The Pentagon’s 2013 Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat Assessment: Why There’s No Need to Panic

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s (NASIC) 2013 “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat” assessment, issued on July 11, is likely to cause some consternation within the US national security community. While the press has focused primarily on the Pentagon’s assertions about the Chinese nuclear program (according to the report, China “has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world,” and the number of its warheads capable of reaching the US could grow to “well over 100 within the next 15 years”), the report also contains a few ominous-sounding claims about North Korean and Iranian missile capabilities. Specifically, it states that:

•    “North Korea has unveiled the new road-mobile Hwasong-13 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)...”

•    “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”

At first blush, not exactly the most-optimistic assessment. However, before you head off to Home Depot to gather materials for your backyard bomb shelter, let’s keep a few things in mind:

North Korea

The Pentagon report mentions North Korea’s road-mobile ICBM, the Hwasong-13 (also known as the KN-08 ). This weapon made its first appearance at a North Korea military parade in April 2012, and immediately sparked an intense debate among arms control experts over whether the series of missiles on display were real, fake, or somewhere in-between. The Pentagon’s threat assessment seems to indicate that North Korea is, in fact, developing some kind of road-mobile ICBM, though it does not reveal much in the way of specifics (the nature of its propellant, how many warheads could fit on each missile, etc).

However, at this point, any fears that North Korea may now be capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles at the continental US are misplaced. As The Washington Times points out, the report’s authors include the caveat that the Hwasong-13 has yet to be flight-tested, making it highly unlikely that the missile is actually operational. Even if it was, North Korea would still need a miniaturized nuclear warhead capable of fitting atop an ICBM, a capability that it does not currently have (yes, the Defense Intelligence Agency claimed in April 2013 that North Korea had developed miniaturization capabilities, but that claim has not been endorsed by any other US or South Korean intelligence agencies, and, as the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann has pointed out, the DIA’s assertion was followed by insistences from the Defense Department and the director of National Intelligence that the DIA report did not represent “a consensus view of the US government”).

Iran

In addition, the report claims that, by 2015, “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” The key word in that assertion is “could.” As Arms Control Wonk's Jeffrey Lewis pointed out in 2010, when used in context of threat assessments, “could” typically translates into nothing more than “estimatese…for ‘not likely.’” So, while variants of “Iran Could Have ICBM By 2015” may make for sexy headlines (see here, here, and here), the reality is that the prospect of Tehran obtaining ICBM capabilities, while theoretically possible, is far from likely. In fact, such doubts were raised in a December 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service, which argued that the possibility of an Iranian ICBM test by 2015 was “increasingly uncertain.”

Implications for the Debate on Missile Defense

In the coming weeks, the Pentagon’s report will almost certainly be seized-upon by supporters of the US missile defense system, which has had, shall we say, a bit of a rough month. Indeed, House Republican Michael Turner wasted no time in highlighting the Pentagon’s assessment as evidence of a need for more missile defense funding, declaring that, “For too long the Obama administration has allowed our missile program to languish when they should have been working to prepare for these imminent threats.”

Few would disagree with Rep. Turner’s argument that the US needs to take steps to prepare for the threats posed by hypothetical North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles. However, one must question why, exactly, Rep. Turner feels that they best way to accomplish this is by pouring millions of more dollars to drastically expand a system that has had only three successful intercepts in its last ten tests, a record made even more troubling by the fact that the system’s three “successes” have all occurred under optimum test conditions that would never occur in the context of an actual military exchange.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

An additional point of interest from this report concerns Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty. Since the treaty was signed in 1987, Russia has periodically been accused of violating its treaty obligations, most recently in June 2013, when reports circulated that Moscow had constructed and tested a type of missile banned under the terms of the INF Treaty. However, NASIC’s threat assessment flatly refutes claims of Russian noncompliance, asserting that Moscow does not “produce or retain” any weapons systems banned under the INF Treaty. Similarly, the State Department’s 2013 Arms Control Compliance Report, released on July 12, does not contain any allegations suggesting that Russia is failing to observe the terms of the treaty.   Therefore, fears that Moscow has been surreptitiously amassing an arsenal of banned missiles appear to be unfounded.