The Rumsfeld Commission Report and US Missile Threat Perception

Kalpana Chittaranjan, Researcher, IDSA


In a briefing on January 20, 1999, US Defence Secretary William Cohen alongwith Army General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spelt out four points on the proposed deployment of a national missile defence (NMD) system for the country. First, he announced the budgetting of funds for the NMD programme, i.e., the allocation of additional funds to missile programmes and stated that the Clinton Administration was pledging $6.6 billion over five years to field such a system. The money announced was to build the missiles, radars and buildings that would comprise the system and this amount was in addition to $4 billion already allotted for research and development. A decision would be taken in June 2000 whether the necessary technological breakthroughs had been achieved and an assessment made on whether military threats still warranted construction of the system. Second, he affirmed that there was a growing threat that he expected would pose a danger to US troops both at home and abroad. He went on to add, "Our deployment readiness programme has had two key criteria that have to be satisfied before we could make a decision to deploy a limited national missile defense system. There must be a threat to warrant the deployment; and our NMD development must have proceeded sufficiently so that we are technologically able to proceed. What we are saying today is that we now expect the first criterion will soon be met, and technological readiness will be the primary remaining criterion."1 Third, Cohen talked about the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which imposes strict limitations on NMD. He said that an NMD deployment could require modifications to the treaty and that the Clinton Administration was working on determining the nature and scope of these modifications. The treaty would be amended if necessary. Otherwise, the USA would withdraw from the treaty if it was considered to be of supreme national interest.2 Fourth, Cohen said that the system could not be deployed until the year 2005, which was two years later than originally predicted because a workable missile system would still have to overcome daunting technological obstacles. Cohen's announcement reversed the Clinton Administration's long years of official scepticism about whether it was necessary or even possible to build a weapon that could detect and shoot down enemy missiles hurtling towards the USA.

Missile-related events in 1998 seemed to have brought about this reversal. In Cohen's words:3

"Last spring, a commission chaired by former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld provided a sobering analysis of the nature of the threat and of limitations on our ability to predict how rapidly it will change. Then on August 31st, North Korea launched a Taepo Dong I missile. The missile test demonstrated important aspects of intercontinental missile development, including multiple stage separation, and unexpectedly included the use of a third stage. The Taepo Dong I test was another, stronger indicator that the United States in fact will face a rogue nation missile threat to our homeland against which we will have to defend the American people."

The firing of Taepo Dong I in the last week of August 1998,4 Iran's launch of its 1,300 km range Shahab 3 missile in the third week of July and Pakistan's test launch of its 1,300 km range Ghauri (or Hatf 5) missile in the first week of April and the release of the unclassified summary of the Rumsfeld Commission Report(RCR) which had been Congressionally-mandated has brought to the fore in the USA a debate on the need for active defences against theatre ballistic missiles.5 When Iraq launched conventionally-armed missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, one of which struck a US barracks, which caused one quarter of US combat fatalities in the conflict, a strong consensus was forged that the country needed to actively defend itself against theatre ballistic missiles. While there is a consensus on theatre missile defence (TMD), the same cannot be said of NMD. The question that now confronts US policy makers is the threat imposed by missile proliferation and how best to deal with and counteract these threats.

The Rumsfeld Commission Report

Charter and Organisation

It was at the initiative of the Republicans in the US Congress who believed that a 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE-1995) had underestimated the ballistic missile threat to the United States that the Rumsfeld Commission was set up. The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (better known as the Rumsfeld Commission after its Chairman, the former Defence Secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld) was created by legislation in the Fiscal Year 1997. The Commission consisted of eight other members apart from the Chairman. While three of them, Lee Butler, Barry Blechman and Richard L. Garwin were nominated by the Democrats, the rest, i.e, Donald H. Rumsfeld, William R. Graham, William Schneider, Jr., Larry D. Welch, Paul D. Wolfowitz, and R. James Woolsey, were nominated by the Republicans. All the members were appointed by the Director of Central Intelligence, George J. Tenet. The mandate of the Commission was to assess the nature and magnitude of the existing and emerging ballistic missile threat to the United States. In carrying out its duties, the Commission received the cooperation of the Secretary of Defence, Director of Central Intelligence and officials responsible for providing it with analyses, briefings and other information necessary for the fulfillment of its responsibilities. The Commission had to submit a report to Congress on its findings and conclusion not later than six months after the date of its first meeting. Accordingly, the Commission met for the first time on January 14, 1998.6 The Commission was able to meet its deadline and on July 15, 1998, it delivered a 307-page classified report to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, together with two extensive classified appendices and one classified appendix. A 27-page unclassified executive summary (with 23 pages of attachments) was also produced.7 The full report includes discussions on a number of additional countries, such as Libya and Syria (which are not included in the Executive Summary) as also a discussion on the full range of supplier countries, particularly from the West, including the USA.

