Index The Garwin Archive


November/December 1998
Vol. 54, No. 6

What we did

By Richard L. Garwin


Earlier this year I served as one of the nine members of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, created by legislation in the Fiscal Year 1997 National Defense Appropriations Act and chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Six of the members were nominated by the Republican leadership of the Congress and three-Lee Butler, Barry Blechman, and I-by the Democratic leadership. All were then appointed by Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet. The commission met for the first time January 14, and we were to provide a report within six months.

We met our deadline. On July 15, we delivered a 307-page classified report to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, together with two extensive classified appendices and one unclassified appendix. We also produced a 27-page unclassified executive summary (with 23 pages of attachments), which can be found at the Federation of American Scientists' web site (

The report created a stir. It was enthusiastically received by congressional and think-tank hardliners, who believe the United States must deploy a national ballistic missile defense system soon. Meanwhile, many in the arms control community were dismayed. How could a panel with at least some supposedly reasonable people have handed such potent ammunition to the hardliners? The answer is that analysis of the threat should be clearly differentiated from analysis of the response to that threat.

Insofar as the Rumsfeld report is concerned, it should-and must-be regarded as neutral regarding missile defenses. The commissioners simply did not consider whether deploying the national ballistic missile system as currently conceived represented wisdom or folly. Presumably, some of the commissioners would favor such a system. Others-and that assuredly includes me-would not.

The assessment

The commission was asked to "assess the nature and magnitude of the existing and emerging ballistic missile threat to the United States," which we interpreted as a mandate to examine the threats posed by ballistic missiles deployed on the territory of a potentially hostile state, launched from a surface vessel or submarine operating off the coasts of the United States or from an aircraft, or deployed on the territory of a third party.

We considered only ballistic missiles armed with nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads. (We gave little weight to the latter, however, in view of the hundred- or thousand-fold greater mass of chemical agent required to equal the damage done by a bioweapon attack on an unprotected population.) We also limited "threats to the United States" to the 50 states. We did not assess threats to U.S. forces deployed abroad, or to embassies, friends, or allies.

In fulfilling our charter, we tried to provide a bit of context so that the ballistic missile threat would not be seen in total isolation. But other nuclear or biological threats, such as those posed by cruise missiles, smuggled weapons, or actions by domestic terrorists, also present substantial problems of assessment. We did not assess their relative importance.

The panel was not asked to look at possible responses to the missile threat, which would of course include the feasibility of a national ballistic missile defense system. To have done so would have greatly diluted the effort of assessing the threat itself-and it would have been impossible to do within the six months Congress had given us.

Regarding the missile threat, the commission concluded:

  • "Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces, and its friends and allies. These newer and developing threats in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are in addition to those still posed by the existing ballistic missile arsenals of Russia and China, nations with which we are not now in conflict but which remain in uncertain transitions. The newer ballistic missile-equipped nations' capabilities will not match those of U.S. systems for accuracy or reliability. However, they would be able to inflict major destruction on the [United States] within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the [United States] might not be aware that such a decision had been made."
  • "The threat . . . posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature, and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community."
  • "The intelligence community's ability to provide timely and accurate estimates of ballistic missile threats to the [United States] is eroding. This erosion has roots both within and beyond the intelligence process itself. The community's capabilities in this area need to be strengthened in terms of both resources and methodology."
  • "The warning times the [United States] can expect of new threatening ballistic missile deployments are being reduced. Under some plausible scenarios-including re-basing or transfer of operational missiles, sea- and air-launch options, shortened development programs that might include testing in a third country, or some combination of these-the [United States] might well have little or no warning before operational deployment."

Given that assessment, the commissioners unanimously recommended that "U.S. analyses, practices, and policies that depend on expectations of extended warning of deployment be reviewed and, as appropriate, revised to reflect the reality of an environment in which there may be little or no warning."

Beyond NIE 1995

The commission was established largely because some members of Congress were dissatisfied with the National Intelligence Estimate presented to the president in November 1995 (NIE 1995). Their discontent arose in many cases from the fact that the NIE did not provide a rationale for the immediate deployment of a national missile defense, which many "knew" to be feasible and in the U.S. security interest. Titled "Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years," the NIE concluded that "no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile threat in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada."

