The MX is back on square one

The MX missile, after eight years of studies and countless reports by blue-ribbon panels, is back where it started - without a secure home. General Scowcroft and his distinguished presidential commission on strategic forces were given an impossible task - to justify continuance of the MX program - but they could find no security rationale and admittedly fell back on a political compromise in hope that it might calm the Congress into accepting the MX.

The commission report has made good and useful observations, but justify the MX missile system it certainly does not. The Congress has repeatedly refused to fund the basing of the MX missiles in existing Minuteman silos, and countless national security experts have denounced this option. There is nothing in the report to warrant changing anyone's mind; in fact, just the opposite. Yet the commission recommends deploying 100 MXs with 1,000 threatening warheads in these vulnerable launchers. This proposal is totally at variance with the remainder of the report, which urges moving to fewer warheads per missile, deployed so as to survive a Soviet attack.

To overcome this inconsistency, the commission justifies the deployment of the MX on the following political rather than military grounds: (1) to demonstrate US seriousness because the US announced many years ago that it would build a new ICBM, (2) to match the Soviets, who have missiles with similar characteristics, and (3) to pressure the Soviets into scrapping their threatening ICBM forces and into some arms control agreement.

But do these political arguments warrant the increased risk of a nuclear war that the MX creates? Clearly no.

* Spending billions on a weapon only useful in a first strike demonstrates madness, not seriousness. Soviet leaders, and in fact, the entire world, would be more impressed by unfaltering, realistic negotiations to limit nuclear weapons rather than by the procurement of new ones which make nuclear war more likely.

* Matching the Soviet Union with a countersilo ICBM, which only provides a target that could tempt the Soviets to actually use their missiles against the US, is a mindless way to demonstrate American strength. Instead of bemoaning the decision not to deploy a new ICBM as a sign of US weakness, we should be proclaiming the Soviets' concentration on potentially vulnerable ICBMS as evidence of their inferiority. We should be extolling the survivability of America's overall strategic deterrent and use this as an inducement for the Soviet Union to move to a more survivable strategic force structure with less reliance on land-based missiles.

* Buying new threatening weapons as arms control bargaining chips, which the Reagan administration has said it will not give up in the negotiation, is not a prescription for getting the Soviets to exercise restraint. Does anyone seriously believe that the Soviets will reduce their ICBM warheads by a third (the Reagan START proposal) because the US is increasing its threat to their land-based missiles? Of course not. If we proceed with the MX, there is not a chance in the world that the Russians will not procure the new large MIRVed ICBM , which they have just begun testing.

The Scowcroft commission tries to make the MX deployment more palatable by linking it with the study of a small, single-warhead missile (Midgetman) as a longer-term alternative. Reliance on single- as opposed to multiple-warhead missiles is basically sound since these, unlike the MX, would increase stability and reduce incentive for the initiation of a nuclear attack. It is still far too early, however, to make any decision on whether to procure a new small missile. Certainly the MIRVed MX and the single-warhead Midgetman programs do not have to be treated as a package. For the present we should stick by the existing Minuteman force which the Air Force admits is not wearing out and which the Scowcroft commission says that the Soviets would have no incentive to attack. This Minuteman force is more survivable without the existence of the MX and does not provoke the Soviets into a preemptive strike or into the adoption of a launch-on-warning strategy.

Once a decision to deploy 100 MX missiles is made, no one can ever be sure that the program would stop at the 100 level. Soviet strategic planners would have to assume that it might continue beyond that point. The US is actually planning to procure 223 missiles, and the commission threatens to expand the program unless the Soviets cut back on their ICBM force. General Scowcroft is thus misleading when he claims the MX would not be taken as a first-strike system because 1,000 warheads would not threaten all current Soviet ICBMs.

Furthermore, continuation of the extensive program to deploy the MX would almost inevitably divert resources needed to move to the more stable single-warhead missile. It could only serve to delay such a new program were a decision made to go ahead with it. The costs in dollars placed on new strategic weapons would be very much greater. Those who favor the concept of the single-warhead missile would be well advised to discard a package deal that calls for the procurement of the MX first.

Thus, if we are to really move toward a strategic policy goal espoused by the Scowcroft commission, increased stability and reduced risk of nuclear war, we should adopt its recommendations to begin the search on a small ballistic missile submarine as an alternative to Trident, to study the deployment of a small single-warhead ICBM, and to adopt a START position allowing missiles with fewer warheads per missile. But we should cancel once and for all the ill-starred MX program which can only undercut this goal and make more likely a nuclear holo-caust.

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