Missile Wars
homethe threatthe technologythe strategydiscussion
the threat - is it real?

photo of missile defense sitephoto of congressional hearingphoto of barbed wire, old defense site

A ballistic missile armed with a nuclear or biological warhead could devastate a U.S. city. Should you worry? Experts assess the threat. Plus, a map and key documents.

Assessing the Threat related articles

In 1998, a bipartisan commission headed by Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, concluded that the ballistic missile threat to the U.S. was far greater than intelligence estimates had previously indicated. Those findings, which remain controversial, set in motion an accelerated push for national missile defense that continues today. The question in some minds, especially after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is whether the ballistic missile threat has been exaggerated, diverting attention from the threat of terrorism, which remains all too real. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with several players in this debate, including Paul Wolfowitz, Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Richard Garwin, Joseph Cirincione, and Gen. Eugene Habiger.

Map: The Missile Threat

China and Russia are the only countries known to possess ICBMs capable of threatening the United States. Yet U.S. intelligence sees a spectrum of emerging missile threats in the coming decade. This interactive map offers an overview of the major missile powers and the countries suspected of developing long-range ballistic missiles, along with information about each each country's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

Related Documents
National Intelligence Estimate 1995

The National Intelligence Council, which is made up of 13 intelligence agencies, released its 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in November 1995. It concluded that "no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states or Canada." Republicans charged that the NIE report had been leaked to help defeat missile defense and GOP leaders ordered that an outside panel examine the evidence. (See Gates Panel findings, below.)

Gates Panel Findings

The outside panel ordered to examine the NIE 95 intelligence findings, chaired by Robert Gates, deputy national security adviser and director of the CIA during the first Bush administration, issued its report in December 1996. Gates said that the report found that "the intelligence community has a strong case that for sound technical reasons, the United States is unlikely to face an indigenously developed and tested intercontinental ballistic missile threat from the Third World before 2010." Further, Gates said that there was "no breach of the integrity of the intelligence process."

Rumsfeld Commission Report

The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States issued its report on July 15, 1998, challenging the NIE 1995 findings. Donald Rumsfeld, who chaired the commission, said in congressional testimony, "This report says, unanimously, we need to assume that there may be no strategic warning about the development of a capability to hit the United States." Rumsfeld's commission concluded that a country like North Korea could deploy an ICBM "within about five years of a decision to develop" one.

National Intelligence Estimate 2001

In a National Intelligence Estimate from December 2001, titled "Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threats Through 2015," the intelligence community projected that "before 2015 the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from North Korea and Iran, and possibly from Iraq -- barring significant changes in their political orientations -- in addition to the longstanding missile forces of Russia and China."


home · the threat · the technology · the strategy · introduction · map
timeline · producer's chat · interviews · quiz: missile test · discussion
tapes & transcripts · press reaction · credits · privacy policy
FRONTLINE home · wgbh · pbsi

photograph © 1996 CORBIS; original image courtesy of NASA/CORBIS
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation