Washington — Slowly but surely, the MX is becoming a real, live weapons system. In 1983, Congress approved the purchase of 21 MXs. This week, it appears likely that the House will release funds for 21 more of the hulking, 10-warhead missiles. MX roused passions, both pro and con, from the moment of its proposal over a decade ago. In recent years it has stood at the center of much of the debate about United States nuclear strategy. Meanwhile, with less controversy, the modernization of all US strategic forces has been striding ahead full speed.
In the past year, the Pentagon has proceeded toward deployment of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons. For example:
The first production B-1B bomber rolled off the assembly line in September. The needle-nosed B-1, scrapped by President Carter and reordered by President Reagan, is scheduled to go into service next year. Congress has already approved the purchase of 52 planes; in its fiscal '86 budget, the Reagan administration requests $5.4 billion for an another 48 B-1Bs.
Cruise missiles, pilotless planes designed to fly under radar defenses, have come more into play. Last year the Navy began deploying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on some ships. The Air Force finished modifying 98 aging B-52Gs into cruise-missile launch platforms.
The fifth Trident submarine, the USS Henry Jackson, will soon sail out on its first patrol. The big Tridents, which are replacing '60s-vintage Poseidons, are now being built at the rate of one a year. Congress has already authorized the purchase of 12; Reagan's '86 budget includes money for the 13th.
The network of electronics for communicating with these forces is being strengthened. For instance, two low-frequency antennas for beaming messages to submarines should become operational in 1986. President Reagan's '86 budget includes $1.4 billion for strategic communications.
In addition, work on major new weapons that are not yet close to deployment has proceeded apace. ``Midgetman,'' the small, mobile missile recommended by the Scowcroft commission in 1983, is slated to get $625 million in planning money next year. The Boeing Corporation and Martin Marietta have already signed contracts to design Midgetman launchers. The Trident 2 missile, which will bring the accuracy of land-based missiles to sea, is now in full-scale development, with a planned delivery in 1989.
The first lot of production MX missiles will be finished in about a year, whatever the outcome of this week's vote on releasing $1.5 billion in MX money from the 1985 budget. Test flights have so far gone smoothly, although problems have developed with the rocket's nozzle. Plans now call for 10 MXs to become operational in December 1986, in Minuteman 3 silos in Wyoming.
The MX's long odyssey began in 1972, when the Air Force first proposed building a new missile to replace the Minuteman. While the MX has been wending its way from drawing board to silo, the justification behind it has been changing drastically.
Originally, military planners said the MX was necessary because the Minutemen, in their silos, were vulnerable to destruction by the Soviet Union's most modern land-based missiles. Thus a new missile, deployed in a different manner, was needed.
But president after president has had difficulty finding an invulnerable MX basing method. Thirty-five ideas have been proposed: railroad tracks, deep trenches, underwater systems -- almost everything but placing the missile on the Washington subway. So President Reagan, at the recommendation of the presidential Scowcroft commission, decided to drop the MX into existing silos, as an interim solution, and begin work on the mobile Midgetman.
In any case, even US Air Force generals now say our silos aren't quite that susceptible to destruction.
John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, says: ``In general, the trend of opinion is that the silo vulnerability problem is not as severe as thought several years ago.''
The military rationale for the MX has thus switched to what experts call its ``hard target kill'' capability. Minutemen missiles can't destroy hardened Soviet military targets, this theory goes, so the US needs the big, accurate MX.
Critics say this makes the MX a tempting target for a preemptive Soviet first strike, and that we don't need ``hard target kill'' capability unless we're planning a first strike ourselves.
``The MX is a terribly imperfect system in the context of what it is setting about to achieve,'' says Michael Vlahos, director of security studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. But the missile is needed, he says, because of its political effect.
Administration lobbyists have been saying the US needs the MX to bargain with the Soviets at the Geneva arms talks. Dr. Vlahos says we need it to assure Europe, as much as the USSR, about our will. If Congress votes down the MX, he says, European governments will become much more restive about accepting deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles.
``In alliance terms, the MX is important,'' he says.
Others say the MX is a military white elephant, and they argue that a flawed weapon just can't work as a bargaining chip. Barry Blechman, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the US should just get out of the land-based missile business in general, leaving only a symbolic few ICBMs.
``We have tremendous advantages in submarine and bomber warfare'' that we should concentrate on, he says.
Ironically, President Reagan was not the instigator of much of the current strategic buildup, experts note. He resurrected the B-1 and pushed hard for funding, but many key programs such as the Trident 2 and even the MX first received serious attention under President Carter.