By Greg Thielmann
The “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 12, contains some closely-watched language on evolving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation threats. Although this year’s edition borrowed liberally from the language used last year, there were also some interesting changes.
As before, the report stresses that Iran has the capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so. This time, the report adds “Iran has made progress during the past year that better positions it to produce weapon-grade uranium using its declared facilities and uranium stockpiles.” The report also judges that Iran is trying to balance its desire to advance its nuclear and missile capabilities with the need to avoid a military strike or regime threatening sanctions.
One of the most significant and puzzling additions to this section was an expression of “increased concern” that the regime’s demonstrated ability to launch small satellites, along with its hostility toward the United States and U.S. allies, provides Tehran with “the means and motivation to develop larger space-launch vehicles and longer-range missiles, including an…intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).”
It is difficult to discern from publicly available information what prompted this new elaboration and explicit mention of an Iranian ICBM. The most conspicuous (non)development on this score during the last year was the total absence of large space rocket or long-range ballistic missile launch activity.
The lack of flight activity has been matched by explicit statements from Iran’s Guard Aerospace Force commander that Iran’s existing medium-range missiles were specifically designed for Israel and U.S. targets in the region and that no greater range was needed.
Why the U.S. intelligence community should be “growing increasingly concerned” about Iranian ICBMs remains a mystery.
In the case of North Korea, on the other hand, one might expect an elevation of concern based on recent events—the display of “road-mobile ICBMs” in April 2012, a “successful” satellite launch in December 2012 and a third nuclear test in February.
Yet the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment mostly uses the same language as the 2012 assessment. North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs pose “a serious threat.” Both assessments cite the dangers of exporting nuclear and missile technology to others. Both assess Pyongyang’s motivations for nuclear capabilities as: “deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy.” And both assess that North Korea would only attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces or territory, to preserve the Kim regime. The 2013 treatment is a little more explicit about the “low” confidence level of the latter assessment, and the uncertainty about what would be perceived by Pyongyang as threatening regime survival.
It was disappointing to read in the 2013 report that North Korea has displayed “what appears to be a road-mobile ICBM.” This formulation would appear to walk back from an unambiguous assertion by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011 that the North Koreans “are developing a road-mobile ICBM.” But it still seems to give too much credence to missiles judged to be mockups by outside experts after examining detailed ground-level photographs of the six “road-mobile ICBMs” appearing in an April 2012 Pyongyang parade. It is time for the intelligence community to provide a more explicit official assessment on this issue.
Syria was highlighted in the proliferation section of the 2013 report, noting the country’s highly active chemical weapons (CW) program, and its large and dispersed stockpile of CW munitions and delivery vehicles. This year’s assessment described the Assad regime as “increasingly beleaguered” and judged that it “might be prepared to use CW against the Syrian people.” Moreover, it warns that groups or individuals in Syria could gain access to CW-related materials.
The report provides an insightful political analysis of Russian domestic and foreign policies. Of greatest significance to prospects for further nuclear reductions is the judgment that Russian leaders are genuinely “wary that U.S. pursuit of [missile defenses] will result in systems that enable the United States to undercut Russia’s nuclear detent and retaliatory capabilities” and that the Kremlin will continue to look for guarantees that any system will not be directed at Russia.
The assessment also refers to Russia’s 10-year military procurement plan adopted in 2010 to “bolster deterrence with a balanced set of modern conventional, asymmetric, and nuclear capabilities.” But it notes that “funding, bureaucratic, and cultural hurdles” could complicate Russian efforts.
It is worth noting that the Russian threat to U.S. national security, by which the vast majority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is justified, appears on p.23 of this year’s 30-page assessment.
Cyber, Terrorism, and Competition for Natural Resources
Cyber threats to U.S. national security occupy the lead-off position in the 2013 report. The terrorist threat, which opened last year’s assessment, is reported to be continuing its decline, particularly with regard to “core al-Qaida.” “Al-Qaida-inspired homegrown violent extremists” are identified as the most acute concern for protecting the homeland. Competition and scarcity involving natural resources were spotlighted more prominently this year as “growing security threats.”
Given the reluctance of the intelligence community to share sensitive information with the public, filling in some of the holes left by the Worldwide Threat Assessment will be a challenge. But in light of the community’s poor track record on issues like predicting the ICBM development timelines of emerging nuclear weapons states, the press and the Congress need to continue to probe when assertions fall far short of the plain evidence that has been presented.
Taken as a whole, the Worldwide Threat Assessment can be considered a wakeup call to adjust policies in accordance with the evolving threat picture. That both the United States and Russia are confronting budget pressures, which constrain their nuclear modernization options, leads to the obvious solution of making virtue out of necessity through bilateral nuclear arms control. Negotiated reductions in nuclear arsenals can both reduce threats directly and also free resources for addressing the newer cyber and climate threats that all nations face.