MX-ing up the political scene

An election year is the worst time for a serious discussion of national defense. President Carter cannot risk being seen weaker than Ronald Reagan and therefore publicly supports weapons and programs he might otherwise reject. Rivalry within the defense establishment, meanwhile, intensifies as special-interest advocates ride the political winds to boost their own pet projects. The public ought to be wary of what comes out of Washington these days.

Take the MX mobile missile. Forces within the Pentagon have been strongly pushing it in order to safeguard the US land-based missile system. One major reason given for building the MX is that America's strategic submarines could become vulnerable early in the next decade. In fact William Perry, a high Pentagon offical, stated in a recent magazine interview that he foresaw within five or ten years a breakthrough in Soviet technology for detecting US submarines.

This apparently raised the hackles of Adm. Thomas Hayward, chief of naval operations, who sent off a memo to Defense Secretary Harold Brown accusing Pentagon aides of using false arguments to win support for the MX. According to a New York Times report, the Navy commander said he did not believe there would be a Soviet threat to the quiet US submarines in the near future. Mr. Brown, the report stated, replied to the admiral acknowledging that the Pentagon may have distorted its arguments in support of the MX and henceforth would not raise unfoounded concerns about America's strategic submarines.

This doesn't end the controversy, of course. Arguments continue over how close the Soviets may be to a breakthrough in detection technology, over whether to put the MX on small submarines instead of on land, and over whether to scrap the MX altogether in favor of a new submarine missile. It is safe to say that sober debate of defense alternatives will not be possible until after the election. In the meantime voters would do well to greet claims and counterclaims in the whole arcane realm of defense with a trace of skepticism.

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