Intelligence Estimate Upgrades Chinese, Iranian Missile Threats

By Wagner, Alex | Arms Control Today, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Intelligence Estimate Upgrades Chinese, Iranian Missile Threats


Wagner, Alex, Arms Control Today


ON JANUARY 9, the intelligence community released an unclassified summary of its 2001 report on foreign ballistic missile developments through 2015.

In general, the report differs little from the last public National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), issued in 1999, but the new estimate upgrades the threat posed by the Chinese and Iranian missile programs and indicates that terrorists with weapons of mass destruction pose a greater threat to the United States than ballistic missiles.

The estimate emphasizes that the United States is "more likely" to be attacked by weapons of mass destruction delivered by "nonmissile" means rather than by ballistic missiles and that a terrorist is the "most likely" actor to carry out such an attack. The report is the first intelligence estimate to reach such a conclusion, although Robert Walpole, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, made the same assessment during February 2000 testimony to Congress on the 1999 estimate.

The new report says China's nucleararmed ICBM arsenal will increasingly threaten the United States, judging that by 2015, Beijing could have between "75-100 long-range warheads deployed primarily against the United States." The 1999 estimate said that China is likely to have tens of [single-warhead] missiles capable of targeting the United States" by 2015.

The estimate notes that a Chinese decision to deploy multiple warheads and missile defense countermeasures on its ICBMs "would be factors in the ultimate size of the force." Citing China's attempt to develop "a modern, more survivable strategic deterrent," the report also states that Beijing is currently developing an 8,000-kilometer road-mobile DF-31, a longer-range DF-31, and a JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).

By 2015, Beijing could have "about two dozen shorter range DF-31 and DF-4 ICBMs that could reach parts of the United States," according to the NIE, although the DF-4's 5,500-kilometer range would only allow it to target remote parts of Alaska. At present, China deploys approximately 20 single-warhead DF-5A ICBMs, which have a range of 13,000 kilometers and are the only Chinese missiles currently capable of reaching the United States.

The intelligence community has also upgraded the potential threat posed by Iran's ballistic missiles. While the previous estimate said that the United States will "probably" face an ICBM threat from Iran by 2015, the new report says that the United States is "most likely" to encounter such a threat by that time. However, one agency, reportedly the State Department, deems it "unlikely" that Iran will successfully test an ICBM by 2015.

According to the report, Iran's 1,300kilometer Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) is "in the late stages of development," despite the fact that Tehran's most recent flight test of the Shahab-3 in September 2000 is believed to have failed. (See ACT, October 2000.)

The NIE includes new sections on India and Pakistan, augmenting the scant details provided in the 1999 report. …

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