LAST month an Air Force range-safety officer pressed a ``destruct'' button and blew up a Midgetman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Seventy-three seconds into the first Midgetman test flight the missile began to tumble out of control, necessitating its destruction. Today, seven years and $3.5 billion after it began, the entire Midgetman program is tumbling out of political control. Will Congress push the budget ``destruct'' button and end the program?
``It depends on whether the administration really wants it or not,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. ``And on that the evidence is mixed.''
Mr. Aspin himself has long been perhaps the Midgetman's primary proponent. Now he says his days of leading the fight to keep the missile in the Pentagon budget are over.
``How long can you keep this thing alive? I'm running out of string,'' he says.
The Midgetman story is one of a proposed weapon that a few loved and many tolerated.
Arms-control theorists like Aspin have long thought the Midgetman would have a ``stabilizing'' effect on the arms race. In nuclear-speak, ``stabilizing'' is high praise. It means something the Soviets would find not too frightening, but hard to destroy, making them unlikely to try to preempt it with a sneak attack. The single-warhead, truck-mobile Midgetman fits this bill.
In years past many rank-and-file Democrats have joined with the arms controllers and supported Midgetman because they did not like its big brother, the 10-warhead MX, and they needed to support some sort of ballistic missile so they would not look soft on defense back home.
The Pentagon and successive Republican administrations have been less than wild about Midgetman. But they have gone along with Democrats who wanted it as part of a shaky compromise that kept the MX, the missile most Republicans did want, alive. Fifty MXs are now deployed at an Air Force base near Cheyenne, Wyo.
Two factors have put Midgetman in jeopardy. First, and perhaps most serious, its Democratic support has seriously eroded. Projected costs have always been high - Midgetman now carries an estimated $25 billion to $35 billion price tag. Many liberals are beginning to think that's too much in the current budget climate, especially since MX is operational.
The second blow has been the lukewarm support of the Bush administration. President Bush says he wants to build Midgetman - but only after the 50 existing MXs have been made mobile by mounting them on railroad cars. The proposed 1990 Pentagon budget contains only $100 million for Midgetman, and $1 billion for the rail MX.
The result has been the first organized anti-Midgetman coalition in Congress. Last month a group of liberal Democratic and conservative Republican representatives joined to announce their opposition. Key Senate Democrats such as Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan have come out against it.
Aspin says he still believes the US needs Midgetman. If an agreement is reached at the START talks to control strategic arms, it might well include a compromise whereby the US scraps MX in return for Soviets' destruction of their large SS-18.
If that happens, then the US needs Midgetman as a remaining mobile, survivable land ICBM, Aspin says, adding that with arms talks going on, ``we ought not to take a missile off the table unilaterally.''