Reagan decision likely to rile both MX critics, backers

If President Reagan announces a plan Oct. 2 to base 100 MX missiles among 1, 000 shelters in the West, he almost certainly will draw fierce criticism from those who support and oppose the deployment of the controversial missile system.

Specifically, say observers, opponents will blast him for not scrapping it and supporters will complain bitterly that the plan is insufficient to meet the burgeoning Soviet threat.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger Sept. 30 cast doubt on the credibility of reports that the President will announce such a plan when he said he had "never seen so many errors" in press coverage of the purported MX decision.

There are also indications that some MX missiles may be placed in Minuteman silos at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, where the Safeguard antiballistic system was briefly operational in 1975. According to MX opponent Gene LaRocque, a retired rear admiral and director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, nobody -- except the President, his advisers, and senior Air Force officers -- knows exactly what the MX decision will entail.

Nevertheless, strategic warfare experts who are prepared to comment on the President's reported intention to deploy 100 MX missiles among 1,000 shelters (rather than shuffling 200 missiles around 4,600 shelters, as the Carter administration planned to do) contend that some form of ballistic missile defense (BMD) would be essential to protect the system.

Others, Admiral LaRocque among them, insist that any BMD system could be overwhelmed by a massive Soviet ICBM assault.

"One hundred MX missiles in 1,000 shelters don't begin to address the nature of the Soviet threat," says Dr. Keith Payne, a defense analyst at the Hudson Institute, which is well known for its studies of US national security issues. Dr. Payne claims that such a deployment provides an "ample rationale" for an accompanying BMD system.

According to the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an advisory arm of Congress, the so-called low-altitude air defense system (LoADS) which is currently being developed by the Air Force would have a high probability of shooting down the first warhead aimed at each MX missile.

But it emphazies that both the location of the MX missiles and the LoADS units will have to be unknown to the Soviets and that the latter would be required to endure nearby nuclear blasts "of a severity unprecedented for so complex a piece of equipment." The difficulty of maintaining the necessary deception, the OTA observes, would be compounded by the fact that each LoADS unit would have to be concealed in a shelter and be indistinguishable from the MX and 900 decoy missiles designed to confuse Soviet strategists.

Without a BMD system, a deployment of 100 missiles in 1,000 shelters would be vulnerable, says Rep. David F. Emery (R) of Maine, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He estimates that only 415 of the 1,000 MX warheads (10 per missile) would survive a 6,000-warhead assault by the Soviet Union. If 2,000 BMD interceptor missiles were added to protect the MX, the entire system would cost $53 billion. "These are astronomical costs to even be discussing in an era of fiscal restraint," declares Congressman Emery.

Herbert Scoville, president of the Arms Control Association and a noted foe of land-basing the MX, concedes that BMD technology has improved since the Safeguard system was installed at Grand Forks, but still maintains that the Soviet Union could saturate 1,000 shelters with a missile salvo. "After all, we've always admitted that 4,600 shelters were not enough to deal with the Soviet threat," he exclaims.

Dr. Scoville, who believes the MX would be best deployed on small submarines, characterizes the President's anticipated basing announcement as a "purely political decision which ignores the security aspect," a reference to Reagan's campaign vow not to deploy the system on the scale that President Carter had envisaged it. He maintains that the President will "catch hell" from those on both sides of the MX debate who will inevitably be disappointed with his decision.

"It's too little for some people and too much for others," says Admiral LaRocque, who claims that the Soviet Union could knock out a thousand-shelter deployment despite the installation of a BMD system. No matter what the President announces tomorrow he predicts the MX system will never be built "because it's militarily unsound."

The National Campaign to Stop the MX plans to fight on if the President does announce a decision to deploy MX tomorrow. But if the shelters are built on federal land in NEvada, environmentalist will not be in position to complain as stridently about the missile deployment as they have in the past, observers say.

When the President reveals his MX decision Friday, he is also expected to announce the building of 100 B-1 bombers at a cost of $197 million apiece.

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