There is an MX escape route

The news from the Reagan ranch during the past two weeks has made it clear that John Anderson was right. The Reagan economic program (tax and budget cuts) and the Reagan military buildup are incompatible. The new President can have one or the other. But he cannot have them both.

This is Reagan's first truly big quandary as President. He can't sidestep this one. He is going to have to cut back hard on one or the other. Which is it to be?

He has a way out, with an interesting political association.

During the 1960 presidential campaign John F. Kennedy ran hard on the "defence" issue just as Mr. Reagan did in the 1980 campaign. Mr. Kennedy claimed that the Eisenhower administration had allowed a "missile gap" to open up between Soviet strategic weapons and American strategic weapons. The Soviets , it was asserted, were running ahead of the United States. Mr. Kennedy promised to make up for lost time when he reached the White House.

Well, when Mr. Kennedy reached the White House and was duly briefed by the experts it was discovered that there was no "missile gap" after all. The US was still comfortably ahead of the Soviets in nuclear missile power. Mr. Kennedy did not have to spend a lot of money on a catch-up program. All he had to do was to admit a campaign mistake.

During 1980 Ronald Reagan campaigned on the theory that the Soviets now lead the US in ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and so enjoy an advantage which has opened up a "window of vulnerability" for the US. Mr. Reagan promised to close that "window" by getting on with the B-1 bomber, which President carter had cancelled, and the Mx missile, which Mr. Carter had delayed.

But now he finds that his plan for achieving a balanced budget by 1984 can be achieved only by heavy cuts either in social security or in weaponry. His political advisers tell him that cutting social security would be political suicide for the party. So it has to be guns. Can he cut his plans for a massive buildup in weapons?

Yes, he can, if he is willing to follow Kennedy route, admit a mistake, and abandon two of the more expensive dreams of Pentagon planners, the MX and the B- 1 bomber. The cost of the two would easily equal the cuts which must still be made in budget planning if the budget is to be balanced in 1984.

But can those weapons be cancelled safely?

That depends on which weaponeers you accept. The enthusiasts for MX and B-1 bomber (most enthusiastic being senators and congressmen from districts with factories which would build the weapons) believe insistently in the "window of vulnerability." But there are reputable experts who say that the "window" theory is mistaken.

Among these is the International Institute of Strategic Studies. It publishes an annual study called Strategic Survey. The latest issue of this publication notes that the Soviets will, from 1983 to 1986, have more power in their ICBM weapons than the US in the same weapons.

But the US has long-range bombers carrying strategic weapons. The Soviets have no comparable bombers. And the US is able to maintain 20 strategic submarines on station, armed with 3,200 nuclear warheads, against 7 to 10 such submarines for the Soviets. Besides, the US strategic submarines "are regarded as invulnerable to current Soviet anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities." The similar Soviet submarines "are continuously monitored by US ASW forces."

"Finally," says the IISS publication, " the vulnerability of US ICBM is much more a theoretical than an operational concern. To destroy the 1,064 US ICBM silos, the Soviet Union would need to use some 2,000 perfectly coordinated warheads -- including a second (and perhaps even a third) wave to compensate for failures in flight and on detonation in the first wave -- all of them spaced and timed to avoid mutual destruction by the phenomenon known as 'fratricide' which can cause the explosion of some weapons."

The command and control requirements for such an operation "border on the infeasible." Moreover, says the study, "the US could avoid the destruction of its ICBM force by recourse to tactical measures such as launch-on-warning (LOW) or launch-under attack (LUA), which would leave only empty silos for incoming Soviet warheads to destroy."

The conclusion of the study is that the "window" is not due to objective strategic fact but to an underestimate of US deterrence capabilities which has arisen from "the limited perspectives of the American strategic debate."

If Mr. Reagan takes the IISS appraisal he can save nearly $100 billion by cutting out the MX entirely and probably another $50 billion by cutting out the B-1. But then he will have a lot of angry senators and congressmen to pacify.

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