Reagan Faces New Volley of Congressional Criticism Over His Midgetman Offer

Times Staff Writer

After standing fast at the summit for continued “Star Wars” missile defense research, President Reagan now faces a new round of criticism from congressional moderates who contend that the Administration in recent weeks has created chaos in its own strategic nuclear arms policy.

The controversy, muted during the buildup to Reagan’s much-anticipated meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, began with a pre-summit U.S. proposal to forgo deployment of the new Midgetman intercontinental ballistic missile in exchange for Soviet abandonment of SS-24 and SS-25 mobile ICBMs.

In a closed meeting with senators Friday morning, Secretary of State George P. Shultz was asked to explain the Administration’s new position focusing on the elimination of mobile land-based missiles. Later, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) termed the Shultz response “unsatisfactory.”

The Administration’s willingness to bargain the Midgetman away caused some moderates, who helped win approval for the controversial MX missile for the Administration, to feel that they had been deceived.


Less-Inviting Target

Deployment of the small, single-warhead missile aboard mobile launchers was recommended by the President’s Commission on Strategic Nuclear Forces, headed by retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, on grounds that it would pose a less-inviting target to a Soviet first strike than the MX. In exchange for Administration support of the small mobile missile, sufficient votes were found to get congressional approval for 50 of the giant, multiple-warhead MXs.

Gore suggested Friday that the Administration had offered to abandon the Midgetman as its method of assuring survival of land-based nuclear deterrent forces in order to build a stronger case for its “Star Wars” space-based anti-missile program.

“The Strategic Defense Initiative and the Scowcroft Commission recommendations have been on a collision course for some time,” he said. “The proposal to ban Midgetman may be the crater of that impact.


“The President has to clarify and quickly reassert support for it or else the strategic consensus built around the Scowcroft Commission will be shattered. And if the President thinks he can form a new congressional consensus around SDI, he is going to be badly mistaken,” Gore said.

Reagan’s call early this month for a ban on land-based mobile missiles came as a surprise not only to members of Congress who had supported the recommendations of the Scowcroft Commission, but to many Administration officials and arms control specialists.

Tactical Maneuver

Scowcroft, a former presidential national security adviser, speculated that Reagan’s proposal to ban the land-based mobile missiles was to some extent a tactical maneuver designed to emphasize the seriousness with which the United States regards the problem of verifying mobile missile forces.


“It was a weird way to do it,” he said, “but I think they probably did it for tactical considerations” before the summit.

If, however, the Administration is turning away from the small mobile missile as the way of providing security for a land-based nuclear deterrent, Scowcroft added, the first priority of its strategic policy appears to be preservation of the “Star Wars” program.

According to Administration sources, the key figure behind the controversial proposal was White House national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, who is especially concerned over the problem of verification of mobile land-based missiles.

Paul C. Warnke, the chief U.S. arms negotiator during the Carter Administration, Friday disputed the notion that mobile missiles add uncertainty to the strategic balance because they cannot be confidently verified.


“Verification is entirely feasible,” he said, adding that mobile land-based missiles can be counted when their transporters are constructed and loaded. As with the case of nuclear submarines, he said, their numbers could be precisely known, although satellites could not pinpoint their location at any given moment.

Even before the offer to negotiate the Midgetman away in exchange for abandonment of Soviet mobile missiles, the Midgetman had been under increasing fire from its own critics.

It is estimated that it would cost some $50 billion to deploy a force of 500 of the weapons and maintain them for a period of 15 years.

Critics, led by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), contend that the cost is unacceptable and that the planned size of the missile would sharply limit its capability to penetrate a Soviet defense and reach its target.


And the critics maintain that a Midgetman force deployed as presently planned on military installations would still be vulnerable to a Soviet barrage attack. Now that the U.S. proposal has been turned down by the Soviets, it is expected that the Administration will press ahead with the planned development of the Midgetman.