In preparing the report, the Commission examined the ballistic missile threat posed to the 50 states in the US. Its assessment included threats posed by ballistic missiles that were: deployed on the territory of a potentially hostile country ; launched from a surface vessel or submarine operating off the coasts of the USA or from an aircraft; deployed by a potentially hostile nation on the territory of a third party to reduce the range required of its ballistic missiles to strike the USA. The Commission examined: the potential of both existing and emerging powers to arm ballistic misiles with weapons of mass destruction— which included the domestic design, development and production of nuclear material and nuclear weapons as well as the potential for states to acquire, through clandestine or covert sale, transfer or theft, either technology, material or weapons; biological and chemical weapons programmes of the ballistic missile powers, as well as the potential means for delivering these agents by ballistic missiles. It also reviewed US collection and analysis capabilities to "gain an appreciation for the capability of the US Intelligence Community, today and into the future, to warn of the ballistic missile threat."

The threat posed to US territories or possessions or to US forward deployed forces, allies and "friends" was not examined in detail but a short discussion was presented. The cruise missile threat was not assessed by the Commission nor did it address in detail the impact of ballistic missile threats on US military strategy and doctrine.

Commission Findings

The Commission concluded that:8

"Concerted efforts by a number of overtly or potentially hostile nations to acquire ballistic misiles with biological or nuclear payloads pose a growing threat to the United States, its deployed forces and its friends and allies. These newer, developing threats in North Korea, Iran and Iraq are in addition to those still posed by the existing ballistic missile arsenals of Russia and China, nations with which we are not now in conflict but which remain in uncertain transitions. The newer ballistic missile-equipped nations' capabilities will not match those of US systems for accuracy or reliability. However, they would be able to inflict major destruction on the US within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the US might not be aware that such a decision has been made.

l The threat to the US posed by these emerging capabilities is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community.

l The intelligence community's ability to provide timely and accurate estimates of ballistic missile threats to the US is eroding. This erosion has roots both within and beyond the intelligence process itself. The community's capabilities in this area need to be strengthened in terms of both resources and methodology.

l The warning times the US can expect of new, threatening ballistic missile deployments are being reduced. Under some plausible scenarios—including re-basing or transfer of operational missiles, sea- and air-launch options, shortened development programmes that might include testing in a third country, or some combination of these—the US might well have little or no warning before operational deployment."

While evaluating Russia's and China's continuing capability to strike the US, the Commission did not consider these two countries as its enemies at present. It then evaluated North Korea, Iran and Iraq, countries with which the United States has had "serious security problems." The report also evaluated India and Pakistan "which are not hostile to the United States." It then summarised the situation by stating:9

"Ballistic missiles armed with WMD (weapons of mass destruction) payloads pose a strategic threat to the United States. This is not a distant threat. Characterizing foreign assistance as a wild card is both incorrect and misleading. Foreign assistance is pervasive, enabling, and often the preferred path to ballistic missile and WMD capability.

"A new strategic environment now gives emerging ballistic misile powers the capacity, through a combination of domestic development and foreign assistance, to acquire the means to strike the United States within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq). During several of those years, the United States might not be aware that such a decision has been made. Available alternative means of delivery can shorten the warning time of deployment nearly to zero

"Sea-launch of shorter-range ballistic missiles is another possibility. This could enable a country to pose a direct territorial threat to the United States sooner than it could by waiting to develop an ICBM for launch from its own territory. Sea-launching could also permit it to target a larger area of the United States than would a missile fired from its home territory. India is working on a sea-launch capability. Air-launch is another possible mode of delivering a shorter-range missile to US territory.

"All of the nations whose programs we examined that are developing long-range ballistic missiles have the option to arm these, as well as their shorter-range systems, with biological or chemical weapons. These weapons can take the form of bomblets as well as a single, large warhead."