Much has been made of the differences between our judgment and that of NIE 1995, but the differences are more apparent than real. The Rumsfeld commission did not say that an ICBM threat to the United States from Iraq, Iran, or North Korea would actually emerge in the next five years or less (10 years in the case of Iraq). We simply judged that these nations have the capacity to develop ballistic missiles if they assign a sufficiently high priority to their missile programs, fund them fully, and make good use of foreign assistance.

Further, the 1995 Intelligence Estimate was based largely on data from the 1980s and early 1990s. In contrast, the commission benefited by having access to three additional years of observation.

We were impressed, for instance, by the degree of interaction between North Korea and Iran and North Korea and Pakistan in the development of ballistic missiles. We were also impressed by a key difference between their programs and early U.S. and Soviet programs: Countries that want long-range missiles do not have to reinvent the wheel. The United States and Russia had to break new ground in every detail in developing missiles and guidance systems, but potential missile powers can take advantage of a great deal of knowledge that is either public or can be obtained clandestinely. For instance, North Korea apparently flight-tested the No Dong missile just once, in 1993, and deployed and sold substantial numbers of them without further tests.

The commission, however, did take issue with the estimate on at least two key points. NIE 1995 suggested that the intelligence community would begin picking up indications of a new ICBM program seven to 15 years before deployment. As already noted, the commission believed that assumption was far too optimistic. Our models of missile development did not require five years between a flight test and deployment.

The 1995 estimate also described foreign assistance as a "wild card that can sometimes permit a country to solve difficult developmental problems relatively quickly." The commissioners did not disagree; in fact, we concluded that far from being a "wild card," foreign assistance is a given.

The NIE also asserted that "launching ballistic missiles from surface vessels or aircraft is so technically challenging as to be a highly unlikely approach." The commission flatly disagreed with this judgment.

The modus operandi

I had known some of my fellow commissioners well, but Chairman Rumsfeld not at all. I was soon most favorably impressed with him. His performance was eminently fair and energetic. He paid enormous attention to detail and insisted that every word in the report be reviewed and agreed to by each commissioner.

Early on, we discussed the question of footnotes and decided that they would be permitted, but that it would be best if any particular footnote were agreed to by at least two commissioners. In the end, we found that unanimity was not difficult, and no footnotes were ever submitted. Each member of the commission spoke for himself and not for any constituency. We soon enjoyed the full support of the intelligence community, which provided hundreds of briefings and access to documents and other material.

We did not gather all the facts and then ask what they meant. Rather, we asked what would be required in the 1990s to have a program to acquire long-range missiles or ICBMs, and what facts supported or negated such a hypothesis. We commissioned studies to see what would be needed to develop ICBMs that resembled early Soviet or U.S. types, whose development would need to pass through the gate of a successful flight test of a two- or three-stage missile.

"Not a distant threat"

The Rumsfeld commission evaluated Russia and China's continuing capability to strike the United States, although they are not now our enemies. Then we went on to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, states with which the United States has serious security problems, and then to Pakistan and India, which are not hostile to the United States. We summarized the situation in this way:

"Ballistic missiles armed with WMD [weapons of mass destruction] payloads pose a strategic threat to the United States. This is not a distant threat. Characterizing foreign assistance as a wild card is both incorrect and misleading. Foreign assistance is pervasive, enabling, and often the preferred path to ballistic missile and WMD capability.

"A new strategic environment now gives emerging ballistic missile powers the capacity, through a combination of domestic development and foreign assistance, to acquire the means to strike the [United States] within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the [United States] might not be aware that such a decision had been made. Available alternative means of delivery can shorten the warning time of deployment nearly to zero."

The commission further noted: "Sea launch of shorter-range ballistic missiles is another possibility. This could enable a country to pose a direct territorial threat to the [United States] sooner than it could by waiting to develop an ICBM for launch from its own territory. Sea-launching could also permit it to target a larger area of the [United States] than would a missile fired from its home territory. India is working on a sea-launch capability. Air launch is another possible mode of delivering a shorter-range missile to U.S. territory."

The commission also said: "All of the nations whose programs we examined that are developing long-range ballistic missiles have the option to arm these, as well as their shorter-range systems, with biological or chemical weapons. These weapons can take the form of bomblets as well as a single, large warhead."

