Concern that the United States may lack adequate strategic punch in the 1980s if it waits for deployment of the troubled MX missile has led some of Ronald Reagan's military advisers to propose an MX-like modification for the nation's Minuteman III missile force.
The plan is to build additional silos at existing strategic missile sites in Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming so that re-engineered Minuteman IIIs can be shuffled among them. Thus, the modified Minuteman system would retain the element of deception central to the MX concept, which calls for 200 missiles to be rotated among 4,600 launch sites.
"The governor has said that we should have a more timely solution to ICBM survivability than what is currently planned, which is a 1990 solution for a 1980s problem. And we are busy not looking at alternatives," says Reagan's chief defense advisor, William Van Cleave, director of the defense and strategic studies program at the University of Southern California.
Some of Mr. Reagan's strategic warfare experts believe that an improved Minuteman III system could be fully operational by late 1984 -- five or six years before the controversial MX system is ready.
"If you really think that the mid-1980s are a desperately dangerously period for the West, then there's no question but that you probably could save a year or two through Minuteman," observes Colin Gray, director of national security studies at the Hudson Institute in New York. Dr. Gray is one of the nation's foremost experts on the MX missile system.
But he adds, "Minuteman III is not designed for a rapid shuffle, and if you're going to shuffle it, you have to change a number of engineering features of the system."
He says it would be necessary to reopen the Minuteman III production line, which might take "a year or two because a lot of the crucial machine tools were destroyed when the production line was closed down last year, which was almost a criminal thing to have happened."
He adds that there are about 130 to 140 Minuteman IIIs in storage that could be utilized if a Reagan administration decided to create a more survivable Minuteman III counterforce.
"Some of Reagan's people believe that if they start pouring concrete fairly soon they could have the beginnings of a deceptively based system within 18 months to two years, and by the end of 1984 they could substantially complete the program," says Dr. Gray. But he has doubts about the scheme.
"I think they're underestimating the problems," he says. "They've got to build special test facilities out at Vandenberg Air Force Base for it because, substantially, it's a new missile."
He adds: "If MX comes along sooner, you might end up spending a lot of money on a system that really is only an interim solution -- money that could be better used on something else. In fact, you might imperil the MX program by going for a quick fix."
But he feels that such a course of action is "likely" if Mr. Reagan wins the presidency from Jimmy Carter in November.
Dr. Van Cleave takes issue with Dr. Gray on the question of modifying the Minuteman III.
"I myself personally have favored that [modification]. But we're examining options at this point in time, so I can't say that anything's a likelihood. If the MX basing program must indeed take 10 years to provide the necessary survivability, then we must seriously consider rebasing the Minuteman III force to provide the necessary degree of survivability through the decade of the 1980 s."
Both Dr. Van Cleave and Dr. Gray insist Reagan would not abandon the MX project, beset as it is by criticism from politicians, ranchers, environmentalists, and the Shoshone Indian tribe that claims it would violate the provisions of an 1863 treaty.
But Richard Allen, the chairman of Reagan's defense and foreign policy team, declares in the August edition of Air Force Magazine that the candidate has not yet taken a definitive position on the MX System. While most of Reagan's team back it. Mr. Allen told senior editor Edgar Ulsamer, "We have some people who don't think MX is worth very much itself."
Dr. Gray doubts whether there would be much opposition from local residents if a deceptively based Minuteman III program were begun on the Great Plains.
"If anything, the Air Force has an almost embarrassing degree of support from the local farming population around the existing Minuteman fields," he says, observing that farmers, protective of their crops, tend to act as an "unpaid security force" when silos are located in their fields, warning away the inquisitive -- sometimes with shotguns.
But he emphasizes that the Minuteman III scheme would, of necessity, require more siting points -- and therefore more land -- than the amount allocated for the MX system because the Minuteman missile carries only three warheads as opposed to the MX's 10.
The Air Force argues than 12,000 shelters would be needed for 550 Minuteman IIIs if equal survivability with MX is to be achieved. For this reason alone, it rejects Minuteman III modifications such as those under consideration in the Reagan camp, pointing out that the cost "would be at least 20 percent more than the MX system. Initial operational capability would not be any earlier than MX, and the environmental impact should certainly be far greater. MX is the far better solution."