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Missile Shield Analysis Warns of Arms Buildup

Defense: U.S. system could lead other nuclear powers to enhance arsenals, spread technology, report says.

May 19, 2000|BOB DROGIN and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The U.S. intelligence community is writing a secret report warning the Clinton administration that construction of a national missile defense could trigger a wave of destabilizing events around the world and possibly endanger relations with European allies, a U.S. intelligence official said Thursday.

The new National Intelligence Estimate will sketch an unsettling series of political and military ripple effects from the proposed U.S. deployment that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the further spread of missile technology in the Middle East.

A supplement to the highly classified report will also note that the threat of attack from North Korea has eased since last fall, when Pyongyang effectively froze its ballistic-missile testing program in response to U.S. overtures.

Outside critics have long argued that the proposed national missile defense could backfire and actually diminish national security and global stability. But the CIA-led analysis and updated threat assessment are the first official evaluation of how the system could generate new threats.

The administration has pledged to decide this fall whether to proceed with an initial base of 100 "interceptor" missiles in Alaska, backed by ground-based phased radar stations and satellite-based infrared sensors, in a system designed to shield the continental United States from a limited missile attack.

Proponents of the system argue that North Korea, Iran or Iraq may threaten U.S. territory with intercontinental ballistic missiles someday. Critics argue that the threat is exaggerated, that the antimissile technology is unproved and that deployment would undermine crucial arms control and nonproliferation regimes.

CIA analysts believe that Russia would accept U.S. arguments that no system could protect against the number of missiles Moscow could launch and that its deterrent thus would be preserved. But China has only 20 CSS-4 intercontinental ballistic missiles in vulnerable silos, and the analysts say that, after a U.S. deployment, Beijing would conclude that it had lost its deterrent force--and act accordingly.

"We can tell the Russians that [the missile defense] won't affect the viability of their deterrent force," the intelligence official said. "I don't know how we can say that to the Chinese with a straight face."

If the U.S. system is built, the CIA believes, China would install multiple independent nuclear warheads on its missiles for the first time in an effort to overwhelm any missile shield. Beijing has possessed the technology for more than a decade but has not used it so far.

In addition, Beijing is deemed likely to build several dozen mobile truck-based DF-31 missiles, which it first tested last year, to create a more survivable force. It also is likely to add such countermeasures as booster fragmentation, low-power jammers, chaff and simple decoys to confuse or evade U.S. interceptors.

The intelligence official said that Russia and China both would increase proliferation, including "selling countermeasures for sure" to such nations as North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Moreover, the official said, India is deemed likely to increase its nuclear missile force if it detects a sharp buildup by China, its neighbor and longtime rival. That, in turn, likely would spur Pakistan, India's archenemy, to increase its own nuclear strike force, the official said.

Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft called such a scenario "plausible" and expressed concern about its possible implications.

"We ought to think whether we want the Chinese to change their very minimalist strategy," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm not sure what the answer is, but this is certainly one of the possible consequences that, in a sense, is more serious than the Russian reaction might be."

The Likelihood of a Domino Effect

Other specialists said that, while it is likely China would move to increase its intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal--now thought to be about 20 strong--it is questionable whether India and Pakistan would follow suit.

"China has had a strategic capability for a long time relative to India, and India has hardly gone on a missile arms race to counter it," noted John E. Peters, an arms control specialist at Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank.

Michael O'Hanlin, who tracks the missile defense issue at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, argued that, however dramatic it may sound, a domino-style nuclear arms buildup would be a lesser threat to the United States than China's potential willingness to develop and sell missile defense countermeasures to countries like North Korea. Arms control specialists have expressed strong concern that the missile defense system as designed would be incapable of overcoming relatively cheap and easy-to-deploy countermeasures, such as clusters of decoys.

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