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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 40, September - October 1999

CIA Ballistic Missile Threat Report

"Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015", Report prepared for Congress by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); unclassified portion released September 9, 1999.


Congress has requested that the Intelligence Community produce annual reports on ballistic missile developments. We produced the first report in March 1998 and an update memorandum in October 1998 on the August North Korean launch of its Taepo Dong-1 space launch vehicle (SLV). Our 1999 report is a classified National Intelligence Estimate, which we have summarized in unclassified form in this paper.

This year we examined future capabilities for several countries that have or have had ballistic missiles or SLV programs or intentions to pursue such programs. Using intelligence information and expertise from inside and outside the Intelligence Community, we examined scenarios by which a country could acquire an ICBM [Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile] by 2015, including by purchase, and assessed the likelihood of various scenarios. (Some analysts believe that the prominence given to missile countries 'could' develop gives more credence than is warranted to developments that may prove implausible.) We did not attempt to address all of the potential political, economic, and social changes that could occur. Rather, we analyzed the level of success and the pace countries have experienced in their development efforts, international technology transfers, political motives, military incentives, and economic resources. From that basis, we projected possible and likely missile developments by 2015 independent of significant political and economic changes. ...

Our projections for future ICBM developments are based on limited information and engineering judgment. Adding to our uncertainty is that many countries surround their ballistic missile programs with secrecy, and some employ deception. Although some key milestones are difficult to hide, we may miss others. For example, we may not know all aspects of a missile systems configuration until flight-testing; we did not know until the launch last August that North Korea had acquired a third stage for its Taepo Dong 1. ...

Key Points

We project that during the next 15 years the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China, and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq. The Russian threat, although significantly reduced, will continue to be the most robust and lethal, considerably more so than that posed by China, and orders of magnitude more than that potentially posed by other nations, whose missiles are likely to be fewer in number -- probably a few to tens, constrained to smaller payloads, and less reliable and accurate than their Russian and Chinese counterparts.

We judge that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq would view their ICBMs more as strategic weapons of deterrence and coercive diplomacy than as weapons of war. We assess that:

  • North Korea could convert its Taepo Dong-1 space launch vehicle (SLV) into an ICBM that could deliver a light payload (sufficient for a biological or chemical weapon) to the United States, albeit with inaccuracies that would make hitting large urban targets improbable. North Korea is more likely to weaponize the larger Taepo Dong-2 as an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload (sufficient for early generation nuclear weapons) to the United States. Most analysts believe it could be tested at any time, probably initially as an SLV, unless it is delayed for political reasons.
  • Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to many parts of the United States in the last half of the next decade using Russian technology and assistance. Most analysts believe it could test an ICBM capable of delivering a lighter payload to the United States in the next few years following the North Korean pattern. ...
  • Iraq could test a North Korean-type ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to the United States in the last half of the next decade depending on the level of foreign assistance. Although less likely, most analysts believe it could test an ICBM that could deliver a lighter payload to the United States in a few years based on its failed SLV or the Taepo Dong-1, if it began development now. ...
  • By 2015, Russia will maintain as many nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles as its economy will allow but well short of START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) I or II limitations.
  • By 2015, China is likely to have tens of missiles capable of targeting the United States, including a few tens of more survivable, land- and sea-based mobile missiles with smaller nuclear warheads - in part influenced by US technology gained through espionage. China tested its first mobile ICBM in August 1999.
Sales of ICBMs or SLVs, which have inherent ICBM capabilities and could be converted relatively quickly with little or no warning, could increase the number of countries able to threaten the United States. North Korea continues to demonstrate a willingness to sell its missiles. Although we judge that Russia or China are unlikely to sell an ICBM or SLV in the next 15 years, the consequences of even one sale would be extremely serious.

Several other means to deliver weapons of mass destruction to the United States have probably been devised, some more reliable than ICBMs that have not completed rigorous testing programs. For example, biological or chemical weapons could be prepared in the United States and used in large population centers, or short-range missiles could be deployed on surface ships. However, these means do not provide a nation the same prestige and degree of deterrence or coercive diplomacy associated with ICBMs.

The proliferation of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) - driven primarily by North Korean No Dong sales - has created an immediate, serious, and growing threat to US forces, interests, and allies, and has significantly altered the strategic balances in the Middle East and Asia. We judge that countries developing missiles view their regional concerns as one of the primary factors in tailoring their programs. They see their short- and medium-range missiles not only as deterrents but also as force -multiplying weapons of war, primarily with conventional weapons, but with options for delivering biological, chemical, and eventually nuclear weapons. South Asia provides one of the most telling examples of regional ballistic missile and nuclear proliferation:

  • Pakistan has Chinese-supplied M-11 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and Ghauri MRBMs from North Korea.
  • India has Prithvi I SRBMs and recently began testing the Agni II MRBM.
  • We assess these missiles may have nuclear roles.
Foreign assistance continues to have demonstrable effects on missile advances around the world, particularly from Russia and North Korea. Moreover, some countries that have traditionally been recipients of foreign missile technology are now sharing more amongst themselves and are pursuing cooperative missile ventures.

We assess that countries developing missiles also will respond to US theater and national missile defenses by deploying larger forces, penetration aids, and countermeasures. Russia and China each have developed numerous countermeasures and probably will sell some related technologies. ..."

Editor's note: on 11 September, a spokesperson for Iran's Ministry of Defence reacted angrily to the characterisation of Iran's missile capability and intent in the NIC report. According to Keyvan Khosravi: "This report has evaluated Iran's defence activities based on probabilities and guesses. It is in no way rational and does not conform with existing realities... It has been written and published with the sole intention of misleading American public opinion. ... Iran's defence policy is based on deterrence, and her defense capabilities are not a threat to any country which is not hostile to her". (Iran dismisses CIA missile report as fabrication, Reuters, 11 September.)

Source: Text - New CIA Report Assesses Future Ballistic Missile Threat, United States Information Service, September 10, 1999

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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