Can US keep its missiles ahead of Soviet technology?
US Defense Secretary Harold Brown often points to what he calls a "window of danger" opening for the West from the direction of the Soviet Union by the 1980 s.Skip to next paragraph
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Gen. Lew Allen Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, sees through that window a future peril for one leg of the US defense "triad," includes land-based missiles. The window of danger now opening shows that new heavier Soviet missiles, with ever more accurate guidance systems, could obliterate the aging US land-based ICBM force in a surprise first strike. This force is made up of 450 Minuteman II, 550 Minuteman III, and 54 Titan II missiles sunken in silos in the US heartlands.
As explained by Lt. Gen. Robert C. Mathis, Air force vice-chief of staff, that vulnerability "is becoming greater and greater as we go along. . . ."
For this reason, virtually all of the top-level Air Force and Defense Department planners, from General Mathis to Secretary Brown and his able chief scientist, Dr. William Perry, say the United States now must give first priority to developing the MX, a new missile system. The Air Force and Pentagon planners have wanted to base 200 MX missiles in the remote desert valleys of Utah and NEvada in 4,600 shelter to shelter to fool watching Soviet spy satellites.
The governors of Utah and Nevada, and many of the ordinary folk living in the affected areas, want the Air Force to look somewhere else for new missile bases. The ecology, the life styles, the water, mineral, and plant and animal life of Utah and Nevada, they say, are unlikely to survive a project of this magnitude.
By May the Air Force had changed its original "racetrack" basing mode to design, which used loop-shaped roads for the shelters, to a "parallel grid" system. This would use existing roads in Utah and Nevada. Secretary Brown and Assistant Air Force Secretary Antonia Handler Chayes argued to skeptical congressmen that this would reduce costs and local impact in terms of using land and water resources.
Instead of using a tractor-trailer built by Boeing Aerospace, the new "loading dock" concept for MX would require a detachable trailer, to be left inside the shelter with the missile on it ready to launch.
Sen. Jake Garn (D) of Utah still supports the idea of MX but wants other state, including Wyoming, to share the missiles.
Texas and New Mexico are other alternatives sites, Air Force spokesmen say. But they are much more densely populated. Their water resources, heavily taxed by such a gigantic construction project, are nearly as scarce as those of the great basin of Utah and Nevada.
President Carter, as Air Force Secretary Hans Mark recently pointed out, is committed to a land-based MX. Funds for its development costs, initially projected at $33 billion, are in the fiscal 1981 budget and will continue to be requested until the missiles are deployed -- if they ever are -- in the late 1980s.
The reasoning behind the MX -- that the Soviets would have to launch more ICBMs than they are believed to have (an estimated 1,400 under limits of the signed, but now shelved, SALT II arms-limitation treaty) to be sure of destroying all the MX shelters -- is still the Pentagon's and the Air Force's official doctrine.
But other voices -- from people like those in the crowd of activists and demonstrators who briefly tied up normal traffic at the Pentagon A pril 28 in a giant antinuclear demonstration of the sort hardly seen since Vietnam days, to thoughtful nuclear threat with a return to arms control.
One of these physicists, Prof. Bernard T. Feld of the Mas- sachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) argues eloquently in a paper prepared for the American Physical Society MEETing that ended here May 1, that the united States and the Soviet Union ought, as quickly as possible, to conclude a mutual agreement "for the no-first-use of nuclear weapons."
This, Dr. Feld says, could be a real first step toward nuvlear disarmament -- the kind of disarmament that might be envisaged in a SALT III agreement, when arms control again becomes fashionable and feasible.
SALT, he adds, has simply "not been able to inhibit the technological nuclear arms competition between the US and the Soviet Union in any significant respect" (an argument echoed by many high-ranking Air Force and other military officers).