The MX monster -- doubts from those in the know

It's so elaborate, so costly, and I'm not sure that it is necessary or would be effective." Thus did President Reagan sum up the doubts of many about the huge MX siting plan bequeathed to him by the Carter administration. His words were reported in a Washington Post interview on the same day that the New York Times Magazine carried a persuasive article, "Why We Shouldn't Build the MX," by Stansfield Turner, retired US Navy admiral and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Presumably no two people in the United States have had more information on the Soviet arms buildup available to them. When they question the MX project as a way to counter the Soviets, who is prepared to contradict them? The burden is on the Defense Department's new review committee to come up with overwhelming reasons -- currently not evident -- if it is to recommend going ahead with the project. Meanwhile, taxpayers are shelling out $4 million a day for what could turn out to be the kind of white elephant no Republican would want to be remembered for.

Though Mr. Reagan favors the MX (missile experimental) weapon itself, it was good to see him confirm that the siting of it is still a wide-open question. The present basing mode would shuttle each of 200 missiles among 23 launching shelters for a total of 4,600 shelters in Utah and Nevada.

Admiral Turner warns that it is not only the magnitude and cost of the project that must be closely examined but the question of whether it will be suitable for US needs in 1989 or 1990 when it would be operational. No alternative should be overlooked, including those that do not require a new missile.

"At the very least," the admiral argues, "the MX should be scaled down so that we could deploy it in more ways than just in fixed shelters. It is, literally, a case of smaller is not only cheaper but better."

It is hard to gainsay the Turner preference for a diverse mix of missile systems. They could include new intercontinental cruise missiles (with greater accuracy and penetrating power than ICBMs), mobile ICBMS (for trucks, ships, planes), and existing SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles). Any new ICBM should be small and light enough to be carried on various vehicles.

Such a program would not only address such Mx aims as reducing the vulnerability of ICBMs to surprise attack, increasing US ability to eliminate hardened targets, and enhancing the perception that the US is doing something decisive to deter the Soviets. It would also address what ought to be the overriding purpose of US military policy: to stabilize rather than destabilize the strategic balance between the US and the Soviet Union. To go for the mix rather than the MX would be less threatening to Moscow, would be less of an invitation for Moscow to proliferate war-heads, and would lessen the "feeling that hair-trigger responsiveness is necessary" --which the admiral calls perhaps the single most important element to keep out of the design of a weapons system.

If the MX is a mistake it would be a whopper -- up to $70 billion by General Accounting Office estimate; much more, according to some critics.

The President's caution is wise.

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