Whatever the reaction in Moscow to the President's new arms plan, it has stirred controversy in Washington. Lawmakers in Congress are baffled and disturbed by the proposal that the Soviet Union and the United States ban all mobile land-based missiles. This is a sudden reversal of the administration's strategic approach.
Ever since the Scowcroft commission (appointed by Reagan to assess strategic modernization), issued its recommendations in April 1983, the administration has been arguing that a mobile system would increase nuclear stability. Congress, in fact, approved an arms package that included support for a limited number of MX missiles in return for administration backing of a new, single-warhead mobile missile -- the Midgetman -- and the so-called build-down plan in the previous START talks in Geneva.
It was felt this was a sensible way for the US to wend its way around the problem of having a land-based missile that works. The Scowcroft commission recommended that the controversial MX missile be deployed in current Minuteman silos. But because of the vulnerability of these fixed silos, it also proposed a parallel program for a small mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that would be less vulnerable and serve as a ``hedge'' against possible threats to US submarines.
The nation's future strategic force was thus to be made up of a small number of MX missiles, the less vulnerable Midgetman missiles, and the sea-based Trident D-5. Now some members of Congress in the defense budget process feel they have been taken for a ride.
``There's a general feeling that this really undermines the whole framework of the Scowcroft Commission work and the consensus built on that report,'' a congressional source says. ``If the administration had offered a reasonable alternative to the Midgetman, this would be one thing. But they have not put that card on the table.''
Under the new US proposal, the Soviets would have to forgo their mobile SS-24 and SS-25 missiles, which are already in the deployment stage, while the US gave up plans to develop the Midgetman.
Arms experts say it would be difficult for the Soviet Union to accept such a proposal. The Soviets are interested in mobility because 75 percent of their nuclear force is in land-based missiles (as against 25 percent for the US). They now see those fixed missiles coming under threat from the future deployment of the Trident D-5 submarine missiles. The SS-25 is therefore Moscow's weapon of the future.
However, it is possible the US proposal on mobile systems is a bargaining ploy. The Soviet arms offer calls for a ban on all long-range cruise missiles, an idea that harks back to a now-expired protocol to the unratified SALT II agreement. A compromise could involve the Soviets giving up their proposed ban and the Americans giving up theirs.
``This would allow the Soviets to proceed with the SS-25 and us with the Midgetman,'' says John Steinbruner, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
Reversal of the Scowcroft Commission decision has disclosed differences of opinion within the administration as well. Factions within the Pentagon and the National Security Council are said to favor a ban on mobile missiles, while many arms control officials in the State Department oppose it, because it undercuts the bipartisan coalition built up in Congress.
A number of arguments are cited for banning mobile missiles. The Soviet mobile system now being deployed is what one expert calls a target planner's ``nightmare,'' because of the immense territory of the USSR. The problem is verifying location of the missiles.
Critics of a ban say this is not an insurmountable problem. They note that the US has been able to pinpoint the precise number of Soviet SS-20s aimed at Europe and Asia (441 at the moment). These, too, are mobile missiles. ``If we can verify the SS-20s, why not the others?'' one expert asks.
It is acknowledged, however, that permitting mobile systems would necessitate an agreement with Moscow which required Soviet cooperation in verification.
Supporters of the ban also point to the cost factor. Building and maintaining some 500 Midgetman missiles would probably run to between $40 billion and $50 billion over the next decade or so. There is also uncertainty about whether Congress would sustain such a program -- and the politics of getting public approval for unhampered deployment. Meantime, the Soviets are far ahead on their program. This is expected to be a major issue with Congress. Lawmakers are not expected to roil the waters on the eve
of the summit meeting in Geneva. But key leaders like Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D) of Tennessee, have criticized the proposed ban.
Sen. William S. Cohen (R) of Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is also displeased. ``He's not happy about it,'' an aide says. ``In exchanges with the administration he thought he had a fairly firm commitment that it would go forward with a vigorous Midgetman program. That was a key to getting support for other elements of the modernization program.''