Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Highlights of House Hearing on Missile Defense

On March 5, the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs held a hearing entitled, “Oversight of Ballistic Missile Defense (Part 1): Threats, Realities, and Tradeoffs.” In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman John Tierney (D-MA) described the hearing as the beginning of “a robust and concerted investigation into the rationale for missile defense; its costs, benefits and technical obstacles; and the accountability, transparency and testing regime of the Missile Defense Agency.” The specific purpose of this first oversight hearing was to examine “the potential threat our country faces from ballistic missiles and how that threat compares to other homeland security and weapons of mass destruction vulnerabilities.”

The witness list for the hearing included Joe Cirincione (President of the Ploughshares Fund), Stephen Hildreth (of the Congressional Research Service), Baker Spring (of the Heritage Foundation), and Stephen Flynn (of the Council on Foreign Relations). Their testimony’s can be found here, here, here, and here, respectively.

In keeping with the stated goals of the hearing, the majority of the Member’s questions focused on the relative severity of the ballistic missile threat. Here are some (paraphrased) highlights:

Tierney: Do you agree or disagree that it is more likely a nuclear weapon would enter the US by unconventional means?

Cirincione: Agree.
Spring: Disagree.
Hildreth: I don’t know.


Tierney: What is the likelihood that someone would attack the US knowing the result would be their ultimate destruction?

Cirincione: Deterrence is alive and well. There are military measures we can take to enhance deterrence on Iran.


Stephen Lynch (D-MA): Is the $120 billion funding proportional to the ICBM threat?

Cirincione: Absolutely not. It is the biggest scam in history. This program is out of whack, and this budget is unsustainable.


John Yarmuth (D-KY): What should we be spending our money on?

Cirincione: We need a more comprehensive threat assessment, and then we need to do our funding based on that. We need to cut back funding and let the joint chiefs decide how to distribute it.


Chris Van Hollen (D-MD): During the Bush administration, ground-based missile defense (GMD) has been deployed despite a test success rate of 50% on “dumbed-down” tests. Would this even succeed?

Cirincione: The history of this program is that the threats and capabilities have been inflated. So, funding is being inflated. You’ve got to restore some realism. We have never had a realistic test, not even under the most primitive conditions. Without these tests, how can Congress justify deploying? You have to fly before you buy. We need to cut back and give funding to our actual number one threat: preventing another 9/11 with the nuclear component.
Spring: I think you are describing a cycle of failure, where you’re going to cut funding for testing even while saying more testing is necessary.
Flynn: I wish I could take the money you cut and use it for my stuff. There is a disconnect between how much we spend on the threat of containers getting to the US, which is a miniscule amount of funding, as compared to what we have put into the missile defense system.

Dan Burton (R-IN): We need a more complete threat assessment, and I still think we need ABM at all three levels (inter-continental, intermediate, and short-range).

Tierney: We have a tendency to overexaggerate the capacity of others, for example with Iran and North Korea. Neither country has come even remotely close to completing ICBMs, correct?

Hildreth: I would agree, yes. You can’t get around issues without testing, and we just don’t see these countries doing that.

In sum, the consensus opinion of the witnesses (Spring notwithstanding) was that:
  • The ballistic missile threat has been wildly inflated
  • The U.S. is far more likely to be attacked with WMD transferred via non-missile means such as a dirty bomb than by ICBMs
  • The opportunity costs of spending roughly $10 billion a year on missile defense are enormous. According to Flynn, the combined budgets for funding domestic and international maritime and port of entry interdiction efforts and nuclear detection activities is equal to roughly one-half of the annual budget for developing missile defense.
  • The Missile Defense Agency should not be exempted from normal acquisition, testing and reporting requirements
  • We need a comprehensive assessment of the threat posed by ballistic missiles in relation to other threats, such as threats to the homeland transferred via non-missile means

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