of the Maginot Line against a resurgent German Army. National Missile Defense remains a bad idea whose time has not come..."

Reports: US panel cites ballistic missile threat, Reuters, 15 July; Commission sees serious missile threat, United Press International, 15 July; GAO - missile defense running late, Associated Press, 15 July; Lawmakers urge defense reassessment, Associated Press, 16 July; Panel - US can't expect warning of enemy ICBM developments, Defense Daily, 16 July; Council for Livable World - Missile defense 'a bad idea', US Newswire, 16 July.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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