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Key Issues Missile Defense Issues Statement of Joseph Biden on the ABM Treaty

Statement of Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Hearing on ABM Treaty
May 5, 1999

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you especially for chairing today's hearing with a witness who is well known to you --General Eugene Habiger, former Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Strategic Command. General Habiger was one of the Pentagon's finest strategic thinkers, and I think we will all benefit from his insights.

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Actually, I look forward to hearing from all of today's witnesses. Both Jim Woolsey and Keith Payne have studied the Russian leadership. All of our witnesses, therefore, can speak to whether Russian officials are merely posturing when they warn against abrogating the ABM Treaty. All our witnesses can address the risk that U.S. action to deploy a national missile defense might sacrifice START Two and future strategic arms reductions, and condemn us to face MIRV'ed ICBM's for decades to come.

These questions will be crucial to the decision on whether to deploy a national missile defense by 2005. To put this hearing into context, the administration says that it will base its 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.

The administration clearly recognizes that a missile threat exists and will fund a very limited, National Missile Defense system. 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.

In my view, yesterday's hearing cast strong doubt on the proposition that those criteria can be met in the near term. While our panel of technical experts differed in their basic views on missile defense, they all agreed that a limited ballistic missile defense system would have to deal with ever more sophisticated countermeasures. In addition, they all understood that the proposed National Missile Defense is a "high-risk" program.

Most of our witnesses yesterday were not prepared to support the proposed National Missile Defense system if that were the only system to be built. Rather, the supporters of national missile defense favored space-based and sea-based systems with much greater capabilities. If our only concern were North Korean ICBM's, we could more readily address that threat by striking a deal with Moscow to station a boost-phase intercept system near Vladivostok, or on military cargo ships off the coast there.

Today's focus on the arms control value of the ABM Treaty is thus most timely. Supporters of a national ballistic missile defense do not wish merely to guard against rogue-state missiles, despite the rhetoric of the last year on that issue. Rather, like Dr. Bill Graham yesterday, they see mutual deterrence as an immoral strategy --despite the fact that it has given us more than half a century of strategic stability without a single use of nuclear weapons or intercontinental missiles.

Today we can address the question of whether a half century of U.S. missile defense will produce as good a result. Part of the problem is that we would not be building our missile defense in a vacuum. Despite the end of the Cold War, Russia still has thousands of nuclear weapons. It remains in our vital strategic interest to manage our relationship with Russia so that neither side ever feels compelled to use those weapons.

One of the best ways to further reduce the danger of nuclear war with Russia is to continue the strategic arms reduction process --the START process. We need to ensure that Russia finally ratifies START Two, either by itself or in combination with a START Three treaty that reduces the strategic arms burden for both our countries. I am hard put to see how that can be done, unless we conform any national missile defense we may build to an amended ABM Treaty.

We must also continue working with Russia on such non-proliferation concerns as: the control and disposition of fissile material; avoiding a Russian nuclear "brain drain;" and stopping Russian assistance to other countries' nuclear or long-range missile programs. All of those efforts will be put at risk if Russia perceives the United States as building missile defenses to make it safe to use nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation.

Some supporters of a national ballistic missile defense understand these risks. As Jim Schlesinger told this Committee two weeks ago, "we should not casually damage our political relationship with Russia in a way that simultaneously would damage...Russian prestige and make the Russians less cooperative with us."

I share Secretary Schlesinger's concern to maintain that relationship with Russia, and I look forward to hearing the views of the witnesses on these important topics.

Again Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing.