The future of the hulking 10-warhead MX missile may not be entirely settled. A top Defense Department official says that he will continue to push for purchase of additional MXs, no matter what Congress thinks.
``I'd like to make a run for 50 more production missiles. I'd like to make a case for it,'' says Donald A. Hicks, undersecretary of defense for research, development, and engineering.
Many members of Congress felt the issue of the MX was settled for good last year when they voted to limit the Pentagon to 50 deployed missiles. The cap passed because many members felt that no way had been found to adequately protect MXs from attack; thus they would be tempting targets for the Soviets in times of crisis.
Speaking to reporters at breakfast on Thursday, Mr. Hicks insisted that the United States needs the 1,000 warheads that 100 MXs would carry to threaten so-called ``hard targets'' in the Soviet Union, such as missile silos and military command centers. The 1983 Scowcroft Commission report on strategic forces recommended such a number, Hicks said. ``Just because people in Congress think this is a no-no'' doesn't mean the administration will stop pushing it, he said.
Hicks downplayed the vulnerability question, and added that in any case, the Pentagon is studying yet more ways of deploying the MX, such as ``carry hard,'' an arrangement in which missiles in hard canisters are shuttled between numerous silos to keep the Soviets guessing as to which silo is occupied.
Fifty more production MXs placed in old Minuteman silos would cost $2 billion, Hicks estimated. With carry-hard equipment, they would cost $8 billion. The same number of warheads deployed on Midgetman -- the small, mobile missile now under development -- might cost $50 billion, Hicks said.
Midgetman is the strategic alternative favored by many MX critics, as well as by the Scowcroft Commission. They feel the weapon's small size and mobility would make it a difficult target for the Soviets to hit, thus making them less likely to launch a preemptive attack in a crisis.
A Midgetman force would be expensive, however, because each missile would carry one warhead under current plans. The weapon is thus likely to come under increasing scrutiny by Congress as it progresses toward full-scale development.
A recent Pentagon report on strategic weapons concluded that the Air Force should press ahead with a Midgetman of about 37,000 pounds. (The Minuteman missiles weigh about 80,000 pounds.)
Hicks said that he is a ``fan of mobility,'' and that he has no desire to derail the Midgetman program.
But he has urged that the Pentagon consider making the weapon somewhat larger than midget size. If it weighed 50,000 pounds or so, it could carry two or three warheads instead of one, giving more potential bang for the buck.