Peacekeeper or Phoenix?; Washington pendulum swings back to favor the MX

Perhaps President Reagan should have renamed the MX missile ''Phoenix'' instead of ''Peacekeeper.'' For like the mythical bird, the controversial strategic nuclear missile seems to be rising from what some had said was a political ash heap.

Accepting the President's assurances of a new administration emphasis on arms control, Congress is moving to keep the MX alive by approving funds for development, test flights, and initial production. Opponents, who last year stopped MX funding, are now on the defensive. They are mounting their own effort to counter Mr. Reagan's apparently successful personal lobbying blitz in Congress.

Several things account for the revival of the MX. The administration, responding to lawmakers' renewed interest in arms control and public concern about nuclear war-fighting doctrine, knows it must become less rigid in its stance on military affairs, especially as it relates directly to the possibility of world war. This is a key issue causing the President's political problem with women (the so-called gender gap), which will surely be a factor in the 1984 elections.

Concern about the Soviet Union's possible violations of the spirit if not the letter of SALT II by testing two new missiles is growing. Lawmakers never like to be perceived as soft on defense, particularly when it directly involves broader superpower relations. Included here is the sense that the key NATO issue at the moment - maintaining alliance unity on the deployment of medium-range nuclear weapons as a counter to the Soviet buildup - requires American resolve on the MX. For many officials and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, this must be reflected in a willingness to deploy new missiles here (or at least proceed toward deployment) if the European allies are to accept them on their soil.

MX opponents in the Senate this week recruited former Central Intelligence Agency Directors William Colby and Stansfield Turner to give legitimacy and weight to their cause. Both former intelligence chiefs say the MX is dangerous and unnecessary for arms reductions. In the House, 23 members sent a letter to all representatives warning that the 10-warheaded MX, deployed in existing silos , would be a dangerous development, pushing both the United States and the Soviet Union toward a first-strike posture.

Ranchers and farmers from Western states where the MX might be housed are also in town lobbying members of Congress who will vote on missile funding.

One of these is Linda Kirkbride, who, with her husband, is a fourth-generation rancher in Wyoming. Amid her 3,000 head of cattle are three Minuteman missile sites.

''By and large we get along with the Air Force very well,'' Mrs. Kirkbride said. ''But . . . we all know that (the MX) is a first-strike weapon that would either draw enemy fire or be the place where World War III would start.''

MX opponents in the West who helped block earlier basing proposals are regrouping to fight deployment in existing silos. But the political momentum in Washington now favors the MX, and several key committees have approved missile funding. Rep. Bill Green (R) of New York calls it ''an old merchandising gimmick ,'' but the administration has succeeded in convincing many lawmakers that it has acceded on certain key points in seeking the MX.

Officials no longer insist on deploying the full 100 missiles in Minuteman silos. Opening production lines and getting some in place will do for now. Also, the President has told members of Congress that he will work with them to incorporate the so-called ''build down'' concept into future strategic arms agreements. This means taking two warheads out of the nuclear arsenal for every new one introduced.

The administration is also reconsidering its strategic arms reduction (START) proposal. This would limit land- and sea-based missiles to 850 on either side, thereby encouraging the placing of more warheads on each missile. Many experts, including the President's own special commission on strategic arms, consider this to be destabilizing. It now seems likely that the President will change his START offer to place greater emphasis on warheads than launchers.

Understanding that the sticks-and-carrots game can be played by two, Congress seems likely to tie any MX approval to a firm Pentagon plan for developing and deploying the new mobile, single-warhead missile advocated by many strategic experts.

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