CIA's Assessment of Ballistic Missile Threat to US

While the Rumsfeld Commission concluded that the United States may have "little or no warning" before facing an ICBM threat from so-called "rogue states" such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq, the CIA's NIE-1995 on the missile threat had concluded that such a missile threat from these countries was unlikely to materialise before 2010. The summary of NIE-1995 sums up the Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years in these words:10

"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 and Canada.

l Among Third World countries hostile to the United States, North Korea has the most advanced ballistic missile programme. One of its missiles in development, the Taepo Dong 2, is assessed to have a range of 4, 000 to 6,000 km. A 6,000-km range would be sufficient to strike portions of Alaska and the far western portion of the Hawaiian Island chain (more than 1,000 km west of Honolulu).

l North Korea is unlikely to obtain the technological capability to develop a longer range operational ICBM. North Korea would have to overcome significant hurdles to complete such a program, particularly given the political and economic uncertainties and technological challenges it faces. For such an ICBM, North Korea would have to develop new propulsion and improved guidance and control systems and conduct a flight test program. We have no evidence that Pyongang has begun or intends to begin such a programme, and we think we would detect propulsion system development.

"Ballistic missile programmes of other countries are focused on regional security concerns and are not expected to evolve into threats to North America during the period of this estimate.

l We have no evidence Iran wants to develop an ICBM. Even if Tehran wanted to, we assess that it would not be able to do so before 2010 because it lacks the economic resources and technological infrastructure.

l Iraq's ability to develop an ICBM is severely constrained by international sanctions and the intrusive UN inspections and monitoring regime. Should these programmes end, Baghdad could develop the technology and infrastructure necessary for an ICBM program. But even with substantial foreign assistance, it would require at least 15 years to develop an operational ICBM.

l Three countries not hostile to the United States—India, Israel and Japan—could develop ICBMs within as few as five years if they were motivated, but we judge that they are unlikely to make the necessary investment during the period of this estimate.

"We are likely to detect any indigenous long-range ballistic missile programme many years before deployment.

l Developmental flight-testing normally would provide a minimum of five years warning before deployment. We would probably see other indicators of an ICBM programme, particularly propulsion related development efforts, two to ten years before the first flight test —seven to fifteen years before deployment.

l Foreign assistance is a wild card that can sometimes permit a country to solve difficult developmental problems relatively quickly. Such external assistance can hinder our ability to predict how soon a system will become operational.

l Any country with a capability to produce space boosters could almost certainly use the same facilities and personnel to produce most ICBM components. However, a development programme for a space launch vehicle (SLV) by a potentially hostile state with nuclear ambitions would be a key indicator of a potential ICBM programme.

"We expect countries that currently have ICBMs will not sell them. Each of the countries either is a Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) member or has agreed to abide by its terms and recognizes that transfer of an intercontinental range missile would show blatant disregard for the regime. Also, countries probably would be concerned that any missiles sold might some day be turned against them.

"Similarly, we do not believe any country with space launch vehicles will sell them. Furthermore, if a country were to purchase an SLV, converting it to an ICBM would involve technological obstacles roughly as challenging as those involved in an indigenous ICBM programme.

"We see no indications, and think it unlikely, that any potentially hostile nation will develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles over the period of this estimate (Footnote 1: India is planning submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) with a 300-km range for deployment by 2010). Launching ballistic missiles from surface vessels or aircraft is so technically challenging as to be a highly unlikely approach."

Key aspects of the CIA's classified 1998 Annual Report to Congress on Foreign Missile Developments which were unveiled in a September 17, 1998, speech by Robert D. Walpole, National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear Programmes continued with the assessment that the ICBM threat to the United States from the "rogue states" was unlikely to materialise before 2010, with the possible exception of North Korea.11 While delivering his speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Walpole stated that the CIA report concluded that North Korea could deploy its 4, 000 - to 6, 000 kilometre-range Taepo Dong-2 in "a few years," which would place parts of Alaska and Hawaii within striking distance. Apart from the existing Russian and Chinese threat and beyond the North Korean threat, the report stated that it is "unlikely" that any country "will develop, produce, and deploy an ICBM capable of reaching any part of the United States over the next decade," even if given foreign assistance.12 Though Walpole affirmed that there are alternative scenarios under which a "rogue state" could acquire an ICBM capability sooner (as, for instance, through the purchase of complete systems), he said that the CIA viewed these scenarios as "unlikely". He went on to add that both the CIA and Rumsfeld Report agree on North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities, the importance of foreign assistance in the spread of missile technology, and that under some scenarios the warning time could be dramatically reduced. In their respective assessments of the Iraqi and Iranian missile threats, however, the reports differ. While the Rumsfeld Commission argued that Iran and North Korea are technically ahead of Iraq, the CIA believes that Baghdad is ahead in some respects as it has not lost its technological expertise since the Gulf War. In addition, while the Commission claimed that the North Korean and Iranian missile programmes are at the same level of maturity, the CIA stated that Iran's Shahab-3 is based on North Korean technology which was tested several years ago.

