VFW Magazine
April 1999
By Alan W. Dowd

When a blue-ribbon panel of national security experts announced in July that ballistic missiles pose a strategic and imminent threat to the United States, many high-level officials in Washington disregarded the findings as alarmist. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff dismissed the possibility that a rogue country could rapidly deploy a long-range missile as "an unlikely development."1

But less than a month later, North Korea did exactly that, launching a three-stage rocket over Japan, out of the earth’s atmosphere, and deep into the waters of the North Pacific Ocean. The surprise missile test not only sobered much of Washington, vindicating the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States in the process; it may have awakened America to the new missile crisis we face.

America Undefended?

Comprised of a bipartisan team of former national security experts and Pentagon officials, the Commission had specifically warned that North Korea was on the threshold of developing long-range missiles, while Iran, Iraq, and a handful of others could acquire advanced missilery on the global market in the near future. And the Commission ominously concluded that China’s 20 or so intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and Russia’s 6,000 nuclear warheads pose a serious long-term threat because of political instability and the possibility of unauthorized launch.

In fact, as the Senate Armed Services Committee noted in a 1998 report, "The President has for four consecutive years declared the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems to be a national emergency."2 Yet the words haven’t translated into action. As a nation, we have done little to protect ourselves from attack. In September, for example, the Senate failed to muster enough votes even to begin construction on a national missile defense.

Sadly, that’s nothing new. The missile threat has seemed so distant for so long that complacency has set in like a winter bout of bursitis. In the fifteen years since President Reagan outlined his Strategic Defense Initiative, the US has invested a paltry $2.6 billion per year to prevent the disaster that could follow an accidental firing or terrorist missile attack on the United States.3 Since then, the anti-missile program has been shuffled from a national priority to little more than a research-and-development project.

"We should have been treating missile defense as a matter of highest national priority," according to former Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, who served on the missile threat panel. Instead, policymakers put missile defense on the back-burner and left the country exposed to attack. "We could have a threat before the United States is prepared to deal with it," Wolfowitz warns.4

According to Paul Kaminski, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, "Active missile defenses can never be considered a panacea for countering the proliferation of ballistic missiles. We have a broader strategy." The steady shift away from a national missile defense and toward a piecemeal program is illustrated in this new strategy, which relies on treaties to prevent missile development in rogue countries, intelligence to monitor our enemies’ weapons programs, and our own nuclear arsenal to deter the use of ballistic missiles, while delaying deployment of a national missile defense until the next millennium. 5

This is a recipe for failure, if not disaster. As former director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Fred Ikle observes, "With countries that are truly determined to misuse the technology, a piece of paper will not help much. Elaborate international inspection regimes can always be circumvented."6

Citing critical intelligence lapses in Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Iran, the Senate Armed Services Committee raised the issue of the intelligence community’s limitations. The Committee noted that "the intelligence community has been repeatedly surprised by advances in ballistic missile technology achieved by less developed countries, calling into question its ability to anticipate precisely when the United States will be threatened by long-range missiles."7

And nuclear deterrence can only work if our adversaries are rational and care about the consequences of an attack. That remains to be seen in places like Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and Iran.

A World of Threats

Time has been on our side, but it’s quickly running out. We need to look only as far as today’s headlines to recognize that the Commission’s findings are not alarmist rhetoric, but frank warnings of what awaits us if we do nothing.

North Korea, cited by the Commission as posing a "substantial and immediate danger to the US," is preparing to test another intermediate-range missile this year. As it stands today, the Taepo Dong 1 missile (or TD1) launched last September "could reach major cities and military bases in Alaska and the westernmost islands in the Hawaiian island chain."8

The TD1 and its longer-range cousin, the TD2, are much more sophisticated than intelligence sources had previously thought. Since it is a three-stage rocket, capable of leaving and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, the TD1 is effectively an ICBM already. In fact, the Commission warns that a light-weight version of the TD1 could travel as far as Wisconsin or Arizona.

Gary Milhollin, a nuclear arms control expert, believes the test launches show that the North Koreans intend to mate the TD1 with a nuclear warhead or export the missile to somebody who will. "The missile makes no sense otherwise."9 Even if the North Koreans cannot refine the TD1 into a viable ICBM, they have already shown a host of unsavory countries how far their new weapon can reach, and how unprotected America is. As Tokyo-based defense analyst Kensuke Ebata observed, "Ballistic missiles are the only North Korean product which can attract foreign currency."10 The TD1 will have plenty of buyers.

One of North Korea’s best customers is Iran, which is acquiring an increasingly lethal and far-reaching stockpile of weaponry. The Commission concluded that Iran already has the resources to develop and test a homegrown version of North Korea’s Taepo Dong missiles.

Ironically, Tehran successfully test-launched a medium-range missile just days after the Commission released its report. Iran’s widening scope of terror now reaches as far west as the Mediterranean and as far east as China, bringing scores of US bases and allies into range. An ominous footnote to the Commission’s findings was its observation that, "The ballistic missile infrastructure in Iran is now more sophisticated than that of North Korea...Because of significant gaps in our knowledge, the US is unlikely to know whether Iran possesses nuclear weapons until after the fact."11

After eight years of containment, sanctions, and war, Saddam Hussein’ relentless weapons program continues to evade detection. While the latest round of American air attacks may have slowed Saddam’s quest for long-range missiles, it also effectively ended the UN weapons monitoring program. Saddam has made it clear that inspectors will never be allowed to return to Iraq. And now only he knows what he is concealing.

The Commission considered this likelihood, noting that, "Once UN-imposed controls are lifted, Iraq could mount a determined effort...to reconstitute its long-range ballistic missile program." The Commission’s experts chillingly concluded that Iraq could also build and deploy short-range, ship-launched weapons "in a very short time."

India and Pakistan are in a nuclear arms race, both developing ICBMs and testing weapons of mass destruction. While their missiles and atoms pose no threat to the US today, we know from recent history how quickly this can change. Not long ago, Iran and Iraq were American allies. We cannot predict what will happen to India and Pakistan in the next ten years or ten months. Perhaps their governments will remain stable and friendly, but what if they do not?

Then there is the case of Russia’s unstable nuclear arsenal. "We now have strategic warning, plenty of it," according to Secretary Ikle, "that among the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons left behind by the Soviet Union, one or more might be diverted by theft or accident...and then begin a journey that ends in our country."12 Yet astonishingly, some in Washington cite Russia not as a reason for deploying a missile defense, but as the very reason we cannot develop a national missile defense. Doing so, they contend, would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, an outdated agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States that blocked the development of a national shield against missile attack.

This view seems out of step with the realities of today. The Soviet Union no longer exists. So there is a legitimate reason to re-negotiate or even abrogate the ABM Treaty. The US and the Soviet successor states have discarded or reviewed other treaties for this very reason.

Time to Level with America

A day is approaching when one of these countries will attempt to mete out revenge on America’s homeland. That day is closer than some policymakers are willing to admit. The oceans can no longer protect us from these threats, but a national missile defense can. Most of our allies in Europe and Asia are already coping with the missile threat. And the Commission warns that an informal alliance of rogue countries will likely work together to transfer technology and provide launch facilities, and thus shorten the distance between their missiles and America’s farms, towns, and cities.

In 1962, in the midst of our first missile crisis, President Kennedy leveled with the American people, warning them of the "difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out." In that dramatic television address, a grim-faced Kennedy listed the cities Soviet ballistic missiles could destroy from bases in Cuba. He outlined a bold plan to defuse the danger; he prepared America for the risks and sacrifices that lay ahead; and he reminded the nation that "the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing."

What was true in 1962, holds true today. If the Commission’s findings don’t grab our attention, then what is happening in North Korea and Iran should. For the next missile launched from the Korean peninsula may not be a test.

It’s time to level with the American people and recognize that doing nothing is the greatest danger of all. 

1. General Henry H. Shelton, letter to Senator James Inhofe, August 24, 1998.

2. Senate Armed Services Committee, Report on S.1873, April 28, 1998.

3. Stephen Daggett and Robert Shuey, "National Missile Defense: Status of the Debate," CRS Report, July 10, 1998.

4. Richard Parker, "Tardy missile defense plan may leave US vulnerable," Knight Ridder Newpapers, January 7, 1999.

5. Paul Kaminski, Testimony before the House National Security Committee, March 6, 1997.

6. Fred Ikle, Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 13, 1998.

7. Senate Armed Services Committee, Report on S.1873, April 28, 1998.

8. Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, July 1998.

9. Steven Myers, "Missile Test by North Korea: Dark Omen for Washington," New York Times, September 1, 1998.

10. Sheryl WuDunn, "North Korea Fires Missile Over Japanese Territory," New York Times, September 1, 1998.

11. Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile to the United States.

12. Fred Ikle, Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 13, 1998.