Washington — The future of the United States land-based nuclear missile force is becoming increasingly uncertain. In 1983, Congress and the White House agreed on modernization plans for this leg of the US nuclear triad -- but that agreement is now fraying. As a result, bitter political battles over proposed new missiles may lie ahead.
``If the administration keeps playing around, they may find they don't get any type of new missile at all,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Whether the US missile arsenal needs upgrading does not seem to be the issue. Most parties to the debate agree that something needs to be done to reduce the vulnerability of the US land-based nuclear force to a Soviet preemptive attack.
The size and mobility of any new US missile, however, are contentious topics. To keep the growing number of options straight, one analyst has picked up on the current Minuteman missile to nickname them for their proponents: ``Congressman,'' ``Undersecretaryman,'' and ``Randcorporationman.''
Until recently there was harmony in Washington about the future of US intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This was the legacy of the Scowcroft Commission, a presidential panel on strategic forces that in 1983 produced a report subscribed to by all sides.
The report called for: putting 100 large, 10-warhead MX missiles in fixed silos; building a small, single-warhead mobile missile, known as ``Midgetman''; and reaching an arms control agreement limiting warhead numbers.
Since '83 many events have put this prescription in question. For one, little progress has been made toward an arms control agreement. For another, Congress voted to build 50 MXs, and then washed its hands of the missile. And Midgetman, once the darling of the strategic-analyst set, is now facing increasing criticism from powerful factions in both the White House and Congress.
``Personally, I have profound reservations whether there will be a home for this new missile,'' says Frank J. Gaffney Jr., deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear forces.
Most scenarios for the Midgetman see its being survivable because it will be mobile, shuffling about the countryside on futuristic trucks. Some top administration officials, however, say it would be bad for the US and the Soviet Union to put large portions of their ICBM forces on mobile launchers.
In a surprise move, the administration in the Geneva arms talks has proposed banning mobile ICBMs. Officials argue that it would be possible to tell whether the Soviet Union had mobile missiles, but impossible to be sure how many they had because the USSR is so vast. Thus a total ban is called for if arms control is to have any meaning, they say.
Proponents admit that verifying the number of Soviet mobile missiles would be difficult. But they say that these smaller, inherently less-accurate missiles would be less threatening than today's giant Soviet ICBMs and that no one has yet found a way to ensure survivability of US missiles in silos.
R. James Woolsey, a Washington lawyer and member of the Scowcroft Commission, points out that all other aspects of US strategic forces are being made more mobile. ``Nuclear command-and-control posts are being put on airplanes,'' he says. ``New Trident subs are at sea a higher percentage of the time than old Poseidons. The B-1 bomber moves away from its base much faster than the B-52,'' he says.
Midgetman is also drawing fire for its small size, which critics say will increase the program's cost and might keep it from carrying advanced warheads.
Because each launcher would carry only one warhead, Midgetman would be expensive: $44 billion for a force of 500, according to the US General Accounting Office. The same number of warheads mounted on MXs would be 25 times cheaper, says Donald A. Hicks, undersecretary of defense for research, development, and engineering.
But proponents say the $44 billion is not out of line for a major weapon system. ``Take a program we're starting this year -- the C-17 cargo plane,'' says Mr. Aspin. ``Its total cost will be $37 billion.''
A turning point in Midgetman's young life will come this December, when a Pentagon panel meets to decide whether the missile should progress to the ``bending tin'' stage of prototype development -- and, if so, how large the missile should be.
In March, a Defense Science Board report recommended that the Air Force proceed with a 37,000-pound Midgetman. Undersecretary Hicks, and several other top Pentagon officials, disagree. They say the merits of larger mobile missiles of 40,000 to 70,000 pounds, with two or three warheads, should be investigated.
Mr. Hicks has also said he would like ``to make a run'' for 50 more MX missiles, despite Congress's evident desire never to consider that weapon again.
Proponents of the Scowcroft agreement, however, worry that any attempt to turn Midgetman into somewhat larger man will delay construction and dissipate the last elements of congressional consensus on the issue. ``If the undersecretary of defense kills Midgetman, the retaliation from Congress will be to kill any hope of more MXs, and we will end up with nothing,'' Mr. Woolsey says.