A leaky shield

The commission's report immediately energized advocates of a nationwide anti-ballistic missile system. "Armed with the substance of this report," the Wall Street Journal editorialized, Congress "has a stronger political case for the more urgent development of missile defenses."

William Safire, a columnist for the New York Times, concluded that the "United States no longer has the luxury of several years to put up a missile defense, as we complacently believed. If we do not decide now to deploy a rudimentary shield, we run the risk of Iran or North Korea or Libya building or buying the weapon that will enable it to get the drop on us."

But, as I indicated in a New York Times op-ed published a few days after Safire's piece, even the potential ballistic missile threat is not a reason to deploy the national missile defense system now under development.

Specifically, ballistic missiles intended to cause damage to the United States are not likely to have nuclear warheads. Biological weapons are simpler to make. As for dispersal, soon after the end of a missile's boost phase, a bioweapon payload could separate into individual bomblets, each with its own heat shield. The bomblets could fall in a pattern perhaps 20 kilometers across, thus maximizing the destructive effects of the strike. These bomblets could be fused to burst following their relatively gentle impact on the ground. The national missile defense system now under development would have no capability at all against this threat.

Similarly, the defense system now being developed would have little value against an ICBM equipped with a nuclear warhead. A nation capable of producing a nuclear warhead and an ICBM could easily add countermeasures that would defeat a missile defense system. For example, a nuclear warhead could be fitted with a large enclosing balloon that would inflate in the vacuum of space after the warhead had separated from the rocket. If the proposed national missile defense system worked at all, its interceptor would strike the balloon, not the warhead.

(The warhead might be packed in a balloon of folded or crumpled aluminized mylar similar to that used for decorative balloons containing helium or air. A single balloon, 100 feet in diameter, might weigh about 30 kilograms and could be inflated rapidly in the vacuum of space with about 0.3 kilograms of gas-creating a gargantuan but gentle air bag. Another simple and reliable countermeasure might use some 20 balloons, each only 10 feet in diameter. Each would provide a separate aim point, exhausting the supply of interceptors.)

A short-range ship-launched ballistic missile (or cruise missile) would not even be seen by the proposed national missile defense system. Further, for a hostile nation truly interested in causing serious damage to the United States with biological or nuclear weapons, it would be far less costly to bring a nuclear weapon into a harbor aboard a ship, or to disseminate biological agents through a variety of other techniques.

Deterrence is an important tool

The United States is not helpless in the face of the long-range ballistic missile threat, however. Developing an ICBM requires a test of staging, because it would be impossible to develop a single-stage missile that could strike even Alaska or Hawaii from, say, North Korea. U.S. infrared-sensing satellites-long in operation-would report such a test. While the test should not lead the United States to deploy an anti-ballistic missile defense system since the defenses under consideration are readily bypassed, it would ensure that the country engaging in tests of two- or three-stage missiles would be made the target of U.S. strategic weaponry and the development of plans for a non-nuclear preemptive strike to prevent the launch of such missiles in time of crisis. That country should understand that developing a missile that could strike the United States is not in its security interests.

Perhaps some nations would not make that judgment. But any use of a ballistic missile capability would certainly result in a devastating response by the United States, probably with nuclear weapons. Targets would likely include much of the country's conventional military capability, not just its strategic or nuclear weaponry. Deterrence would also operate against an attack on the United States by ship-launched ballistic or cruise missiles. Still, deterrence might not work perfectly.

Therefore, it might be wise to consider the possibility of countering a future ICBM threat from North Korea. North Korea is a small country; missile trajectories to Japan must pass over the North Korean coast, and missiles heading for the United States would have to be launched no more than 400 kilometers from the coast. Rockets in their boost phase could be vulnerable to interceptors launched from U.S. ships in international waters.

A unilateral deployment of such interceptors is forbidden by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, but one could imagine a joint U.S-Russian agreement covering a limited deployment. Or the two countries might agree to create a new U.S.-Russian "test range" in the area, to supplement U.S. test ranges at White Sands, New Mexico, and Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, and the Russian test ranges near Sary Shagan in Kazakhstan and at Kamchatka. The Russian territory just north of North Korea (from Vladivostok south) would be an ideal location for boost-phase intercept of North Korean missiles on their way to the United States.

