The United States recently tested a missile defense system. The interceptor from Vandenberg USAF base in California smashed into a target launched from Alaska in a demonstration of the technological prowess of U.S. industry. A message was sent to North Korea that any rocket launched at Los Angeles is going to be destroyed — in other words, that nuclear blackmail is off the table.
The test also gave impetus to deploying a defense in Europe against Iranian rockets. However, before the microscopic dust from the test had settled on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, the critics came forward belittling the system, claiming in one instance that there was no threat to address. The Center for Defense Information (CDI), published an assessment of missile-defense test failures.
But the analysis asserted that there is no need for a missile defense against Iranian or North Korean rockets because both are no threat to either the United States or our European allies.
Monitoring the threat from ballistic missiles is “one of the most important missions for the intelligence community in the post-Cold War world” according to a 1999 statement from Robert Walpole, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs. But in making its assertion, CDI made no reference to missile threat assessments from our intelligence community.
According to Mr. Walpole, the 1995 National Intelligence Estimate [NIE] said North Korea “could flight test an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] by the year 2000,” and that the “ballistic missile threat that we face is serious; it’s growing.” In 1998, a North Korean missile test included “an unanticipated third stage” which surprised the intelligence community and provided confirmation that Pyongyang “was pursuing an ICBM.”
The NIE estimated that the North Korean rockets could deliver a 1,000-kilogram payload some 4,000 to 6,000 kilometers (in other words, approximately 2,500 to 3,800 miles.) That means it could “reach Alaska, Hawaii, with this large payload,” Mr. Walpole said. In addition, a successful third stage would give North Korea the capability of reaching the “rest of the United States with smaller payloads.”
According to Mr. Walpole, the 1998 North Korean Taepodong rocket launch “served as a wake-up call.” It proved the central assertion of the Rumsfeld commission report on missile threats to the United States, which came out in 1998. The report underscored that “it is possible for a country with a well-based Scud [missile] technology infrastructure to develop an ICBM in five years.”
As Mr. Walpole said of the report: “I can’t disagree with that.” Furthermore, he warned, foreign assistance was becoming fundamental to the ballistic missile threat, not only for the North Korean rockets but specifically for the Iranian Shahab-3 ballistic missile. In addition, the sale of such ballistic missiles could occur with little or no warning.
According to current intelligence reports, the North Korean government transferred to Tehran the BM-25 ballistic missile, along with launchers. The weapons have a range of 3.400 kilometers, which gives Iran the capability of striking targets throughout Europe. This missile transfer underscores the correctness of Mr. Walpole’s 1999 assessment and highlights the current threat we face from both Pyongyang and Tehran. In addition, the reported transfer of nuclear material from North Korea to Syria (aboard a freighter whose cargo was labeled “cement” and could very well have been destined for Iran) underscores the hazards facing the United States and allies if we listen to the critics and their belittling of the threats now so obvious to the American public.
The United States previously failed to begin the deployment of a missile defense of the American continent because past national leaders remained wedded to mutual assured destruction (MAD). They reasoned that the policy worked with the former Soviet Union, and wondered what could be wrong with the same embrace of the mullahs in Tehran and the Soprano government in Pyongyang. Thus it was the Clinton administration helped “cook the books” by withholding the 1995 threat assessments from “key judgments” submitted to Congress.
A little history lesson is instructive. These same critics failed to support President Reagan’s deployment of missiles in Europe and the United States, the Pershings, Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles and Peacekeepers, when fielding a continental U.S. missile defense was prohibited by the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted from this prudent policy of peace through strength, requiring tough decisions by a strong U.S. president.
In 2002, President Bush eliminated the stranglehold of the ABM treaty, and the United States moved to begin the deployment of a layered, global missile defense to protect the American people, our allies and friends abroad. Coupled with a continued strong deterrent, America is becoming safer as we move forward in the 21st century.
Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis.