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The Wrong Missile

President Reagan, who has tentatively decided to scrap two older Poseidon submarines in order to stay within the missile ceilings set by the SALT 2 treaty, is also said to be planning several steps to compensate for Soviet treaty violations. A proposal to accelerate work on the mobile Midgetman ballistic missile would make sense. An anticipated call for deployment of 100 MX intercontinental missiles instead of the 50 now planned would not.

The MX is a large, multiple-warhead missile that was conceived years ago in response to the growing vulnerability of the silo-based Minuteman missile fleet--the backbone of this country’s nuclear deterrent--as Soviet intercontinental missiles grew both more numerous and more accurate. The MX was originally supposed to be a mobile missile that would be harder to find and harder to hit than the fixed-base Minuteman. By drastically complicating any Soviet attempt to knock out the U.S. deterrent in a surprise attack, this would make nuclear war less likely.

The Pentagon, however, was unable to win congressional or public approval for the mobile basing scheme. So the Administration fell back to the idea of deploying 100 MXs in modified Minuteman silos. That made no sense; silo-based MXs would be just as vulnerable as the Minuteman missiles they replaced. With 10 warheads each, they would be even more compelling targets.

Given these realities, the project should have been killed entirely. But at least Congress cut the program in half. The first MXs are to be deployed in modified Minuteman silos late this year.

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Some response to Soviet violations of SALT 2 restraints on new missile types may be necessary. But in an era of tight budgets it makes no sense to build extra MXs that will not materially enhance the security of the United States.

One better way of spending defense dollars is to make sure that the highly accurate D-5 missile, which is to be deployed aboard reasonably survivable Trident submarines beginning in 1989, is brought in on schedule. Serious pursuit of the Midgetman would be another appropriate action.

Accelerated development of the Midgetman is said to be included in the President’s tentative decision on response to perceived Soviet violations of SALT 2. In light of some troublesome rumbles from the Pentagon, the precise details of the decision will bear watching when it is made final.

The Midgetman is supposed to be a small, mobile ICBM--weighing about 30,000 pounds compared with 192,000 pounds for the MX--and carrying a single warhead. Being small, the Midgetman would need far less acreage for deployment than a mobile MX would have required. The idea is to trundle it around on military reservations with comparatively little bother to the public. The cost per deployed warhead would be greater than with the MX, but the payoff in true nuclear deterrence and stability would be worth it.

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High Pentagon officials, however, are pushing to make the Midgetman larger in order to accommodate decoys and two or three warheads instead of one--or even building a much larger missile in its place. As top Air Force officers have pointed out, however, the larger the missile the less mobile and more vulnerable it becomes. Goldplating the Midgetman would also require time-consuming redesign work.

The suspicion is that many of those who want to “upgrade” the Midgetman really want to kill the project, thereby helping the case for an extra buy of MXs. Congress should refuse to play the game.


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