MX choices for Reagan full of flaws, risks, experts say

There is no way to base the MX missile that is free of "serious risks," declares the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). "At least 30 different MX basing plans have been proposed and not one is without serious liabilities," chimes in the Center for Defense Informantion (CDI).

Reports from both organizations -- the former an advisory arm of the US Congress, the latter a dovish research group -- reveal how the MX missile is confronting President Reagan with one of the severest strategic dilemmas ever faced by a US commander in chief.

Essentially, say experts, he has inherited a hugely destructive missile that cannot be based simply and effectively. "This [MX basing option] is a question of what is the least rotten apple in a barrel of rotten apples," declared Dr. Seymour Zeiberg, deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, earlier this year.

At the moment the Defense Department seems to be leaning toward deploying 100 MX missiles in 1,000 shelters in southeastern Nevada, a concept -- known as multiple protective shelter (MPS) -- that echoes the Carter administration's plan to shuttle 200 missiles around 4,600 shelters there and in UTah.

In its newly published report, the OTA examines 11 ways to base the MX and concludes that five of them seem to offer "survivability and . . . performance criteria." But each has "serious risks and drawbacks" and none could be operational" much before 1990," it claims.

The survivability of an MPS-based MX depends on successfully concealing the location of a few hundred missiles among thousands of shelters, the report notes. But confidence in US ability to do this, it maintains, will be limited until MX prototypes have been tested.

If the Soviet Union continues to expand its strategic missile forces, the OTA report observes, the United States will need more missiles and shelters to counter the threat. "To ensure the survival of 100 MX missiles, 360 missiles hidden in 8,250 shelters could be required by 1990, and 550 missiles in 12, 500 shelters by 1995," it asserts. Moreover, the report states that MPS basing would have a severe social, economic, and physical impact on the deployment region and could result in the loss of thousands of square miles of productive range land.

adding antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses, specifically the low-altitude air defense system, to an MPS system could force the Soviets to attack each shelter with two warheads, ti adds. But both the MX and the ABM system would have to be concealed, and the ABM would have to function amid exploding warheads. "It is not now certain that these conditions can be met," the report declares. The deployment of an effective ABM system would be impossible without amending or withdrawing from the Soviet-American ABM treaty of 1972, it adds, warning of the risk of a Soviet counterdeployment.

Basing MX missiles in silos and launching them before they could be destroyed , a concept known as launch-under-attack, is technically feasible the OTA says. "However, the consequences of errors could include a successful Soviet first strike or an accidental nuclear war," it warns, adding that current ABM technology is not yet able to protect silo-based missiles.

Though the OTA seems relatively enthusiastic about deploying the MX on small submarines, it warns that future Soviet developments in antisubmarine warfare might make this risky.

The OTA, which advises Congress on technology, finds air mobile basing of the MX "highly survivable" as long as the planes take off immediately after an attack warning is received. but if the Soviet Union bombarded all the airfields where the planes could refuel, "the United States would have to 'use or lose' air-mobile-based MX missiles within the first five to eight hours of a war," it claims.

Moreover the aircraft, like the US B-52 bomber force, would be vulnerable to a surprise missile assault from Soviet submarines lying off the US coast, the OTA adds.

"The fact that the administration is still struggling to develop an acceptable basing mode at this late date is evidence that none of the many proposed options are workable or cost effective," declares retired Rear Adm. Eugen J. Carroll Jr., deputy director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, which would like the MX program abandoned.

In a just-published CDI report entitled "MX: The Weapon Nobody Wants," Admiral Carroll claims the controversial missile is a first-strike weapon intended to destroy the Soviet Union's 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.