In December 1998, however, Walpole conceded in a Washington speech that the CIA had not anticipated North Korea's flight testing of a three-stage missile and on February 2, 1999, George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, told Congress that North Korea is on the verge of developing ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental United States. He said that in a review of threats to US national security, he had told the lawmakers that North Korea was working on a new generation of missiles that could soon "be able to deliver large payloads" to the continental United States. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Tenet stated, "I can hardly overstate my concern about North Korea. In nearly all respects, the situation there has become more volatile and unpredictable." Tenet's comments about the threats emanating from North Korea, is a turnaround by the US intelligence agency.13

NMD Mission and System

The Ballistic Missile Defence Organisation (BMDO), which is within the Department of Defence, is responsible for managing, directing, and executing the NMD programme apart from two others, i.e., the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) and advanced ballistic missile technologies. Before Cohen made his announcement of January 20 on the Clinton Administration's stand on the NMD, the programme itself consisted of the "3 + 3" programme which was designed to conduct three years of development and test activities, leading up to an integrated system test of the NMD elements in Fiscal Year 1999. If the threat at the time warranted, a decision to deploy could be made in 2000 to achieve operational capability in another three years (by the end of 2003). If, because the threat had not emerged, a deployment of the NMD system was not needed, the programme would continue to enhance the technology of each element and the concomitant capability of the NMD system that could be fielded on a later deployment schedule. The overarching goal of the "3 + 3" programme was to remain within a three year window of deployment so that an emerging threat could be effectively dealt with. The NMD programme of the Department of Defence consists of a fixed, land-based architecture. The integrated system test includes six fundamental building blocks: the ground based interceptor; ground based radar; upgraded early warning radars; forward based X-band radars; space based infrared system (SBIRS) and battle management, command, control and communications (BM/C3).14

Recent Developments

The North Korean Taepo Dong I missile launch over Japan on August 31, 1998, has bolstered initiatives in Japan and South Korea to augment their security. The United States and Japan announced on September 20, 1998 that the two countries would proceed with joint feasibility studies on theatre missile defence. The Japanese Defence Minister Fukushiro Nukaga announced on October 23 that the Japanese Defence Agency (JDA) would request about $8 billion for Japan's 1999 fiscal year to fund joint research with the USA. It has been reported that the JDA plans to spend about $175 million to $250 million on the joint research programme over the next five years.15

Meanwhile, on October 31, the United States agreed, in a memorandum which was signed by Israeli President Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and US President Bill Clinton in Washington, to help Israel counter any danger posed by ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The memorandum stated: "The two sides will establish a joint committee to decide on ways to implement the agreement....The United States government would view with particular gravity direct threats to Israel's security arising from the regional deployment of ballistic missiles of intermediate range or greater."16

On January 27, the Brookings Institution invited four panelists to address Defence Secretary Cohen's announcement on the US NMD programme and its implications for the ABM Treaty, Russian ratification of START II and further progress in reducing strategic nuclear arms. Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr., President and Executive Director of the Arms Control Association and former Deputy Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was of the view that Cohen's statement on NMD was a "most untimely and provocative announcement, I believe will have a serious, negative impact on US security, by further delaying, or even killing, prospects for further ratification of START II. This would delay further reductions in the large remaining Russian nuclear arsenal, which is after all the only threat existing to the survival of the United States, as unlikely as such a threat appears. I would remind all of us that the ABM Treaty and the SALT/START efforts to control and reduce nuclear arsenals, constitute a seamless web, drawing on a phrase from the past."17 Keeny noted that as far as ratification of START II by the Duma was concerned, Cohen's announcement could not have come at a worse time because after years of delay, the Duma had finally, in the closing months of the previous year, made a move to ratify START II,18 and the date had specifically been set for the last two weeks of 1998. One of the conditions for ratification was that US efforts to circumvent, violate, or terminate the ABM Treaty would constitute a basis for Russian withdrawal from the START II Treaty.19 Punitive attacks by the US on Iraq infuriatiated many factions within the Russian Duma who showed their displeasure by postponing without a further date the ratification of START II. However, they did leave it on the agenda, with a possibility that the Duma would return to the ratification process in the first half of this year, which, after Cohen's announcement, caused widespread indignation across the spectrum of political opinion in Russia, and the Duma has now called for a re-examination of the ratification of START II.

