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Key Issues Missile Defense Issues Statement of Joseph Biden on Defense Technology

Statement of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Hearing on Ballistic Missile Defense Technology
May 4, 1999

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you also for giving me the lead-time to invite two of our five witnesses today - Drs. Richard Garwin and David Wright. I look forward to hearing from all of today's witnesses, of course especially my friend from Alabama. I am very interested in their

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views regarding our technological progress toward the goal of a national missile defense, as well as their thoughts on what technical challenges remain to be overcome.

The status of our ABM capabilities will be a crucial factor in our decision whether to deploy a national missile defense by the year 2005. To put this hearing into context, the administration has repeatedly said they will base their deployment decision on four criteria:

(1) whether a threat exists to the United States,

(2) the cost-effectiveness of missile defenses,

(3) whether the necessary technology exists to build a defensive system, and

(4) whether the benefits of deploying that system outweigh any possible negative effects it might have on U.S. - Russian relations.

On the first point, the administration granted that a missile threat exists during the lead-up to the March vote on the Cochran bill. By including missile defense procurement money in the Future Years Defense Plan, the administration also seems to have decided that the proposed, very limited, National Missile Defense system will be worth the money if it works.

But the jury is still out when it comes to the administration's final two criteria, both of which were supported by the Senate in the amended Cochran bill. It will not surprise my colleagues to hear that I strongly doubt that those criteria can be met in the near term.

On the topic of today's hearing, let me be blunt. Nothing I have heard so far has convinced me that we are ready to field an effective missile defense by 2005, which is the administration's earliest target-date for deployment.

I am concerned, moreover, that we may deploy a national missile defense for political reasons, without adequate testing. The 1998 Welch Report - the product of an independent commission charged by the Defense Department with assessing the missile defense testing program - warned that:

"To succeed, the national missile defense program must meet a series of formidable challenges. [It] should be restructured now to provide for adequate, sequential development and testing."

Without a rigorous development and testing program, the Welch panel warned of a "rush to failure."

Events since then are not reassuring. The first intercept test of the national system has been delayed until August because of fuel leaks in the kill vehicle. Because of that delay, the administration may be forced to decide on deployment after only three intercept attempts. That is far too few tests on which to base such a major decision, at least in my view.

Testing issues aside, I am concerned that our currently envisioned system may be the wrong tool for the job. I remain skeptical that national missile defenses currently under development are the best means to decrease the threat of missile attack.

A missile defense system must be able to defeat countermeasures. But the proposed system may be vulnerable to very simple countermeasures.

A missile defense system needs to defend against the most likely ICBM payload --namely, chemical or biological bomblets. But the proposed system may be ineffective against such attacks. The most likely missile attack against United States territory may be from cruise missiles or short-range, ship-borne missiles, yet the proposed system cannot even begin to defend against those attacks.

I wonder, therefore, whether early deployment of a national missile defense system is a wise response to the emerging missile threat to the United States.

I wonder whether we should not consider alternative means of decreasing the missile threat, rather than spending billions of dollars to deploy a ballistic missile defense that will only provide modest benefits and may well fail the technology test --as well as the test of maintaining U.S.-Russian strategic security, which we will discuss in tomorrow's hearing.

Again Mr. Chairman, I look forward to hearing the views of the witnesses on these important technical issues. Today's hearing should provide us a much clearer picture regarding some of the implications of deploying missile defenses.