Washington, 4 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recently released report says several countries, including North Korea, Iran, China and Russia, are secretly building and testing ballistic missiles underground, posing a serious threat to U.S. national security.
The report was written by a U.S. congressionally-appointed commission to assess the current ballistic missile threat against the U.S.
Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. defense secretary and chairman of the commission, says countries such as Iran and North Korea are making "extensive use of the underground construction," enabling them to develop, store and even launch ballistic weapons from hidden silos.
One hearing on the matter has already been held by the U.S. House of Representatives National Security Committee. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee met in closed session Wednesday to further discuss the security implications of the report.
Rumsfeld warns in the report that the underground silos are causing serious U.S. "intelligence gaps" since they are largely undetectable by current spy satellites and air surveillance. He says new intelligence methods would have to be developed in order to prevent the erosion of America's ability to effectively monitor weapons proliferation around the world.
Earlier this year, U.S. intelligence officials were caught unaware when Pakistan tested a medium-range missile from an underground facility. Just last week, Iran conducted an unexpected flight test of a ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, with a range of about 1,300 kilometers and capable of striking Israel and Turkey, among other countries.
However, it is clear in the report that what worries U.S. officials most is that the intermediate-range missiles being developed and tested are capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological warheads.
U.S. Air Force General Howell Estes, director of the Space Command and commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told reporters on Wednesday that one possible solution to the problem is the development of space-based weapons to counter such an attack.
Estes says the U.S. Department of Defense is already studying the feasibility of space weapons and their possible deployment. He says that he isn't an advocate of going to space with such weapons "right now," but adds: "I'm also smart enough to know that it's a possibility, and we sure want to be there ready to do what's necessary."
In the report, the commission wrote that North Korea and Iran were in all probability only five years away from developing long-range ballistic missiles that could reach the United States. Iraq is within about ten years of achieving such a capability, the commission added.
The report also determined that the warning times the U.S. can expect of new, threatening ballistic missile deployments are being reduced. Under certain scenarios, such as sea and air launches, shorter development times and testing in a third country, the report says the U.S. might well have "little or no warning before an operational deployment."
In regards to Russia, the report says that the likelihood of a deliberate missile attack on the U.S. from Russia has "lessened greatly" since the end of the Cold War, but cannot be entirely eliminated for a number of reasons, including political and economic instability, as well as the deterioration of Russian military equipment.
The report explains: "The Russian ballistic missile early warning system and nuclear command and control system have also been affected by aging and delays in planned modernization. In the context of a crisis growing out of civil strife, present early warning and command and control weaknesses could pose a risk of an unauthorized or inadvertent launch of missiles against the U.S."
Yet perhaps an even greater threat, says the report, is Russia's continued export of sensitive technology, including ballistic missile technology, to countries hostile to the U.S., such as Iran.
U.S. President Bill Clinton on Tuesday (July 28) signed an order barring U.S. aid to seven Russian research institutes and manufacturing companies found to have sold sensitive weapons technology to countries like Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Clinton called the problem with unauthorized technology-transfer "one of the toughest security challenges" facing the U.S., and expanded his ability to impose harsh penalties on countries who not only carry out, but attempt to carry out, such a transfer.
But Richard Aiken, a defense analyst in Washington, told RFE/RL that he is doubtful of the commission's conclusion that Iran and North Korea are within five years of developing long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach major U.S. cities.
He says the technical leap from those nation's current missile technology to long-range intercontinental ballistic missile capability is enormous. He also says it is unlikely that such a major change in missile capability would be undetectable to the U.S., because it would require an intricate support system not so easily hidden underground.
Explains Aiken: "There is a lot more to intelligence collection than just satellites in space. There are ways of tracking and understanding how those developments will occur because you are talking about a significant threshold of capability. You are talking about the capability for space launches and things like that. And when you get into a different category like that -- it becomes understandable and trackable. And even despite their best efforts to hide it, these are things that the U.S. will be able to watch and monitor."