Foreign Policy Briefing No. 10

Countdown to Disaster: The Threat of Ballistic Missile Proliferation

By Channing R. Lukefahr
July 14, 1991

Executive Summary

Despite President Bush’s rhetoric about a “new world order” governed by the rule of law, a new and potentially serious threat to the security of the American people is emerging. Several governments, including ruthless or unstable Third World regimes, seem determined to expand the destructive capability of their military arsenals. Such efforts frequently include programs to acquire and deploy long-range ballistic missiles.

In a May 18, 1989, report to Congress, CIA director William Webster revealed that at least 15 developing nations will possess ballistic missiles by the year 2000.[1] Nine of those 15 are thought to have nuclear weapons or active nuclear weapons programs, and 14 are known to possess chemical weapons. The days when weapons of mass destruction and the systems to deliver them are possessed by only the two super-powers and a short list of other major regional powers are rapidly drawing to a close.

Equally disconcerting is the nature of some of the governments that have joined or are about to join the ballistic missile club. The list includes several of the world’s most notorious sponsors of state terrorism—Libya, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, among others. Some defense analysts have predicted that within five years Libya will master the technology to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile with sufficient range to target American cities.[2] Even if it takes the government of Muammar Qaddafi somewhat longer to reach that point, the prospect will not make Americans sleep well at night.

North Korea, headed by Stalinist holdover Kim Il Sung, has been diligently working to extend the range of its Soviet-made rockets and to acquire more sophisticated missiles. Moreover, North Korea has an ongoing nuclear weapons program. Leonard Spector, director of the nuclear nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that the first of the facilities needed to produce nuclear arms has been in operation for three years. A second facility, which will extract plutonium produced from the reactor’s uranium fuel, is under construction. According to Spector, “Together, the two plants could permit Kim Il Sung to build one nuclear weapon per year by the mid-199Os.”[3] That program, combined with the effort to develop a reliable ballistic missile system, could make North Korea a small but highly dangerous nuclear power by the turn of the century.

Although viewed with less concern by the U.S. government, many “friendly” nations are also developing their missile technology. Such countries as Brazil, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Africa, Israel, and South Korea all boast active missile research programs.[4] Several of those countries either already have small nuclear arsenals or are actively pursuing that goal. Although there is no imminent threat to the United States from any of those nations, continuation of that state of affairs cannot be guaranteed. The volatility of political systems in the Third World is reason for caution; an ally can become an enemy in a matter of months. At the beginning of 1978 the United States and Iran had a close political and military relationship; less than two years later, Iranian radicals held the U.S. embassy staff in Tehran hostage with the connivance of a new Iranian government.

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Channing R. Lukefahr is an associate defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.