Click here to login if you're an NAE Member
Recover Your Account Information
Author: Hans Mark
The United States needs a strong, effective missile defense system to meet the threats and uncertainties that lie ahead.
In the past three years, very significant progress has been made on the development of defenses against ballistic missiles. A number of systems have been tested successfully, and it has been established that "hit-to-kill" technology is feasible. By this I mean that we have shown it is possible to intercept an incoming warhead with a kill vehicle carried by an antiballistic missile (ABM). This has been achieved with several different systems employing, in some cases, different technologies. We have also demonstrated for the first time that a high-power laser is capable of shooting down tactical ballistic missiles. My purpose in writing this paper is to step back and take an overall look at the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), starting with the threats and then turning to military considerations. Finally, I will comment on the programmatic situation. The BMDO is seriously underfunded. My hope is that the recommendations in this paper will be useful in persuading the political leadership to provide the support necessary to a working system that can be deployed in the coming years.
I have divided the military threats into three categories: near-term threats (the next 10 to 15 years); far-term threats (the next 15 to 30 years); and other threats (less likely threats that still should be considered). The threats are listed in no particular order of priority.
Near-Term Threats (10 to 15 years)
North Korea could pose a threat to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and other territories in the neighborhood with short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that have been tested. The North Koreans have also probably developed nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads that can be carried by these missiles. To the best of my knowledge, these have not been tested.
China could pose a threat to Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and other territories in the neighborhood with short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that have been tested. China has also tested nuclear weapons that can be carried by these missiles and probably has chemical and biological weapons. The Chinese could also pose a threat to Russia, India, Pakistan, and the Middle East with these weapons. Finally, the Chinese have tested a long-range missile that could eventually threaten the United States. However, in my judgment, threats from China are politically less likely than from some of the others listed in this section.
The Middle East. Israel has nuclear weapons and probably also chemical and biological weapons. Israel also has the means to deliver the weapons over the ranges compatible with the distances of likely enemies (up to 1,000 miles). Iraq has some ballistic missiles acquired from the Soviets and modified to increase their range. Iraq used ballistic missiles in combat in 1991 against both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Iraq's program to develop nuclear weapons was probably within 18 months of producing enough weapons-grade uranium-235 to manufacture a few nuclear weapons when the facilities were destroyed following the Gulf War. Iraq also used chemical weapons in combat against Iran and probably has the capability of manufacturing biological weapons. In short, Iraq remains the most dangerous threat to other countries in the Middle East as well as the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Iran has short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles acquired from China and probably nuclear-weapons-grade fuels and nuclear weapons components acquired from the states of the former Soviet Union. In my judgment, Iran is the most likely nation to test nuclear weapons in the next 10 to 15 years. Iranian weapons and delivery systems could pose a threat to Israel and Eastern Europe in the near term. Over the years, Syria and Libya have both harbored ambitions of acquiring nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their delivery systems. Both were client states of the Soviet Union, but neither has the indigenous capability of manufacturing or maintaining advanced, complex weapons systems. Both countries have exhibited aggressive intentions in the past, but probably neither is capable of implementing them now. Algeria, although not strictly in the Middle East, is a large and capable country that could become a threat if a radical Moslem fundamentalist government is installed. Egypt could also become a threat if the successor to President Hosni Mubarak changes the policy of peace with Israel. In my judgment, this is not likely, and Egypt will continue to be a stabilizing influence in the Middle East.
India and Pakistan. Both of these nations have tested nuclear explosives, and both are capable of weaponizing them-in fact, they may already have done so. Both also probably have the ability to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. Both nations have ballistic missiles that can deliver these weapons over a range of 2,000 to 3,000 miles. Pakistan's missiles were obtained from China or North Korea; India has the indigenous capability of developing and manufacturing long-range ballistic missiles. India and Pakistan have developed these weapons because they fear each other. At the present time, neither nation seems to be a threat to other nations in the neighborhood. An open question is what would happen if India and Pakistan used nuclear weapons against each other. Would the United States have to intervene to stop further nuclear exchanges? Would the potential deployment of ABM weapons by the United States neutralize the threat of nuclear weapons being used by other nations against each other in the near term? Even though neither of these nations constitutes an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, we must think about that possibility.
Far-Term Threats (15 to 30 years)
Russia. Russia remains the most serious threat to the United States because it is still the only nation in the world that can destroy the United States with a surprise nuclear strike. I have listed Russia as a long-term threat because, for the foreseeable future (10 to 15 years), Russia's political priorities will probably be focused on internal development.
China. China presently has the capability of delivering single-warhead nuclear weapons over intercontinental distances. In all probability, China will not be a near-term threat to the United States for various political reasons. However, in the long term, China must be considered an increasing nuclear threat to the United States.
A number of other nations around the world have the technical capability of developing nuclear explosives and the ballistic missiles to deliver them but have not done so for various reasons. Among these are Japan, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Brazil, and possibly a few others. In the next 15 to 30 years, alliances and politics could shift, however, and a complete reversal is at least possible. Thus, the possibility of weapons proliferation to these nations should be considered. All of the nations listed above, as well as many others, also have the capability of developing chemical and biological weapons. Thus, in the long term, we must consider the proliferation of these weapons around the world. Hence the development of appropriate defenses becomes even more important.
Other Means of Delivery
Many people believe that there are easier and less expensive ways of delivering nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons than ballistic missiles. Aircraft, trucks, ships, and even trains are all possible means of delivery. So-called "suitcase" bombs can "easily" be hand carried. Similar means of delivery are even more effective for chemical and biological weapons. My first answer has always been that, if it is indeed easier to deliver these weapons by other means, why do all nations-even smaller nations such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan-that are developing or trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability also acquire ballistic missiles in one way or another. To my mind, the answer has always been very clear: A ballistic missile is the only means of delivery against which there is no workable defense. Once a missile is properly launched, the laws of physics guarantee that it will get close enough to its target to inflict serious damage. In the case of a very expensive and probably scarce weapon, such as a nuclear bomb, the certainty that the weapon will get to its target must be a major factor in the mind of any military commander.
All other delivery systems are less certain. Airplanes would be next on the list of priorities for delivery systems. But most nations have some kind of air defense system, which might create uncertainty in the mind of someone with a small number of weapons to expend. In my judgment, the U.S. air defense system is not as good as it should be. In fact, for a long time I have advocated improving our defenses against intrusions into our air space by unauthorized aircraft to discourage a rogue state or a terrorist group from expending a very valuable weapon. A comprehensive air defense system could be designed in a way that would also improve our air traffic control system.
Delivery of nuclear weapons by ship or by truck is possible, of course, but could be substantially hindered by careful inspection of incoming cargoes, which would create uncertainty in the minds of the people attempting to "import" weapons into the country. Finally, suitcase bombs are very hard to produce-only a very sophisticated design would be small enough to carry the bomb. A suitcase bomb would also be quite radioactive, so it would be relatively easy to detect.
Chemical and biological weapons would obviously be easier to smuggle into the country. However, in light of past experience, their effects would probably be much less devastating than the detonation of a nuclear explosive.
Response to the Threats
I have spent considerable time and space discussing threats because an ABM program must be structured to deal with them. The general principles that govern our thinking about the program should combine what we think we know about the threats and the technical means available to deal with them. Here are the three most important principles: