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The Reagan MX menu -- Why?

President Reagan's decision on MX is a good one by which to judge this administration's competence in the national security arena. And since the announcement contains so many future developments, it can continue to serve as a yardstick of administration capability to strengthen the nation's defenses cost effectively.

What are the problems to which the annound menu of programs represents a solution? The public is entitled to know, since nonmilitary programs are being cut drastically and military programs must also be sacrificed.

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The problem that the deceptive basing mode previously proposed for MX was designed to address is the asserted vulnerability of the US land-based ICBMs to Soviet attack. In 1978 there was persuasive evidence that the USSR had demonstrated sufficient accuracy in tests, and would soon have sufficient numbers and yield in its ICMs, to enable it to destroy our land-based missile force, were it inclined to engage in a surprise preemptive strike.

It was never argued that this was a likely nor particularly sensible course of action for the Soviets to take, but rather that this was a theoretical threat to the United States that could not prudently go unmet. So the Defense Department intensified its development of a new, 10-warhead missile (the maximum number of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, or MIRVs, allowed under the SALT II treaty then under negotiation) and moved toward a plan of deceptive mobile basing.

It was calculated mathematically that this solution would make it impossible for the Soviets to destroy US land-based missiles, since under the deceptive basing scheme they would lack sufficient numbers and yield to destroy all shelters together with all preexisting Titan and Minuteman silos. If the Soviets should exceed SALT limits, the spacing of US shelters permitted considerable shelter growth within the same deployment area. the geographic area also allowed for expansion, so that shelters would always exceed Soviet warheads. Moreover, if ballistic missile defense became feasible, it could be leveraged by defending the actual missile hidden in the shelter cluster. It was felt that a nuclear arms race would thereby be discouraged at the outset. Q.E.D.

The seriousness of the vulnerability had been disputed. But it was never fully explained nor seriously debated outside the community of defense intellectuals. It was clearly the problem to which MX deceptive basing was addressed.

The administration's proposal does not address this problem because it emplaces a new system in the very same silos deemed vulnerable before. Do administration officials think the problem is less urgent than they thought earlier? Do they now regard Soviet tests of single missiles launched from East to West as not indicative of real technical capability? Do they conclude that it is so unlikely that the Soviets will embark on such a surprise attack that it is not worth preparing for? Or are they moving to a response that, if faced with destruction of our land-based forces, the US would launch under attack? Or if we suffered destruction of our ICBMs, retaliate with bombers and submarine missiles against Soviet cities?

None of these positions is consistent with the expressed concerns, much less the rhetoric and defense budgetary thrust of the administration thus far. Of course, President Reagan would not be the first president to discover that the dangers he described as a candidate appeared less urgent after taking office. Recall the famous missile gap on which President Kennedy based his attack on th Eisenhower defense policy. But if that is true, what other requirements justify this large commitment of resources?

The decision to replace Titans and some Minuteman missiles in their silos deals with obsolescence. MX is a good modernization program, but that may be considerably less urgent in the competition for funds than shipbuilding, strategic airlift, military compensation, or spare parts and munitions. After all, Minuteman missiles, at least, work very well.

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MX will certainly improve US counter-force capability, and if substantially more than 100 missiles are deployed it will pose a serious threat to the Soviet land-based forces. Thus it may induce them to expand, go mobile, or think seriously of a preemptive first strike. Perceptions are important. But the public needs to know with much greater precision just what the perceptions are anticipated to be, and how good the expected Soviet and allied response will be for us.

What are the consequences? If the Soviets in fact now deploy a large accurate ICBM force capable of destroying our entire land-based force by 1987, we are worse off than if we had done nothing. And if they choose mobility, they may have the capability to destroy our missiles while we demonstrably lack the capability to threaten theirs.

In fairness to this administration, it should be noted that they plan research and development on mobile airborne launchers, deeprock silos, and antiballistic missile defense. These are approaches to the problem of vulnerability, but no one has felt comfortable about relying on them too heavily in the past. Nor can they be deployed before submarines and cruise missiles close the "window of vulnerability."

The ABM treaty prohibiting such missile defense would have to be renegotiated or abrogated, and our technology is not yet already for that.Airborne launchers are theoretically feasible. An ICBM has been launched from a C-5. But the practicability and cost-effectiveness of keeping a fleet of missile-bearing aircraft on airborne alert at all times has not commended itself to defense planners when proposed over 15 years.

Thus far, the MX solution is no response to vulnerability, and not a clear solution to any other problem. It will be costly, especially when combined with two new bomber programs. The debate on this subject is by no means over. The administration can serve itself and the nation's security if it now makes a painstaking and candid effort to explain the reasons for the strategic choices it has made.