Missile Wars
homethe threatthe technologythe strategydiscussion

A ballistic missile armed with a nuclear or biological warhead could devastate a U.S. city. Should you worry? 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: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who served on the 1998 Rumsfeld commission; Gen. Eugene Habiger, former commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; physicist Richard Garwin, who served on the Rumsfeld commision; Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board; and Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

read the interview

Deputy secretary of defense in President George W. Bush's administration, he is the former dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Someone once said that history has more imagination than all the scenario writers in the Pentagon, and we have a lot of scenario writers here. No one ever wrote a scenario for commercial airliners crashing into the World Trade Center. I think it's a mistake to believe that we can precisely tailor things according to what we think ahead of time is rational, what a country might do.

What we know -- and we know absolutely, it's not speculation, it's not scenario writing -- is that countries with very limited resources, like North Korea, are sinking a large part of their national treasure into being able to attack the United States in this way. I think it's incumbent on us to deny them that capability. ...

We're most concerned about it with countries where the basic rationality of the leaders is in doubt. But it makes no sense whatsoever -- in an era when technology allows us to take away that ability to attack us with a single missile or a few missiles -- to leave ourselves vulnerable to that threat. It might have been something we had to live with during an earlier period. We don't have to live with it now, and we shouldn't. ...

I'd like to take you back to the Rumsfeld commission [in 1998] ... and the role of the commission in reassessing this threat, and basically redefining it. ... Don't you think that the Rumsfeld commission essentially took a worst-case view toward the ballistic-missile threat?

No. Absolutely not. In fact, one of the striking things about the Rumsfeld commission, which was a nine-member commission, is it was picked to be very bipartisan. I believe it was five Republicans and four Democrats. A number of the Democrats particularly -- and even one of the Republicans -- were long known to be skeptics about missile defense, and there was no consensus among this group about what the answers were.

But at the end of months of very intensive work, we came to a unanimity that the threat was real, that it was much bigger than I think any of us had conceived going in. There were several reasons for it, but the principle reason was, in fact, that there was a level of cooperation among these bad actors that was something we just weren't used to. ...

North Korea is out selling its dangerous technology to anyone who wants to spend the money to buy it. We see collaboration among a variety of countries. So the notion that they're dependent only on their indigenous technology to develop, which had been the basis of the previous assessments, was simply wrong. ...

One of the contentious aspects of the Rumsfeld commission was that it said that a nation could possibly deploy an ICBM in such a short period of time that it might not be detected in time by American intelligence. ... General Shelton, speaking more or less on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called this an unlikely development. Do you really think an adversary could deploy an ICBM capability without the intelligence community picking up on it?

... Let's keep all this in context. It takes us a very long time to develop the counters to these people. ... It may take five, ten years to develop that capability against ICBMs. We're well on the way to doing it, but we can't wait until one morning we wake up and someone says, "The Iranians are two years away from an ICBM. Let's develop a defense against it." ...

[We hear] consistently that if weapons of mass destruction are used in the United States, they're likely to be deployed by other means than a ballistic missile, [such as terrorism]. Didn't your commitment to missile defense divert [attention] from these other threats that face the United States, in terms of resources and energy?

I don't think so at all. If we want to talk about the CIA's ability to forecast threats, obviously nobody, including at the CIA, estimated what suicide hijackers might do. I think it's a mistake to believe that we can predict or focus on one threat and ignore others. There's no question, if we build capable defenses against ballistic missiles, that's not the way people will attack us. They'll attack us with cruise missiles, they'll attack us through terrorists. That's not a reason to ignore terrorists or to ignore cruise missiles. We need to look at the whole thing in a balanced way. ...

If it were so obviously a useless thing to do, then I'd have to ask the question, why are the North Koreans sinking a large fraction of their limited national treasure in it? Why are the Iranians putting so many resources into it? Why is Saddam Hussein putting such an effort into it? In fact, it is a very real threat. ...

Related Feature

Related Links

read the interview

Commander of U.S. strategic nuclear forces, 1996-1998.

Would it be possible for [a rogue] state to develop such a missile without our knowing about it?



