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Chasing News That Isn't News

The Latest Scare Story About Iran: Missiles Targeting US by 2015

By Steve Hynd

April 21, 2010 "
Newshoggers" -- Today, the papers are full of a claim that the new Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report (PDF) from the US Dept. of Defense says Iran could have the missile capability to reach the U.S. by 2015. You'll find the claim being repeated by the UK's rightwing Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, by NewsMax, Israel's press, Pakistan's "Dawn", ABC News, Reuters and more.

However, you'll look in vain for any such statement in the BMDR itself. What you'll find instead is the assessment, repeated several times, that:

the United States possesses a capability to counter the projected threat from North Korea and Iran for the foreseeable future.


Looking ahead, it is difficult to predict precisely how the threat to the U.S. homeland will evolve, but it is certain that it will do so. Iran and North Korea have yet to demonstrate an ICBM-class warhead. How rapidly and successfully North Korea and Iran pursue this and other capabilities are an open question, as is the speed with which they might actually deploy capabilities and increase their numbers over time.

That's rather less of a scary story than in the unclassified version of what the DoD sent to Congress about Iran. It is from this document (PDF) that the scary statement is taken. And even then, it isn't all that scary. It says (emphasis mine):

With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.

Back to the BRDM itself, in which we find the telling line:

Today, only Russia and China have the capability to conduct a large-scale ballistic missile attack on the territory of the United States...both Russia and China are important partners for the future, and the United States seeks to continue building collaborative and cooperative relationships with them.

Russia and China are also the only two of Iran's allies, even fringe allies, that possess the technology to produce ICBMs. That means the "sufficient foreign assistance" would have to come from one of those nations, either directly or via a third party like North Korea. Yet that seems unlikely given that both are "important partners for the future" of the United States. Both must know that giving ICBM technology to North Korea or Iran would scuttle that relationship - and there are no other candidates for that "sufficient foreign assistance"

Also, remember: "the United States possesses a capability to counter the projected threat from North Korea and Iran for the foreseeable future." That's even if they were to get such "foreign assistance", presumably from Martians.

The mainstream media (and probably Congress) have fallen for it hook, line and sinker - but what we have here is a scary story designed to keep the missile defense procurement budget topped up by telling scary stories and hyping possible war. Nothing more.

UPDATE: The Arms Control Wonk explains that "could" actually means "not likely".

Here is how the intelligence community explained their novel use of “could” in Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat:

Our assessments of future missile developments are inexact and subjective because they are based on often fragmentary information. Many countries surround their ballistic missile programs with extensive secrecy and compartmentalization, and some employ deception. Although such key milestones as flight-testing are difficult to hide, we may miss others. To address these uncertainties, we assess both the earliest date that countries could test various missiles, based largely on engineering judgments made by experts inside and outside the Intelligence Community, on the technical capabilities and resources of the countries in question, and, in many cases, on continuing foreign assistance; and when countries would be likely to test such missiles, factoring into the above assessments potential delays caused by technical, political, or economic hurdles. We judge that countries are much less likely to test as early as the hypothetical “could” dates than they are by our projected “likely” dates.

How f’ed up is that?

As a result, every estimate has two sub-estimates: The real one (likely) and the one for missile defense advocates (could). Guess which one headline writers like?

Dr. Lewis also notes that the same "With sufficient foreign assistance" sentence "has appeared in every edition of Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat: 2009, 2006, 2003 and 2000. Seriously, you can look it up." His conclusion is that the press are chasing news that isn't anything new at all.



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