In an official reaction to Cohen's announcement, Russia made clear that it rejected any changes in the ABM Treaty when its Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov replied in the negative when asked if his country would consider altering the treaty. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, Head of the Russian Defence Ministry's international cooperation desk stated bluntly that cancelling the treaty would be a "violation of strategic stability."20 On the eve of a two-day visit to Moscow, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking to reporters stated that she believed that the Russians would sign START II when they "believed it was in their national interest". She said that she would explain to the Russians that the proposed NMD system would not be deployed until 2005 and was to defend the US against "rogue" states. "We have to deal with the threats of the day, not the previous day or tomorrow," she said.21

The arms control process in strategic nuclear weapons between the USA and Russia could be in severe jeopardy as pointed out by Pavel Podvig, affiliated with the Dolgoprudny Institute in Moscow, in a letter, "But if the United States persists in dismantling the ABM Treaty and START II and III do not take effect, in 10 years Russia could instead have an arsenal of some 4,000 warheads, a large portion of which would be deployed on MIRVed silo-based missiles. That's a high price to pay for a US national missile defense system."22



1. DoD News Briefing via Internet:

2. The ABM Treaty was signed between the USA and the Soviet Union on May 26, 1972. For a brief background to the treaty, see Kalpana Chittaranjan, "US and Russian TMD Systems and the ABM Treaty", Strategic Analysis, vol. XXI, no.10, January 1998, pp. 1455-1457 and Kalpana Chittaranjan, "The ABM Treaty and US NMD", Strategic Analysis, vol.XXII, no. 2, May 1998, pp. 209-211. The ABM Treaty provides for the right of withdrawal with six months notice if a party concludes it is in its supreme national interests to do so.

3. See n 1., and News Release, Cohen Announces Plan to Augment Missile Defense Programmes, via Internet: 1999/b01201999bt018-99.html.

4. While the United States and Japan described the launch of the TD-I as a "ballistic missile," the Noth Korean official media stated that it was actually a rocket carrying a missile.

5. Theatre ballistic missiles have been defined as those with a range of 3,500 km or less.

6. Richard L Garwin, "What We Did," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol.54, no.6, November/December 1998, p

7. Ibid. The unclassified executive summary of the Rumsfeld Commission can be found at the Federation of American Scientists' web site (

8. See unclassified Executive Summary of the Rumsfeld Commission Report at website given at Ibid.

9. n.6.

10. See DCI National Intelligence Estimate, President's Summary, Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years via Internet:

11. Craig Cerniello, "CIA Holds to Assessment of Ballistic Missile Threat to US," Ams Control Today, October 1998, via Internent

12. Ibid. Robert D. Walpole's speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on September 17, 1998, can be downloaded from website http://www.odci-gov/cia/public affairs/speeches/walpole speech 091798.html.

13. James Risen, "CIA Sees a North Korean Missile Threat," The New York Times, February 3, 1999.

14. See BMDO's National Missile Defence Programme; downloaded from website http://www.acq.osd.nil/bmdo/bmdolink/html/nmd.html.

15. Howard Diamond, "US, North Korea Meet on Missiles; Japan, S. Korea Press on Defense," Arms Control Today, n.11.

16. The Washington Post, November 1, 1998

17. Panel speaking on "National Missile Defense, the ABM Treaty and the Future of START II," January 27, 1999, the Brookings Institution via Internet:

18. For a background and understanding of the START process, see Kalpana Chittaranjan, "START II/III: Duma Holds the Key," Strategic Analysis, vol.XXII, no.7, October 1998, pp. 1031-1043 and Kalpana Chittaranjan, "The START Process: Status and Challenges," Strategic Analysis, vol.XXI, no.11, February 1998, pp. 1703-1718.

19. The ABM Treaty, which was signed on May 26, 1972, between the USA and Soviet Union, was amended in a Protocol in 1974 and entered into force in May 1976. The treaty banned nationwide defences against ballistic missiles and was intended to prevent the development of an offence/defence arms race. It was designed to prevent either side from building a nationwide or "territorial" defence against strategic ballistic missiles through a series of quantitative and qualitative limits on development, testing, and deployment of ABM systems and components. The USA and the Soviet Union were allowed two 100-interceptor ABM sites, one to defend the national capital and the other to defend an ICBM field. The 1974 Protocol reduced the number of permitted sites to one—this could be either the national capital or an ICBM field.

20. Daniel Williams, "Russia Rejects Changes to ABM Treaty," Washington Post, Jauary 23, 1999.

21. Jane Perlez, "Albright Seeks to Reassure Moscow on 'Star Wars' Plan," The New York Times, January 25, 1999.

22. The Washington Post, February 6, 1999.