Because they'd have to test it. Remember, every time they test a missile or they fire off a missile, we know about it. You can't hide the infrared plume that's generated from a missile. You just can't do that. ... If you look at the rogue states like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria -- we would know about those tests within, as I said, tens of minutes and within tens of feet as to where that missile went off. ...

If I were asked how to kill millions of people in the United States, I certainly would not recommend an ICBM. It is too expensive. It is very vulnerable to other people finding out about your program. The probability of a successful missile launch and everything working perfectly on that missile -- from the engine to the mid-course correction, to the separation of the warhead, to the guidance system that is going to get that warhead within hundreds of feet -- the probability of all those things working well even on missiles that have been around, and very sophisticated missiles in the United States and the Russian inventory, that didn't occur just overnight. It took years and years of development and testing and the application of technology.

I guarantee you rogue states don't have that capability, and will not have it for tens and tens of years.

So how do you explain the rush to deploy this national missile defense system now?

It defies me. I have no logical explanation.


It is not a small task for any country -- whether you're talking about the United States or former Soviet Union, China, Great Britain, France -- to build an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. They're very difficult to maintain in terms of getting them in place. ...

[And] there's a big difference between a nuclear device and a nuclear weapon. ... As we've gone through the debate about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and rogue states with missiles, there's a great leap of faith between being able to build a missile and being able to build a nuclear warhead to go on that missile that can survive the temperature extremes, the G-loading, the fusing requirements, the vibration. These are not easy things to overcome, and it took us many, many years. ...

But I think the argument that makes this whole issue of rogue states getting nuclear weapons come down to a very simple premise is as follows. If any nation -- whether it's India, Pakistan, Russia -- launches a missile, we have satellites in geo-synchronous orbit that will tell us within tens of seconds to within tens of meters of where that missile was launched. I mean, there is a spotlight on that missile launch, so that our decision makers are going to know exactly where that missile came from. Now, it doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense for a rogue state, for example, that wanted to make a political statement or a socioeconomic statement or a religious statement, to launch a missile.

If I were the military advisor to a Saddam Hussein or the leader of North Korea, and they wanted to know how best to inflict great pain on the United States, a missile would be the last thing I'd recommend. There are tens of thousands of Conex containers -- these metal containers that come into the United States on cargo ships every day, tens of thousands -- and all you have to do is build a nuclear device. You don't have to worry about the G-forces, the vibration, the fusing, all the things that we talked about. You build a nuclear device with a remote control trigger on it, and when that Conex container gets into lower Manhattan, you set it off.

How do you protect against that? You can't. It's cheap. It's relatively easy to do. And, oh, by the way, you don't have that postage stamp on it saying exactly where it came from. ...

There are no simple ICBMs. There are no inexpensive ICBMs. There are very simple nuclear devices, inexpensive nuclear devices that can be built. As I said, the probability is far greater for that happen. ... Surely there are rogue states out there that at some point in the future would have the capability, the technology, and perhaps even the resources to build a missile that could reach the United States. But there are far easier ways to inflict that same damage. ...

Since 1985, the United States has spent over $65 billion on Star Wars and national missile defense -- $65 billion. We spent $45 billion for the B-2 bomber, but at least we got 21 bombers out of that investment. But we've received absolutely nothing for that $65 billion.

The ranges of cost that I've seen coming down the pike for a national missile defense system, on the low-ball side, which I think is very unrealistic, is an additional hundred billion dollars; the high side, upwards of $300 billion. Can we, as a nation, as we're fully engaged in the war on terrorism, afford an additional $200 billion on a very unlikely threat?

What's your answer to that?

Doesn't make any sense. Should not be doing it. I think former Senator Sam Nunn has said it best: National missile defense has become a theology in the United States, not a technology. ...

read the interview

Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, he is a member of the Defense Policy Board, an influential group of advisers to the Pentagon.

There was a plank, if you will, in the Contract with America about national missile defense. What was that, and how did that become a part of the contract?

