MX report: the flaws in the model

William H. Kincade is executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.

The history of modern warfare strongly suggests that neither the effectiveness of deterrence nor the onset of war is quite as sensitive to the precise numbers or performance of weapons or to the composition of forces as the strategic model of either hawks or doves would indicate. Of far greater importance to the maintenance or failure of deterrence - the record of World Wars I and II and several lesser conflicts shows - are political objectives combined with errors in information, perception, communications, and calculation.

One cannot omit, in assessing the potential for either successful deterrence or war, the impact of military hardware or forces. Neither should their contribution and its decisiveness be overrated.

This, though, is precisely what the President's Commission on Strategic Forces has done in its recent report. And it has done so in an effort to build a consensus embracing both hawk and dove, thereby amply reflecting the deficiencies in the model used by both.

Headed by retired general Brent Scow-croft, the commission ''finds that the preferred approach for modernizing our ICBM force seems to have three components: initiating engineering design of a single-warhead small (mobile) ICBM, to reduce target value and permit flexibility in basing for better long-term survivability; seeking arms-control agreements designed to enhance strategic stability; and deploying MX missiles in existing silos now to satisfy the immediate needs of our ICBM force.'' Further: ''The Commission is unanimous that no one part of the proposed program can accomplish (the objective of reducing the risk of war) alone.''

Set aside the real questions as to (1) whether the present administration has any genuine interest in achieving nuclear arms control, (2) whether it can be had by the commission's recommended coercive method of ''all-sticks-and-no-carrots,'' or (3) whether this study - whatever its intent - is anything more than a thinly disguised rationale for MX deployment now with the promise of future bones to be thrown to the right and left critics of MX. The report remains an amalgam of contradictions.

The assessment of the window of ICBM vulnerability is one example. The report implies that vulnerability is primarily still a future problem when justifying immediate emplacement of missiles in stationary silos but treats it as a present concern in rationalizing MX as a necessary missile modernization.

Another analysis gap exists between the overall depiction of the Soviet Union as prudent and politically motivated in building its nuclear arsenal but requiring extraordinary additional US technical and budgetary exertions to deter it from acts of which the earlier portrayal suggests the Russians already foresee the dire consequences.

One can buy much of the analysis and objectives of the Scowcroft report and still reject its recommendations: MX, the singlet missile, or exclusively coercive arms bargaining. For one thing, the range of anticipated Soviet perceptions and possible reactions to US developments is decidedly narrow, resulting in part from the distorting singularity of focus on ICBMs. Alternative perceptual possibilities are not addressed. And the impact of burgeoning US cruise missile, stealth bomber, and expanded warhead and Trident submarine programs on Soviet perceptions is totally ignored.

The analysis further assumes that weapons and weapons programs are good instruments for sending complex messages about motivation and resolve clearly and unambiguously, whereas both history and our own reaction to Soviet weapons programs demonstrate that they are notoriously ambiguous, blunt instruments for communication between hostile powers. Here again, we have an unsophisticated, engineering model of perception and deterrence, one which is highly Westernized in its rationalism, despite an injunction against such ethnocentrism.

Moreover, the lack of either US or Soviet success in trying to coerce the other with weapons buildups in the past ought to caution us against so simple a strategem. Finally, to imply, as the report does, that every Soviet capability must be matched for perceptual purposes by a symmetrical US equivalent is to let the USSR dictate American force structure, to confound military science by conceding initiative to the adversary, to underrate offsetting US strengths, and to invite an everlasting upward strategic competition, as the Soviets also seek to match our many leads.

Another major cluster of inconsistencies surrounds the arms-control recommendations. Based on a cogent analysis of the aims of arms limitation, they nevertheless reflect the naive hope that, although the US should not be pressured into arms accords by Soviet building programs, the Soviets should by the US buildup. The strategic forces recommendations, moreover, belie the expressed dedication to arms control in that they underwrite the final demise of the delicate SALT II regime by pushing two new missiles instead of the one that is permitted.

Albeit rationalized on a technicality, this can only remove any lingering Soviet negotiating incentives, expecially when viewed in the light of other US strategic initiatives, American failure to ratify the three nuclear arms agreements signed in the past 10 years, and recent expressions of infatuation with advanced ballistic missile defenses banned under the ABM treaty.

Meanwhile, the preferred programs would proliferate the warheads the commission calls for reducing; would fail to solve the hypothetical missile vulnerability problem while sapping $15 billion to $20 billion in resources from more effective defense programs for investment in the technically wasting asset of land-based ICBMs; and distort deterrence theory into a rationale for a permanent nuclear rivalry more for the sake of creating impressions than for the realization of cogent military objectives.

The many faults of this essentially political, not strategic, document lie less with its authors, however, than with a mechanical model for deterrence and arms limitation that increasingly serves its own internal logic and a simplistic understanding of military stability, symmetry, and perceptions rather than the larger goal of improving US security.

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