IT is not as powerful as the MX and costs less than the B-2 bomber, but the Lance short-range nuclear missile could still become one of 1990's more heated US defense controversies. The Pentagon wants a new, improved Lance to replace older models deployed in Europe. But with peace sweeping the region, critics question the need for a modernized nuclear weapon whose targets would largely be in East European nations that are rapidly becoming democracies.
Short-range nuclear weapons in general could well be the next item on the arms control agenda. The Soviet Union has long wanted such negotiations, and last May the United States agreed that talks on short-range missiles could start after negotiated reductions in conventional forces begin to take effect.
With a conventional-force treaty likely to be finished by fall, the US is facing short-range talks much sooner than it had originally anticipated.
``The NATO alliance had better figure out what its approach to these talks is,'' says David Shorr, associate director of the British American Security Information Council.
There are 88 aging Lance launchers with about 700 nuclear warheads scattered at West European NATO locations. First produced in 1971, the Lance has a range of 125 kilometers (75 miles).
The next-generation model under development by the Pentagon is called FOTL (Follow-on-to-Lance.) It would have an estimated range of 450 kilometers and be fired from a new Army multiple-rocket launcher that is also used for conventionally tipped weapons.
This year the US Defense Department will spend $32 million on FOTL. The proposed Pentagon 1991 budget pencils in $112 million for further development work.
Short-range nuclear weapons are an integral part of the NATO strategy of threatening a possible nuclear response to a conventional invasion, Pentagon officials say. Despite improved relations with the West, the Soviet Union has continued to modernize its short-range atomic arsenal. ``I believe that we need a missile that will match Soviet capabilities,'' said Gen. John Galvin, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, defending the Lance in a speech last month.
But officials in West Germany, where the new Lance version would be located, have been privately passing the word that there is no chance of their accepting deployment of the weapon. West German voters would not stand for new nukes aimed at Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, which itself might be part of West Germany by the time the new Lance is scheduled to arrive.
To avoid an inter-alliance battle over the Lance, NATO last year put off a decision on deploying it until 1992. The US has been stressing that it will not deploy the missile on its own. ``Whatever we do with respect to Follow-on-to-Lance should be done within the framework of the alliance,'' Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said recently.
Budget pressures mean Lance could become a problem for the Pentagon well before 1992. Many members of Congress look askance on paying to develop a Follow-on-to-Lance weapon that could well never be sent to Europe. ``FOTL is futile,'' says Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine.
With the outlook for Lance growing bleaker, the administration could begin arguing that a modern, mobile tactical nuclear missile is needed for situations outside of Europe. A Lance follow-on could help deter aggression by third-world nations that have ballistic-missile technology and might soon have nuclear weapons. ``You've got 20 countries with missiles, with ranges up to 1,500 miles,'' an administration official says.
The new Lance is not the only US short-range nuclear weapon now in the works. The Pentagon wants to spend $118 million next year on a new aircraft-carried short-range air-to-surface missile, the SRAM-T. A new W82 155mm nuclear artillery shell is already in production and is scheduled for deployment in 1991.
NATO officials have begun quietly preparing for the advent of short-range talks, which could begin later next year. But the alliance still needs to settle what it would hope to achieve in such negotiations. While the US and Britain want relatively limited talks, some alliance members want nuclear artillery and air-launched nuclear weapons on the agenda as well.
Unless events in Europe take an abrupt change in course, ``there's not a chance we'll have a second-generation Lance in Central Europe,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association.