I think a number of us have been very, very worried, as you look at more and more countries getting nuclear weapons and getting ballistic missiles, and as you watch the North Korean program, for example, that the United States could not stop a single warhead from a single missile that could eliminate an entire city. So a number of us who are very concerned about defense decided in 1994 that that was a very important issue to bring to the American people about their safety and the risks that they face.

It seems that by that time, as someone described it to me, national missile defense had become almost a litmus test among Republicans, specifically.

It's almost as much of a litmus test among Democrats to be against it. I mean, it's a very strange phenomena that you have an objective reality -- countries like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, others, [who] are trying to get weapons of mass destruction and trying to get ballistic missiles and spending a lot of money on it, [and] it's a fact that if they fired one of those missiles, you could literally not stop it today -- so it's odd to me that it would be a litmus test.

I think people who are very concerned about national defense in either party ought to be concerned about how would you stop a North Korean missile or an Iraqi or an Iranian missile. I don't think it should necessarily be a political issue.

But it inevitably is.

It became one, and I frankly don't understand why. I don't know whether it was the left's hostility to Ronald Reagan and the fact that he proposed it, or what it was. But I think it's unfortunate that it became an issue in that sense. ...

Let's talk about the Rumsfeld commission. What was its mandate? How was now-Secretary Rumsfeld chosen to head it?

... The Rumsfeld commission was a bipartisan commission. It was a true miracle that they came up with the unanimous agreement. Their job was to review all the information available to the American intelligence agencies, go to such outside sources as they thought appropriate, and then reach a summary judgment about whether or not in fact there was a serious missile threat to the United States.

They discovered two big fallacies in the way in which the intelligence agencies had operated in 1995. The first was that the classifications were so tight, you'd have people who knew pieces of the story who couldn't talk to other people who knew pieces of the story. Once the Rumsfeld commission had been through enough rooms, when they would get them back in a room and say, "Now, gee, if you knew A and B, would that change how you think about C and D?" And they'd suddenly go, "Wow, if that was true, I'd give you a totally different response." They said over and over that was happening.

The second [big fallacy] was they raised this question of international arms sales and said, now, if you're going to look at the availability of weapons in the world market -- not at the ability of a country's own national economy -- how much would that change the timeframe? That collapsed all the estimates. I mean, at that point, the agency said, the truth is, if you have the money, there's probably somebody willing to sell to you. We could be faced with a breakout in a matter of a year or two from when a country gets access. That's not 15 years; it could literally be a year or two.

Describe to me the reaction when this report was released.

I think it was a very big bombshell, because Rumsfeld had correctly focused on making it totally bipartisan. So you had people like Dick Garwin who don't necessarily favor national missile defense, but who said [that], on the merit of the questions they'd been asked, this was factually true -- that the dangers were greater than we thought, would come faster than we thought, and that we needed to rethink how we did our intelligence estimates.

Even for an awful lot of Democrats, that was a very sobering report. I sense that the debate shifted very significantly among people who pay attention to this stuff afterwards. For most Americans, prior to Sept. 11, the world still wasn't dangerous. But I think that for sophisticated Americans who care about national security, they were more worried after the Rumsfeld commission than they had been before. ...

I thought Rumsfeld was very shrewd to recognize that he needed a bipartisan report, and that he needed to limit the questions to the ones that you could get a significant answer to, because those were frankly a big break from the conventional wisdom, the day before he reported it. I mean, he had moved the debate a long way without getting into the next question, which is, if this is all true, what do you do about it?

But remember, you're in a very different debate, if you go back to 1995, when people on the left were saying, "Well, there isn't a threat. We won't have a threat for 15 years. Why would you do this now?" After the Rumsfeld commission, it was now a debate over how you respond to the threat, and Garwin would respond differently. But it's no longer a question among most people about whether or not there's a threat. The question is, what do you do about it?

So the intelligence community includes people on the left, when you're talking about 1995?

There's no question, in 1995, in my judgment, they were responding to a desire on the left for the right answer; and the right answer was, there's no threat. ...

read the interview

A physicist who helped build America's hydrogen bomb, he served on the 1998 Rumsfeld commission to assess the ballistic-missile threat. He was the only technical expert on the commission.

