The vulnerable MX

It comes as no surprise that "new realities" are forcing the Reagan administration to cut defense spending. This is the term the White House itself uses as it wrestles with the prospect of a $20 billion higher deficit in 1982 than earlier projected. Clearly President Reagan sees his whole economic program -- and possibly his presidency -- in jeopardy if he does not bring the budget under control. Defense is a logical area for economies.

Yet it is somewhat ironic to hear the defense issue addressed now less in terms of budget savings. The latter cannot be ignored, to be sure. The issues are related. But surely the primary aim ought to be to provide those arms and personnel which a sufficient US defense requires -- whatever the cost -- while resisting pressures from the Pentagon and defense industry for weapons of marginal and even questionable utility simply because there is plenty of money about.

The MX is a case in point. When this mobile missile system was first broached under the Carter administration the cost was put at something like $25 billion. Then the estimate rose to $32 billion. Now the figure is in the stratosphere of $100 billion -- and probably rising. The MX thus becomes an obvious target for scrutiny. It should be examined afresh not alone because of its spiraling cost, however, but because of growing doubt about its intrinsic merits.

Two questions need to be weighed: Is the MX really needed? If it is needed, what is the best basing mode for the scheme?

Many arms experts, even of conservative, hard-line bent, now challenge the premise on which the MX was conceived; namely, that the US land-based missiles are vulnerable to a Soviet first strike and therefore need to be protected. The threat can be argued in theory but it is an implausible one. One would have to believe that the Russians first of all intended to launch a full-scale attack on the United States. Then it would have to be believed that they could send hundreds of missiles with pinpoint accuracy 6,000 miles over the North Pole, a trajectory never tested, while avoiding the so-called "fratricide" effect which could explode oncoming missiles -- a feat few think the Soviet Union could undertake with confidence. Finally, it would have to be believed that the Russians would embark on such a mad action expecting the US to be so paralyzed by fright that it would not launch a counterattack with missiles from its strategic submarines or bombers. The latter contain three fourths of America's nuclear warheads.

Such a scenario can be argued in the abstract perhaps. But the odds against success of a Soviet first strike are so high that abandoning the MX altogether should not be ruled out as one option before the administration. Mr. Carter, it might be remembered, was himself skeptical about the MX but decided on its development in the hopes this would quiet opposition to ratification of the SALT II treaty. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger now has an opportunity to weigh the issue with greater calm. If he is not persuaded of the value of the MX, it is only sensible that he advocate deferring a decision to deploy it for several years as some reports suggest he might do.

Many experts, of course, believe that the more accurate MX is still necessary to counter the strategic power of the heavy Soviet missiles. But even they now reject the complex basing scheme under which 200 MX missiles would be shuttled on mobile launchers among thousands of shelters over a long stretch of UTah and Nevada -- a system which would only invite a further proliferation of Soviet warheads. Fortunately, the administration appears ready to give up this technically absurd and politically unpopular plan as it considers such other alternatives as putting the MX aboard submarines or basing it in existing Minuteman silos.

It is difficult for most Americans to pick their way through the intricacies of such esoteric nuclear questions. But they know from past experience that generals and admirals often lobby for things they do not need. The public concern should be that the Reagan administration examine defense spending honestly -- and provide a sound military rationale for its choices. So far, the case for the MX has not been persuasively made.

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