Wall Street Journal
April 24, 2000

Missile Defense, With Peace In Mind

Your April 10 editorial on national missile defense noted my interest in a sea-based "ascent-phase" missile defense system -- which would intercept an enemy missile while it was still rising toward its maximum altitude -- as an alternative to missile defense based upon land-based intercept of re-entry vehicles. You were puzzled that I would consider an option that was not fully compliant with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and suggested that I meant to defend only against an attack on Tokyo, and not an attack aimed at Seattle.

Let me state my position: I am not yet convinced that missile defense makes sense, given the ease with which a country could use other means of delivering weapons of mass destruction, and given the costs and limitations of the missile defense currently proposed.

If we do deploy a system, I would favor ascent-phase interceptors that could be located either at fixed sites or on ships near the countries that pose the threat. These would pose less of a threat to Russia or China's deterrent capabilities and thus be less likely to spark a new arms race. They would also be more effective against countermeasures that could defeat the current proposed system.

At the same time, I believe that any national missile defense system we deploy should be in compliance with the ABM Treaty, as modified by U.S.-Russian agreement. If we need a national missile defense, then we must amend the ABM Treaty, not walk away from it. I say this not out of blind loyalty to an old treaty, but rather because I believe the consequences of deploying a national missile defense by violating, abrogating or withdrawing from the ABM Treaty would be far worse than those of doing without a national missile defense. Ending the ABM Treaty would deal a death blow to strategic arms control agreements and lead to a renewed reliance, at least by Russia, on MIRVed ICBMs. It would also hobble our non-proliferation efforts around the world.

Even a national missile defense deployed in compliance with a modified ABM Treaty risks precipitating a nuclear arms race in Asia. The prospect of Asian arms races could also force Russia to rebuild a larger force structure than we would like to see.

Given the technical challenges that the current proposed missile defense faces, as well as the difficulty of fully analyzing its deployment readiness in time for a presidential decision this summer or fall, I favor putting that decision off for a year. The extra year could be well used in further (but less stressed) system development efforts, a closer look at ascent-phase options, U.S.-Russia negotiations on STARTIII and modifications to the ABM Treaty, further diplomatic engagement with North Korea, and serious discussions with China to ensure that our actions will contribute to regional peace and stability.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.), Washington

Editor's Note: The editorial referred to appeared in the Current News Early Bird, April 10, 2000.