Did the Rumsfeld commission ... look at the capabilities of national missile defense?

No, the Rumsfeld commission didn't look at all at defense capabilities, and we neither advocated nor argued against missile defense. And we say so in our report. We say that we considered only the threat. We didn't consider the defense at all.

... After the release of that report, you wrote that you were alarmed at how the report was being used by the proponents of national missile defense.

Oh, I am continually alarmed and astonished, not only at the proponents of national missile defense. ... But it's the press for the most part which says the Rumsfeld report advocated missile defense. And in fact, I finally got The New York Times to publish a correction because ... two of its reporters wrote an article saying that the Rumsfeld report had advocated missile defense. ...

It's just that it's cited as the reason for building a missile defense, and I believe that was also the reason that the Rumsfeld Commission was created, because the advocates of missile defense in the Congress said, what we need is somebody who will endorse the threat against which we can build a missile defense and then our cause will be advanced.

And so we did the best we could with our limited charter and we said, yes, indeed, these countries could, within five years if they had a well-financed program and external technical support from missile powers and high priority on their program, they could have an ICBM which would be unreliable, inaccurate, and very few, within five years or so. ...

It's already four years since 1998 [when the report was released]. ... In 1999 the CIA has said that they were expecting North Korea to launch the Taepo Dong II, which would be a true ICBM that could carry a reasonable payload to the United States. But North Korea didn't do that and now they have a moratorium on missile launches. ...

Do you think ... that there was a political spin put on this report?

... We had an agreement with Newt Gingrich that he would not say that the report had advocated defense. And we had an agreement in the Senate, too. And they stuck to it. Now other people said, well, the threat exists, we must proceed with the defense. But I must say that the Congress was pretty good in not attributing to the commission advocacy of defense. ...

One of the key criticisms [of the report] is that essentially in assessing the threat, the terms were changed from what is likely to happen to what could happen, might happen, possibly happen. How do you respond to that? Is that a fair criticism?

We were, I think, quite precise in our report. We said we're not saying what's likely to happen. We're saying what could happen. ... We looked all over for threats and we found these three [North Korea, Iran, and Iraq]. ... And we said, if they had a highly supported program ... with foreign technology, then they could do this.

Now you have to ask, is it likely that North Korea will get its act together, this bankrupt country? Or that Iraq or Iran -- which have a lot more money but ... do not have as good a missile industry as North Korea -- will be able to do that? And you can say perhaps we should have said, well, it's possible but not likely. ...

But the report is what it says it is. ... Now would we say that proponents of missile defense were happy with the report? Yes, they were very happy with the report.

read the interview

Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an influential group of advisers to the Pentagon, he served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1987.

[In] November 1994, when the Republican Party wins the Congress in a landslide, national missile defense was a part of the plank, the platform, that the party ran on. ...

By 1994, with the Soviet Union no longer in existence, the question of a limited defense against threats that were then emerging -- the Iraqis, the Libyans, the North Koreans, and potentially others -- those threats were becoming real. The prospect existed, and still exists, that ultimately there will be some dozens of nuclear powers, and many of them will have ballistic missiles; may not be tomorrow, but it's certainly going to happen in 10 or 20 years, or 30 years, 40 years.

If we leave ourselves without any defense, we will become vulnerable to an increasingly large number of states. That means putting a great deal of confidence in the behavior of those states; and by definition, they will be states that have made an enormous investment, sacrificed things that most people hold valuable, in order to achieve those weapons.

Some of us think it's just prudent to be able to counter those. ...

read the interview

Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 1985 to 1991, he served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee.

Richard Perle once said that democracies have to be frightened into spending what is necessary for missile defense. I honestly believe there is a conscious effort to exaggerate the threat that we face, in order to justify particular weapon systems. That is, people believe these weapon systems are necessary; but in order to gin up popular support for them, they exaggerate the threat that we face. This has had some very unfortunate consequences.

Let me tell you something: I think the proponents of missile defense have a lot to answer for in terms of why we were so unprepared for Sept. 11. When you look at the threat assessments that have been done in recent years and the congressional action in recent years, almost all of it has been focused on the threat of ballistic missile attack.

