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Is There Really a Ballistic Missile Threat?

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 2001 – The United States is ready to spend billions on ballistic missile defense. The question many critics have is whether the threat warrants the investment.

"Right now some 28 countries have ballistic missiles, they are of different ranges, they have various warheads, they have various ways to launch them," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said recently. That number will only go up.

The threat exists, and Americans have been on the receiving end for almost 60 years. It started when the Nazis launched hundreds of V-2 rockets against Britain and Allied forces in Europe during the closing months of World War II. More recently, 28 Americans died and 98 others were wounded when an Iraqi Scud missile struck a barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Those weapons used conventional warheads, but future missiles could be tipped with weapons of mass destruction. Iraq had adapted some of its Scuds to carry chemical weapons and had started a nuclear weapons program before the Gulf War.

The idea of a country like Iraq with nuclear bombs shouldn't be startling. The technology and know-how behind the World War II atom bombs are 60 years old, so all any nation or party needs for a nuclear weapons program today are resources and the inclination. The image of a nuclear missile strike against the United States or U.S. forces, even with a primitive Hiroshima-type bomb, is as terrifying now as it was in 1945.

There are threats today that we know of. The point of missile defense is; we can't say with any certainty where the threats of the future will come from. A variety of states and groups continue to seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.

CIA Director George Tenet testified before Congress in February about the growing missile threat. "We continue to face ballistic missile threats from a variety of actors beyond Russia and China -- specifically, North Korea, probably Iran, and possibly Iraq," he said.

"In some cases, their programs are the result of indigenous technological development, and in other cases, they are the beneficiaries of direct foreign assistance," he continued. "While these emerging programs involve far fewer missiles with less accuracy, yield, survivability and reliability than those we faced during the Cold War, they still pose a threat to U.S. interests."

Three years ago, North Korea tested its Taepo Dong-1 rocket, which could be converted into an ICBM. The missile would be capable of delivering a small biological or chemical weapon to the U.S. mainland. The follow-on Taepo Dong-2 could deliver a nuclear payload to the United States.

Tenet said Iran has one of the largest and most capable ballistic missile programs in the Middle East. "(Iran's) public statements suggest that it plans to develop longer- range rockets for use in a space-launch program, but Tehran could follow the North Korean pattern and test an ICBM capable of delivering a light payload to the United States in the next few years," he said.

"And given the likelihood that Iraq continues its missile development work, we think that it, too, could develop an ICBM capability sometime in the next decade, assuming it received foreign assistance."

The ICBM threat is in the future. The threat from short- range and medium-range ballistic missiles is here now. Deployed U.S. forces must be able to defend against this threat. Iraq's Scud, North Korea's No-Dong missile, Iran's Shahab-3, Pakistan's Ghauri and the Indian Agni II could pose significant threats.

The countries themselves might not launch the missiles. Their sales of these technologies to others could pose risks in the future.

"Russian entities last year continued to supply a variety of ballistic missile-related goods and technical know-how to countries such as Iran, India, China and Libya," Tenet said. "Indeed, the transfer of ballistic missile technology from Russia to Iran was substantial last year, and in our judgment will continue to accelerate Iranian efforts to develop new missiles and to become self-sufficient in production."

In turn, Iran may sell its newfound expertise to a third party.

"Chinese missile-related technical assistance to foreign countries also has been significant over the years. Chinese help has enabled Pakistan to move rapidly toward serial production of solid-propellant missiles," Tenet said. "In addition to Pakistan, firms in China provided missile- related items, raw materials or other help to several countries of proliferation concern, including Iran, North Korea and Libya."

China has reiterated its commitment to curb sales of missile technology. "Based on what we know about China's past proliferation behavior, we are watching and analyzing carefully for any sign that Chinese entities may be acting against that commitment," Tenet said.

These countries are some of the known threats today. Where will the threat come from tomorrow? Rumsfeld has said U.S. strategy should be "capability-based" in the future. This means the United States should have the means to combat any threat, no matter what it is or where it originates. Further, U.S. research, development and testing should expand to include defenses against cruise missiles.

The threat posed by ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction exists and promises to intensify. Rumsfeld's repeated position is that the United States doing nothing to protect its population from such a threat could be tragically wrong.

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