Five Myths about Ballistic Missiles


North Korea’s test launches have brought the possibility of a nuclear strike firmly back into the American consciousness. A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that three-quarters of Americans now consider North Korea to be a “critical threat” to the United States. US intelligence analysts believe that North Korea may start deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as soon as next year. And they think North Korea can fit nuclear warheads onto those missiles. How easy is it to detonate a nuclear weapon on foreign soil? Here are five myths about missiles, threats and deterrence.


For deterrence, countries must display functional weapons.

“North Korean missiles may reach US, but lack effective re-entry,” one Fox News article supplied soothingly this month. “Serious questions remain around North Korea’s ability to build vehicles to reenter the planet’s atmosphere through tremendous pressure and friction,” a Business Insider story explained. It sounds as if North Korea can’t be a threat if it hasn’t launched a projectile across the ocean.

But countries have never held their enemies to this standard. Early in the Cold War, nations tested nuclear weapons in a variety of settings, including underwater and underground. The United States and the Soviet Union also launched nuclear weapons on missiles, detonating them in the upper atmosphere or in space. At least once, on February 2, 1956 , the Soviets launched a nuclear weapon into space on a medium-range missile, allowing it to reenter and detonate inside the atmosphere. On May 6, 1962, the United States did the same from a submarine.

In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, moving all testing underground. Since then, the only nuclear missile test involving reentry was conducted by China on October 27, 1966, with a medium-range missile. No country has ever attempted to demonstrate an ICBM in this fashion. Still, no one questions whether America, Britain, China, France or Russia have working nuclear missiles.


The US could destroy an enemy’s arsenal on the ground.

In his game plan for war with North Korea, the New York Post’s Ralph Peters — a retired Army lieutenant colonel — placed the following high on his to-do list: “We’d go for the missile and nuke infrastructure,” including scientists, technicians and the bombs themselves. Likewise, Time told readers in 2015 that, should Iran develop the ability to use nuclear weapons, they could “look for the Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator to get the assignment to try to destroy that capability.”

But that might not be so simple. Little is known in detail about the current ability of the United States to seek out and destroy mobile missiles before they launch, but it has been a notoriously tough problem in the past. During the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. military flew thousands of missions against Iraq’s Scud missiles but could not confirm a single kill.

Capabilities have improved, but by all indications, the job remains difficult. Just last month, Gen. Paul Selva , the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators that the US intelligence community cannot reliably track the deployment of North Korean missiles in the field. He noted that “Kim Jong Un and his forces are very good at camouflage, concealment and deception.”


The US could shoot down enemy warheads in flight.

After North Korea’s latest ICBM test, Gen. Lori Robinson, who leads US Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), expressed “unwavering . . . confidence that we can fully defend the United States against this ballistic missile threat.” After a recent test of American anti-ICBM procedures, Vice Adm. Jim Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, said the test “demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.” That makes it sound like the United States would have no problem knocking North Korean nuclear warheads out of the sky if it were ever necessary.

Any attempt to stop an ICBM attack would depend on the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which the United States has built and deployed for that purpose. It successfully intercepted an ICBM-class target for the first time in a test in May. Unfortunately, its overall track record is less impressive. The Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation office slammed GMD in its annual report for 2016 , pointing to frequent failures, insufficient testing and inadequate radar support. A detailed report from the Union of Concerned Scientists describes these results as an outcome of more than a decade of relaxed oversight. It will be a very long time before the shortcomings of the program can be corrected — if ever.


Deterrence can’t work against a country like North Korea.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster recently told ABC News that “classical deterrence theory” doesn’t apply to a regime like North Korea’s, one that “engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people.” Likewise, former assistant defense secretary Mary Beth Long didn’t seem to have high hopes for deterrence while speaking on a recent panel: “We tried to deter North Korea from having a nuclear program. That didn’t work. We tried to deter North Korea from having a nuclear program outside the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. That didn’t work. We tried to deter North Korea from hiding. That didn’t work.”

Yet nuclear deterrence has held so far: Nuclear weapons have not been used in war since 1945, despite being in the arsenals of nine countries (with sometimes erratic leaders) today. Dogfights between the American and Soviet air forces during the Korean War, border clashes between the USSR. and China in 1969, and a small-scale war between India and Pakistan in 1999 did not trigger mushroom clouds.

North Korea itself appears to have been, at least thus far, held back by deterrence. On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans marched south in an attempt to unify the Korean Peninsula by force. The invasion failed, leading to a grinding, three-year war, untold deaths and the destruction of North Korea’s infrastructure from the air. North Korea has never given up on its ambitions for reunification, but it has not tried to invade a second time.

Deterrence may fail eventually, but so far, it’s working.


First-generation nuclear weapons are hard to make.

That enriching uranium is notoriously hard supposedly keeps a bomb boom at bay. “Manufacturing high-quality fuel” — plutonium or highly enriched uranium — “is the most difficult part of any nuclear program,” author William Langewiesche noted in the Atlantic in 2006. “The big problem in making a nuclear bomb is that you need enriched uranium,” Gizmodo agreed in 2012 , “and that’s actually a real pain in the a– to make.”

But technology is no longer a serious barrier to making nuclear bombs. In a forthcoming article in the Nonproliferation Review, “Opening a Proliferation Pandora’s Box,” MIT professor R. Scott Kemp describes how knowledge spread around the world about a new technique for uranium enrichment: a relatively simple and inexpensive gas centrifuge. A laboratory in the Soviet Union completed the invention in the mid-1950s, relying on the skills of German and Austrian prisoners of war. After the prisoners went home, some of them set about re-creating it, first in West Germany and then in the United States.

