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Putting the MX in its place

President Reagan's formidable military program has as much political as military importance. By moving to strengthen the nation's strategic nuclear forces, Mr. Reagan is responding to his and the American people's perception, right or wrong, that the United States has grown weak vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and that something must be done to redress that weakness. This should have the positive effect of enabling the President to feel stronger as he confronts his Soviet adversaries. And, therefore, to be willing to take the next step -- negotiations with the Russians to slow down the arms race. That is the objective to be ardently hoped for.

With respect to the individual components of the plan, there is bound to be controversy. First off, however, it can be counted a major achievement that the mobile MX "shell game" proposal has finally been buried. This scheme, once the public came to understand it, was seen to have no merit from a military, economic, or environmental point of view. Its demise is a triumph for common sense.

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By opting for a more modest program for the MX, the President has in effect postponed the decision of its basing for several years while research goes on to find a better way of protecting the missiles. Building 100 Mx missiles and placing the first 36 in hardened existing silos is thus in effect a stopgap measure. But how sensible a measure in purely military terms is open to question. Ironically, this plan does not address the theoretical vulnerability to US land-based missiles to a Soviet first strike in the mid '80s -- the problem which touched off the whole Mx idea to begin with. It is also doubtful that even hardened silos could withstand a pinpoint strike from increasingly powerful and accurate Soviet missiles, though studies show that a total Soviet wipeout of the land-based missiles is highly problematic. These are factors to be considered in the congressional debate ahead.

Some elements of the program, such as improving military communications, are only prudent while still others also call for close scrutiny. Development of the B-1 bomber, for instance, on the face of it seems reasonable enough given the unquestionable need for a bomber force and the old age of the B-52s. Yet, as former Defense Secretary Harold Brown suggests, it may not make sense to build a bomber that can penetrate Soviet air defenses when by the time it is available improved Soviet antiaircraft defenses will neutralize that capability. Conceivably it would be better to push development of the more sophisticated Stealth bomber.

In the final analysis, it will probably be the state of the economy and budget constraints which dictate what weapons systems are chosen. The price tag on Mr. Reagan's strategic arms program is $180 billion, and everyone knows what happens to initial estimates. If in two or three years' time the economy is not performing better, and new taxes are mandated to hold down budget deficits, the President may find himself losing the public constituency he now has for his defense buildup. And, indeed, the importance of a sound economy itself to the nation's security should not be overlooked. The US could have all the arms in the world and yet lose the political competition with Moscow if its economy is weak.

How, then, to confront the dilemma of military security and economic growth? The obvious way it to reduce the nuclear threatm and this means talking with the Russians. Both sides have economic as well as security reasons to restrain their appetites for more and more weapons. Is President Reagan serious about arms control -- or "arms reduction," as he prefers to call it? European allies and others believe that the way to forestall a Soviet response to the Western military buildup is to begin substantive arms negotiations. Otherwise, it is felt, the Russians may conclude -- especially with the unrelenting anti-Soviet rhetoric emanating from Washington -- that nothing is to be gained by restraint.

This remains the critical issue.

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