Personal accountability

The national ballistic missile defense system now under development will not provide the protection its enthusiasts predict. It is only human to imagine that such a large program will solve the problem of destruction of a few ICBMs or even of the Russian ICBM force. But it won't--because of the availability of simple countermeasures.

Meanwhile, the dollars spent on a national missile defense system are urgently needed for other purposes, ranging from equipping U.S. and allied troops for passive defense against biological and chemical weapons to the improvement of theater missile defenses against ballistic missiles armed with conventional high-explosive warheads.

Beyond that, it is essential that the United States and the United Nations move ahead with a serious effort to establish that any violation of the Biological Weapons Convention or the Chemical Weapons Convention will be taken seriously by the international community, and that actual use of biological or chemical weapons will result in a serious international military response-and not only from those against whom those weapons are used.

It is also important to criminalize individual activity on biological or chemical weapons programs, so that anyone who knowingly works on such an illegal program, launches such a weapon, or orders its use is personally subject to prosecution-by an international criminal court or any other jurisdiction-as is the case now with piracy. This would substantially reduce the threat, although it clearly would not handle cases in which a despot forced people to work on a program by threatening their death or that of their families. Nor would it fully prevent the use of biological weapons in a holy war. But it would help.


It is true, as the aphorism has it, that "occasionally it is necessary to take the enemy into account." Time and again, however, the armed services or defense contractors propose weapon systems that work only if the enemy will cooperate fully.

I have observed and participated in programs for the defense of the United States against ballistic missiles since the mid-1950s. As a member of the Strategic Military Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee, I met two days a month for a decade or more with civilian leaders, military personnel, and contractors for various ABM proposals ranging from Nike Zeus to Sentinel and Safeguard. There were also specialized systems-a modified Hawk for defending Minuteman silos, and several others-to which I contributed or which I evaluated. I participated in the analysis and evaluation of the 1972 ABM Treaty and I was later involved in an extensive effort to evaluate the SDI program and to try to make it work.

Some of the ballistic missile defense systems proposed for deployment have been exquisitely vulnerable to the destruction of key elements of the system. Others could be readily defeated by tactics or other countermeasures. For instance, without going into detail, ICBMs that burned out in 100 seconds instead of the more typical 250 seconds could have totally defeated the crucial boost-phase intercept element of SDI-even if one assumes that all other components of the program would have worked.

Yet the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) maintained that fast-burn ICBMs would have unacceptable performance penalties, and therefore would not be built. Only a special panel of the American Physical Society on the "Science and Technology of Directed Energy Weapons" under Kumar Patel and Nicolaas Bloembergen (laser physicists from Bell Labs and Harvard, respectively, who led a body including knowledgeable officials of government laboratories) could elicit from contractors a straightforward analysis showing that the "unacceptable penalty" would be on the order of five percent of payload.

Similarly, SDIO dismissed the early release of submunitions by theater ballistic missiles loaded with chemical or biological agents, or with fragmentation bomblets. It would be, the Star Warriors said, a technical feat difficult to achieve.

In reality, it is simpler to dispense these munitions from a rack in the missile on the way up than it is to try to disseminate a biological or chemical agent on the way down. SDIO just could not handle the problem of submunitions and preferred to define it out of existence.

Similarly, the Army Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command, charged with conducting some space experiments on countermeasures, was extremely reluctant to look at the use of an enveloping balloon.

The leaders of the effort to develop a national ballistic missile defense system are not properly informed by their subordinates of the vulnerabilities and deficiencies of the system under development. Given that, how can we expect decision-makers above them to make proper judgments on these matters? If we are going to have to counter ballistic missiles, it is essential that we understand the capabilities of the defense, as well as those of the threat.

If the Rumsfeld commission spent another six months looking at the capability of the proposed national missile defense system against the threats that we have identified, I believe that we would come to a similarly uniform conclusion-that it would not be technically effective.

Our central message, however, was unanimous: If a nation wants to, it can develop long-range ballistic missiles more quickly and with greater secrecy than the intelligence community had previously reported.

Richard Garwin is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an IBM fellow emeritus. He chairs the Arms Control Advisory Committee for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He has worked extensively with the U.S. government since 1950 on military and civil technology, and on technology policy, national security, and arms control. In 1996 he received both the government's Enrico Fermi Award and the intelligence community's R.V. Jones Award for Scientifc Intelligence.