Even when the heads of our intelligence agencies would come to Congress, as they did in February 2001, and say that their greatest concern was the threat of a terrorist attack against the United States or United States' interests that might result in mass casualties, or they were concerned deeply about unrest in the Middle East, the political agenda was skewed in another direction. The Bush administration continued to focus on the ballistic missile threat. Most of our diplomatic assets were focused on winning allied and Russian agreement to the deployment of [a] ballistic missile defense system. ...

And still, we're spending $8 billion a year on missile defense. None of that money has been reallocated. I think the proponents of missile defense have done a real national disservice. They have been crying wolf about missiles for decades, and they have sucked billions in defense dollars out of other needed programs towards this illusion of missile defense. More importantly, [they] have diverted us from the real threats that we face.


[The push for missile defense] ... really comes from the ideologues, from the political forces who see this as a useful technique to attack the other party or to push a larger agenda. ...

Newt Gingrich, then a leading member in the House of Representatives, in his effort to enhance Republican election prospects in 1994, formed the Contract with America. The Contract with America had 10 points. The only defense point in the Contract was on national missile defense.

So when that tactic succeeded, when the Republicans regained control of the House and the Senate, they came in with a sense of commitment and a sense of mission to revive national missile defense, and they did it brilliantly. Because they now controlled Congress, they did it with tremendous effort, incessantly having hearing after hearing on national missile defense, attacking the threat estimates. The threat estimates were then that there wouldn't be a long-range ballistic threat to the United States for 10 or 15 years. They attacked those as being politically manipulated by the White House.

They formed panel after panel to come up with an alternative threat assessment, and finally got one in 1998 when the Rumsfeld commission, a blue-ribbon panel headed by now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, came out with a threat assessment that finally the Republicans in Congress liked. It said that a ballistic missile attack could be imminent, that a country could develop a long-range missile and deploy with little or no warning.

So it raised the specter of fear, of uncertainty, of unknown, of threats coming from anywhere at anytime; if that was your threat, well, who wouldn't want a national missile defense to protect us from that? So by 1998, we had another leap forward in the drive for missile defense. The Congress had been jumping the appropriations year after year. By the time President Clinton left office, we were spending about $5 billion on missile defense. When President Bush came in, he jumped that to $8 billion, making it the largest single weapons program in the defense budget. ...

You've written that the United States is mostly protected by the oceans.

The U.S. is fortunately surrounded by oceans. For another country to hit us with a ballistic missile, they have to build one that can span those oceans. That means they have to have one that goes over 5,000 miles. That's very hard to do. Most countries that have missiles only have missiles that can go less than 600 miles.

There are, for example, approximately 35 countries in the world with missiles. Twenty-four of them only have these short-range missiles, missiles that go under 600 [miles]. In fact, 21 of them only have missiles that can go under 300 miles -- just these Scud-type missiles. So even though you think there's a large number of countries with missiles, most of them can't reach us at all.

Right now, the only countries that could hit the United States with a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile are Russia, which has thousands of warheads on such missiles, and China, which has 20. That's it. There's nobody else. Worst-case scenario, sometime in the next 10 years North Korea develops a medium-range missile that it has, puts a third stage on, and lofts a warhead to the United States. That's the worst case. That's what the Central Intelligence Agency projects as the worst case. ... If you can strike a deal with North Korea, and they're willing to talk -- and I think they're willing to deal -- you can eliminate their missile program in exchange for food aid and diplomatic recognition.

If you do that, you've largely solved your missile proliferation problem; not completely, but largely. Why? Because Pakistan's program and Iran's program depend on North Korean exports. You dry up that well, you cripple those other two programs. Then all you have left are concerns about whether India's program is going to export missile technology or not (and so far, they haven't); whether Iraq could ever reconstitute its missile program (but without external aid, they don't have much chance of that); and whether Israel, for some reason, would export their technology (but they probably won't).

And that's it. That's your missile threat. It seems much easier to resolve it by these targeted diplomatic and export control methods than by trying to build some impenetrable shield that can protect every square inch of America from an attack from anywhere at anytime. ...

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