Word got around. Unclassified reports from the American project circulated, becoming a “recipe book” for simple centrifuges. In the following years, countries large and small, wealthy and poor — Australia, Brazil, Britain, China, France, India, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan — all produced versions of the Soviet technology for enriching uranium.

The Washington Post

Opinion: The Time is Right for Social Welfare Reform

Ever since their introduction, social safety nets (SSNs) have played a critical role in fighting poverty. They provide government assistance, whether in kind or in the form of cash payments, which can be vital in helping the most vulnerable withstand the effects of sudden shocks, such as a natural disaster or an economic crisis. If well designed, they can also empower citizens to prepare for better livelihoods, with benefits that allow people to stay healthy and ready to seize new opportunities. Equally important, they can work against the cycle of poverty by ensuring all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, have a chance to acquire the skills they need to prosper. Without SSNs, poor families who are systematically unable to afford their basic needs are likely to lose hope of ever escaping poverty, malnourished children are likely to grow up as poor adults, and, in the face of crises, vulnerable families are likely to face difficult choices between immediate survival and avoiding irreversible damage to their future welfare.

SSNs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have a long and proud tradition, but they could be doing so much more to meet popular aspirations and to confront the many challenges the region faces.

I recently led a group from the World Bank that conducted an extensive review of the performance of SSNs in MENA. We discovered that despite the large amounts of money allocated, on average 6% of GDP, SSNs have a limited impact in helping people climb out of poverty. The region’s spending on safety nets is dominated by universal subsidies, the vast majority of which—4.5% of GDP—goes towards fuel subsidies. While an SSN system based on subsidies ensures affordable access to food and fuel, it is an expensive system that does little to help people develop skills, provides inadequate protection against shocks, and benefits the rich more than the poor. In Jordan, for example, before the November fuel subsidy reform, the richest segment of society captured 50% of all benefits from subsidies to fuel. In addition, non-subsidy safety nets are often small and fragmented with limited coverage. Two thirds of those in the poorest segment of society do not benefit from any SSN program other than universal subsidies.

Inspired by the popular desire for change sweeping the region, we went further. We worked with Gallup to survey MENA citizens to try to figure out exactly what they expected from their country’s SSNs. It turns out that the vast majority hold views very much in line with the experts on how an effective SSN should function. In a representative sample of adults from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, eight out of ten believed that the government bears the primary responsibility for caring for the poor. An equally overwhelming majority responded that eligibility for social assistance should be based on levels of poverty rather than on the often-used method of relying on broad social categories such as “widows” or “the disabled,” irrespective of economic means. More than two-thirds in each country, from 68% in Lebanon to 85% in Jordan, insisted that support should come in cash instead of in kind (see the Gallup poll for more details).

Not only are current SSNs expensive , with the rich capturing as much of the benefits as the poor—if not more—they also operate in stark contrast with the majority of public opinion on how and what they should deliver.

There has been past acknowledgement of the problem, but the general view was that there was no program of reform that either the poor or the middle class would be likely to support. Times have clearly changed, and there is now an opportunity to be seized. Historically, periods of transition have led to the transformation of SSNs. This is true of Russia following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, during Nepal’s transition to democracy, the process of decentralization in Indonesia, and regime change in Brazil and Portugal. In each case, new systems were designed to meet the specific goals and aspirations that drove the transitions. The newly designed systems have delivered positives results overall, and continue to do so today.

The reform of SSNs could be a central component of regional efforts to protect and promote citizens’ livelihoods. Moreover, in difficult economic times it is particularly important that public funds are spent where they can have the greatest impact. In this sense, welfare systems could be redesigned to address the region’s ongoing challenges, such as malnutrition, chronic poverty and building up the resilience of the large group of people that hover just above the poverty line. More than a quarter of the poorest children in Egypt and Morocco are severely malnourished. These same children, by the time they are 16 to 18, are more likely to have dropped out of school than be continuing with their education. This is the cycle of poverty which a well-designed and effective SSN can help break.

There is no simple or single formula for reform. It is always a challenge, but we hope our analysis combined with the survey will help launch a debate on the unexploited potential of SSNs. The evidence suggests public opinion is on the side of reform. The goals of renewed social welfare systems—to promote social inclusion and self-reliance—are also clearly in line with popular aspirations. These alignments could be further developed through better information, improved design and increased transparency as a path toward building the necessary consensus to launch and sustain a reform process.

There are positive signs across the region, with several reform efforts underway. In Morocco, for example, a program was implemented in which eligible families with school age children receive cash benefits on the condition that their children stay in school. The program led to a significant reduction of school dropouts. Similar programs, where benefits are linked to enhancing children’s education and health, have been successfully implemented in more than 40 countries around the world. In the West Bank and Gaza, reforms at the administration level have led to more resources reaching the poor and the system proved efficient in delivering increased benefits to the most vulnerable during crises to mitigate the most damaging consequences. With the establishment of a unified registry that clearly identifies the population in need, and an effective payment mechanism to reach them, they have laid the foundation of an effective SSN. There have also been attempts to rebalance financing and priorities within social welfare systems. Countries as diverse as Brazil and Indonesia have accomplished extensive reforms of their subsidy system, and their experience demonstrates the importance of gaining citizen’s trust in the government’s capacity to deliver fair and reliable compensation and having effective SSNs in place for a successful program of change.

Reform is possible. The time to start building the systems and consensus to support change is now. The current transition period offers MENA countries an unprecedented opportunity for enhancing SSNs that should not be missed, as they are a critical policy lever for responding to social and economic demands, as well as meeting ongoing challenges.

The World Bank publication, “Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa,” is available here.