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Cruise missiles: stealing a march or buying trouble?

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Public and congressional reaction to the Reagan administration's new five-part strategic package has centered on the MX missile and the B-1 bomber. Paradoxically, this attention may be at once both misplaced and legitimate. It may reflect the uneasy sense that these are but trimmer, racier (and costlier) versions of nuclear weapons delivery vehicles that are or will become obsolete in the 1980s.

What the Congress and the public do not yet see is that the dominant strategic technology of this decade could well be the widely ignored cruise missile, especially the sea-launched version. And the administration seems to know this.

As it cuts back the projected MX deployment by at least half and chooses a cheaper but still vulnerable basing mode for its deployment, the administration is rapidly increasing its planned purchase of the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM, which may also stand for submarine-launched cruise missile). Planned procurement of this versatile weapon - to which the Carter administration made no commitment - has risen steadily in the short Reagan incumbency from 447 missiles by 1986 to 2,527 by 1989. The eventual buy will likely be much greater.

Navy Secretary John Lehman visualizes that multipurpose cruise as a weapon that can attack a variety of Soviet targets (airfields, depots, railheads, etc.) in attacks following up an initial nuclear exchange. Such missions lend credibility to the view that the administration's strategic program is geared to fighting a protracted nuclear war, for which purpose the cruise is in many ways better suited than other nuclear weapons.

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