The Missile Threat: Who Has What and Where Did They Get It?

Remarks at the Conference on Transatlantic Cooperation on Missile Defense

Aspen Institute Berlin
Rome, Italy

It is a pleasure and an honor to discuss missile defense before this expert and distinguished audience. I know that many of you, from knowledgeable posts in industry, government and academia, have given this subject careful thought for a long time.

I have been asked to describe the world wide missile threat. The first point I would like to make is historical: long range missiles have been developed to carry nuclear weapons. They don’t make sense for use with conventional weapons. A country is not going to spend the money to develop a 5,000-mile or 5,000-kilometer missile to knock down a building with high explosives. A long-range missile has to be considered a nuclear weapon. Look at the countries that have developed or are developing such missiles – they are the seven declared nuclear weapons states, which include the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, together with India and Pakistan. They also include Israel, North Korea, and Iran. Iran’s efforts to build a long-range missile should tell us something about its nuclear program. The point, for missile defense, is that when we are talking about long-range missiles, missile defense is nuclear defense.

My second point has to do with the difference between nuclear defense and nuclear deterrence, when looked at in terms of capability. First, how confident can we be in deterrence? If Russia or China or North Korea should attack the United States with a nuclear missile, how confident can we be that such a country would be destroyed in retaliation? While there may be a question about whether we would have the will to retaliate, there is not much question about our ability. It would be close to 100%.

How confident can we be in defense? It is never going to be anything like it is for deterrence. Stopping fifty percent of the “incomings” would be a big success. Now, one could say that it would not matter, because by definition, in the event of an attack, deterrence will have failed, and a 50% capability to defend is better than nothing. But the fact remains that we are never going to be as confident in our ability to defend as in our ability to retaliate. We’ll never be able to say: “Fire away, we will defend against all your missiles.” But we can say: “If you launch against us, you will be destroyed.” This means that we are going to have to continue to rely on deterrence to protect us from missile attack. Any missile defense initiative must accept this basic fact.

Third, what about 9/11? The attacks on that day were a demonstration model of what happens when deterrence and defense both fail. If you can put together a 19-person team capable of flying an airliner into an office building, you can put together a team capable of smuggling a nuclear weapon into the United States. Say North Korea has two nuclear weapons made from plutonium acquired in past years, plus five more from plutonium separated in 2003 while America was busy invading Iraq. If North Korea wanted to strike the United Sates, would it load the plutonium on a missile and fire it at the West Coast, or would it send it in with a team? A launch would invite retaliation, while a team might not if there were uncertainty regarding its origins. The team would also have higher targeting accuracy.

However we may feel about these “scenarios,” the point remains that 9/11 demonstrates a vulnerability that may not be covered by either deterrence or defense, and certainly is not covered by missile defense. Low-tech delivery is a viable alternative to long-range missiles. Moreover, long-range missiles need to be tested, and testing would be watched. This is a real restraint on both North Korea and Iran.

Leaving aside a 9/11 type attack and just looking at missiles, what is the nuclear threat today? South Asia is perhaps the most likely place in the world for nuclear war. India and Pakistan can both target each other with nuclear missiles. Pakistan has a series of solid-fuel missiles imported from China, plus a liquid-fuel missile imported from North Korea. It has a compact nuclear warhead design that will fit on either. India has a series of liquid-fuel missiles based on a Soviet surface-to-air missile and a solid-fuel missile developed by copying the U.S. “Scout” space launcher and by receiving help in guidance technology from the German Space Agency.

The United States, by the way, was instrumental in starting up both the Indian and Pakistani rocket programs in the 1960’s. NASA hosted teams from both countries at the Wallops Island launch site, near Washington, D.C. India’s leading rocket scientist saw the U.S. “Scout” rocket launched and, after getting the blueprints from NASA, proceeded to build an exact copy in India. This rocket became the basis for India’s present “Agni” nuclear missile. NASA officials told me that they even planned for Indian and Pakistani teams to bunk together in the same barracks. NASA was surprised when that did not work out.

Both India’s and Pakistan’s missile programs have been built entirely with imports, and the same is true of the nuclear programs that have furnished their payloads. Without imports, neither country would be a nuclear or missile threat today.

North Korea has developed a series of liquid-fuel rockets, which were reverse-engineered from the Soviet SCUD series. It flight-tested a missile in 1998 known as the Taepo Dong-I, which had two stages that operated successfully. The Taepo-Dong-I probably has twice the range of its predecessor, the 1,000 kilometer No Dong. North Korea is also developing larger rocket engines, which may one day be capable of reaching the United States. However, it is unlikely that they would be able to hit any particular target in the United States without further testing of the missile’s guidance system. And testing could of course be observed by the whole world.

North Korea has been serving as an off-shore development and production site for countries that want missiles. Buyers get the missile production technology and sometimes the first production run of missiles. The buyers have included Iran, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Libya. North Korea’s imports are not as well known as its exports. Japan appears to be a significant helper. Its firms supplied steel for rocket bodies and – according to press reports and a defector – guidance components.

Iran is building long-range missiles at the same time that it is building nuclear plants. Its missile effort shows the intention to furnish nuclear warheads as payload. Iran already has the medium-range North Korean No Dong and may be developing a 2,000-km range missile based on the Soviet SS-4. In addition to North Korea, Iran’s biggest helpers have been Russian companies. Russians have supplied Iran with materials, components, designs, expertise and training. China has also sold Iran missile components and ingredients for missile fuel.

Iran’s missile program has been entirely imported, and to stop it or slow it down, the remedy must be found in Russia and China. Like all the other missile programs I’ve mentioned, it is an international export control problem.

China has a fleet of about 20 liquid-fuel ICBMs that can reach the United States. China is also a proliferator of missile technology. Last year, CIA director George Tenet testified to Congress that Chinese firms “remain key suppliers of missile-related technologies to Pakistan, Iran and several other countries.” Despite the fact that Chinese missiles threaten the United States and despite the fact that China continues to be a missile proliferator, China can still import missile- and nuclear-related items from the United States. Several Chinese companies that have been sanctioned by the United States for missile proliferation are still free to buy U.S. goods, either for themselves or through an affiliate.

For example, CATIC (China Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation) was sanctioned last year by the U.S. government for helping Iran, and in 1999 it was indicted for diverting American machine tools to a Chinese cruise missile and military aircraft plant. The machine tools had helped produce the B-1 bomber and the MX missile. Despite these violations, the U.S. Commerce Department sponsored an export license for CATIC’s sister company in 2000 for the same kind of machine tool that CATIC was indicted for diverting. The point is that the parent organization, Aviation Industries of China, was not really burdened by the earlier indictment. It could just order the same tools through another subsidiary.

Similarly, China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation was sanctioned last year for helping Iran and in the 1990’s for helping Pakistan. Neither it nor CATIC is on the Commerce Department’s watch list of dangerous companies in China, nor are a number of other repeat offenders. These companies can buy high-performance computers, machine tools and other sensitive items from U.S. companies, so long as the equipment performs just below the level controlled for export. This level has now become very high as a result of the fact that export controls have been greatly relaxed since the end of the cold war. It would be a simple matter to put these companies on the watch list so they could not import anything of significance without a license. But that has not happened because the United States is interested in trade.

So, the missile threat today did not come about all by itself. It had lots of help from lots of places, including the United States. One way to slow it down is better export control. I hope that when the distinguished participants in this conference next have occasion to deal with export control issues, they will push hard to incorporate stronger controls and not weaker ones.