Washington — 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.
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).
"Numbers of nuclear weapons continue to grow" (and, Dr. Perry adds, "so does their accuracy") "far beyond any levels defensible from the point of view of deterrence, while the doctrines for their use have become widely accepted and officially adopted."
This is why, Dr. Feld and his supporters argue, the Americans and Russians must agree now never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Yet the NATO allies last December somewhat reluctantly agreed to meet the menacing Soviet buildup of new SS-20 missiles, targeted on Europe with new US Pershing II and cruise missiles, targeted on the Warsaw Pact countries including the western Soviet Union.
"The fact is," Dr. Feld asserts, "that neither we nor the Russians believe that nuclear war between us is possible. Yet we are driven mainly by pressures from the extremely bellicose elements on both sides to behave as though an idiotic and suicidal act on the part of our potential adversary were imminent.
"It is essential that we devise mutually acceptable means for both of us to get off this disastrous track. No-first-use may not be the ultimate answer -- but it is certainly a necessary beginning." This beginning might make it possible "to reconstitute SALT on a basis that might work next time."
What the Air Force is trying to do, meanwhile, is to keep all three legs of the triad viable. Within this framework, one of the alternatives to the land-based MX, suggested by science and arms consultants Richard Garwin and Sidney Drell, is the alternative concept of SUM (shallow underwater submersible).
SUM means a system of small submarines that could carry the MX and fire it from the shallow waters of the continental shelf, a swath 100 to 200 miles wide along the shores of the US, while the Navy's older Poseidon and new Trident nuclear-propelled submarines continue to roam the world's oceans with their own Trident missiles, as the assured sea leg of the triad.
SUM, says Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, an enthusi astic supporter, would cost about $12 billion (instead of $33 billion or much more for the land-based MX). It would be less likely, he adds, to draw enemy missile fire on the continental US. The small submarines, barring some great leap forward in the Soviet Union's still interior antisubmarine-warfare (ASW) technology, would be relatively invisible and safe.
The Air Force, while skeptical, has remained largely neutral in this strategic controversy.The Defense Department and the Navy have not. A new Pentagon study from the office of Seymour L. Zeiberg, Dr. Perry's deputy for research and engineering, and another from the Navy, found that SUM was a poor substitute for land-based MX.
It would be neither cheaper nor safer, they added, and although Dr. Garwin, Dr. Drell, and Senator Hatfield say SUM could be ready by 1984, Pentagon scientists were told by the West German manufacturer of small diesel electricpowered subs used by the SUM planners as the basis of their plans, that it would require seven years to develop the 1,800- ton boat needed.
The chief of naval operations, Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, in an exclusive interview with the Monitor, put the Navy's case this way:
"The SUM has been studied more than once. I want to know the answer just as much as anybody else.I have a great deal of administration for Dr. Garwin. . . . When you have a man of his intellectual stature strongly supporting an idea, you want to make sure you understand it.And if you disagree, you want to be on good ground.
"We have looked at it rather thoroughly. It has some fatal flaws."
The Air Force's next most important weapon in the "air breathing" leg of the triad, is the strategic bomber force.According to USAF Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the B-52 bomber (which can be used for sowing mines in enemy harbors, and which, with air refueling from bases in Guam or Europe, has been mentioned as a possibility for such work in Iran) "still constitutes the major element of the bomber force."
Some 348 B-52s are expected to be flying for the USAF until the year 2000, along with the sleek, needle-nosed FB-111, an aircraft admirably suited to missions in Europe -- offering a medium range and terrain where it can follow radar guidance for low-altitude penetration.
This spring, Boeing won a competition with General Dynamics to develop an air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), not unlike the Tomahawk developed by the Navy, and has begun to manufacture these guided bombs.
They resemble a small airplane. As General Jones told Congress in his last annual posture report, they "will provide the United States with a mixed standoff and penetrating force which will complicate Soviet defenses by saturating ground- and air-based defensive systems." The ALCM, possibly ready when the strategic "window of danger" with the Soviets is opening wide by the late 1980s, is to be launched from B-52Gs.
General Mathis, himself a seasoned fighter pilot but with sure knowledge of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber requirements, has this to say about the project for the B-1, a penetrating bomber for the future, canceled by President Carter for economy reasons in 1977, but now talked of again:
"Of course, a penetrating bomber for the Air Force is very important. . . . The B-52 can't last forever. It's older now than some of the people who are flying it. . . .
"We're doing some modifications of B-52 to make it even better; give it better avionics, and certainly with the B-52Gs right now, we're going for the ALCM." But as for developing the B-1 (for which the fiscal 1981 budget is expected to supply some funds), that will have to take a back seat to the MX.
Both the US and the USSR, despite their proclaimed desire to keep warfare out of outer space, are developing antisatellite and other space warfare systems, as well as constantly improving their "spy-in-the-sky" reconnaissance satellites.
The Soviet launching last month, shortly before the aborted US hostage rescue mission in IRAN, of two new cosmos military satellites worries the USAF.They seemed to be designed for testing anti-satellite weapons, perhaps in the supersecret areas of lasers and directed-particle-beam weapons.
A third Soviet radar ocean surveillance spacecraft launched April 29 added to concern because it is apparently powered by a nuclear fission reactor. The last such Soviet craft crashed in Canada in 1978, spreading radioactive debris and spurring international protests.
Apart from the danger of its reactor, this type of spacecraft gives the Soviets the ability to find and target US ships at sea. The Air Force says it has indications the Soviets are already able to launch an ocean surveillance spacecraft and have it return tactical data within the time it takes the Earth to make one revolution. This gives the US little warning that major naval units (and land targets including MX areas already pinpointed from space) were about to be located and targeted.
In a war in space, such satellites of both superpowers (and perhaps their allies) would be targets of anti-satellite weapons, unless all space and anti-satellite weapons are brought under control in new arms-limitation agreements.
US space programs, including the space shuttle, scheduled to begin its many peaceful and military-type missions next year, are suffering from the loss of trained personnel to the aerospace firms.
Along with the compensation question, however, it is the even larger one of whether the US is losing its technological and reseearch edge. Air Force Secretary Mark is one of the American leaders who thinks the trends are in this direction. Inevitably, this affects the readiness of the US armed forces.
What can be done about it? Secretary Mark recently made this suggestion:
"We must make a conscious national effort at technology development, aimed at re-industrializing the US and modern- izing our industrial plant. We must start with people, and once again, in the long term, make it attractive for them to go into technical and engineering fields. We must then play to the strengths of those technologies we already have where we now lead; that is, aviation, electronics, synthetics, and so forth, and make a conscious effort to develop new ones where we have serious problems.
"I firmly believe," the Air Force Secretary concluded, "that this is the only way we will retain our position as a major nation.
To which a thoughtful young airman of this reporter's acquaintance added, as he watched the news from Iran on television: "What we really have to do, most of all, is a human thing. We have to restore the image of people in uniform as a dignified one -- an image of pride, respected and not looked down by those out of uniform."