How Big A Threat?

An Iranian military truck carries a long-range
Ghadr-F ballistic missile during the annual military
parade marking the Iraqi invasion in 1980.

A Pentagon report on the ballistic and cruise missile threat has raised concern with its assessment that “Iran could develop and test an [intercontinental ballistic missile] capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” But analysts caution that this conclusion omits crucial context about Iran’s missile.

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center released the report on July 10. It assesses the short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missile threat across the globe. Russia, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are analyzed, as well as Iran, which is believed to be developing nuclear weapons.

“Iran has ambitious ballistic missile and space launch development programs, and continues to attempt to increase the range, lethality and accuracy of its ballistic missile force,” the report stated. “Iran is fielding increased numbers of theater ballistic missiles, improving its existing inventory, and is developing the technical capability to produce an ICBM.”

Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst and scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that although Iran may test a missile two years from now, the report provides no information about when Iran will be able to deploy such a weapon — if ever.

“The fact that you can fly a missile a certain number of miles doesn’t tell you how well it will work or how lethal the warhead will be, none of which is dealt with in the study,” Cordesman said.

Nor does the report say when the missile will be available for deployment or what the Iranians will have to do to make it an effective weapon.

“Ballistic missiles are terrible to disseminate chemical and biological weapons,” he said. “Unless you design a warhead very carefully, it will hit the ground and a lot of the explosion will go into the air. It’s an expensive way to take out two city blocks.”

The report, the first of its kind since 2009, will contribute to the public debate on weapons proliferation, said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ nuclear information project.

“It reveals a piece of the classified assessments,” he said, noting that the trend in recent years has been for the government to provide less and less unclassified information.

Kristensen said the report confirms that Iran is continuing to improve the range of its missiles. And while the date given, 2015, “is pretty close” to today, he said he’s heard that Iran was on its way to develop “something like an ICBM … for the last 15 years. What enables them to say that it’s that close?”

The gap between testing technology and having an operational system integrated into the military is wide, he said. And a particular technology cannot necessarily be repurposed.

“People say that since North Korea can launch a vehicle into space, they can hit the U.S. Not so.”

Iran has also fired a space launch vehicle.

While China has “the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world,” Russia has the largest number of “nuclear warheads deployed on ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States” — 1,200, according to the report.

By treaty, neither the U.S. nor Russia has intermediate range weapons. Recent reports claimed that the new Russian Yars M missile violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). But the Pentagon report “very clearly shows” that not to be the case because the Yars M’s range puts it into the ICBM category, Kristensen said.

President Barack Obama’s call last month for a new round of nuclear arms-reduction talks with Russia sparked a partisan debate in this country, Kristensen said.

The largest number of ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads — 1,550 — is held by the United States.

David Holzel writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

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