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SDI or Mobile Missiles? Dukakis Needs to Realize He Must Make a Choice

<i> Ernest Conine writes a column for The Times</i>

Michael S. Dukakis has made a reasonably good start toward countering George Bush’s slashing attacks on his inexperience and “naivete” in foreign affairs and national defense. But he has a way to go.

To cite the most glaring example, the Massachusetts governor still hasn’t reconciled his basic hostility toward strategic defenses with his opposition to both the MX and Midgetman missile systems.

Also, Dukakis has not explained how he would pay for the increased emphasis on the expensive conventional arms that he proposes within the framework of a “stable” defense budget and the development and deployment of the strategic weapons that he now says he favors.

However, it would be churlish to fault Dukakis too much for that, considering Bush’s cavalier insistence that the country can afford a broad array of new weapons without higher taxes.

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Dukakis left the Democratic National Convention with the idea that, to win in November, he didn’t have to talk much about national-security issues. But since Labor Day, stung by his precipitate drop in the polls, he has been at pains to project a stronger, more assertive posture.

Dukakis continues to pledge support for more tanks, better anti-tank weapons and new fighter planes and attack submarines. But he has now moved to change the rhetoric, if not the basic substance, of his posture on strategic nuclear arms and anti-missile defenses.

The governor used to describe the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, as a “fantasy.” He now says that he is not against strategic defenses, only skeptical of them. (But still he would cut SDI research to a fourth of the level recently approved by the Democratic Congress.)

As for modernizing the U.S. nuclear deterrent, Dukakis promises to move forward with the stealth bomber, the advanced cruise missile and a new sub-fired missile, a Trident D-5. However, he remains opposed to both the MX missile and the mobile, single-warhead Midgetman.

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The Midgetman project, though backed by Bush, has been treated like an orphan by the Administration. But it has wide support within the arms-control community and is championed by the two most influential Democrats on defense--Sen. Sam Nunn and Rep. Les Aspin.

Arms-control experts generally agree that possession of mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles by both of the great powers would enhance nuclear stability because their mobility makes them harder to hit. Neither side could be confident of knocking out the other’s missile forces.

However, there would be nothing safe or stable about a world in which one major power had relatively invulnerable mobile missiles and the other didn’t.

The Soviets already are deploying road-mobile SS-25 missiles and rail-mounted SS-24s. Their U.S. counterparts--rail-mounted MXs and smaller road-mobile Midgetman missiles--are still in the debating stage.

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The Administration proposal to put 50 MX missiles on rails is in fact cockeyed. Their movement would require too much warning time in event of attack. But 250 to 500 truly mobile, widely scattered Midgetman missiles would be a different story.

As for strategic defenses, it makes perfectly good sense to reject SDI as the best answer to the Soviet Union’s SS-24s and SS-25s--but only if we build mobile missiles of our own.

Alternatively, it might make sense to oppose mobile missiles, as Dukakis is inclined, if one had faith in our ability to build an effective defense. But Dukakis, in company with a host of respectable defense experts, doesn’t have that faith.

Only an innocent could believe that we can safely do without either an offensive or a defensive counter to the Soviet Union’s mobile ICBMs.

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Dukakis now says, for the first time, that “the strategic concept” behind the Midgetman is sound--but he still thinks that it’s too expensive. His aides say other, possibly cheaper, approaches to the vulnerability mismatch are under study, including putting existing Minuteman missiles or a new, smaller, missile into hardened silos.

However, this sounds suspiciously like the old gambit of studying an unwanted project to death--this at a time when the Soviets continue to deploy SS-24s and SS-25s. Besides, whether hardened silos would be as invulnerable as mobile missiles and as resistant to Soviet countermeasures is open to question.

Dukakis’ statement suggests that he’d rather rely more heavily on submarine-based warheads. Strategic experts point out, however, that communication problems make it difficult to exercise timely and reliable command and control over submarines in a time of crisis.

The irony is that, if Dukakis is elected and doesn’t proceed toward a timely deployment of a mobile land missile, the case for at least a limited anti-ballistic-missile defense system to blunt a possible attack by the Soviet Union will become compelling--ABM treaty or no ABM treaty.

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That fact of life appears to have escaped the candidate so far.


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