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Bush Decides to Spare Midgetman; Missile Development to Continue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The small, single-warhead missile known as Midgetman was designed to ride out a rain of incoming missiles in the event of nuclear attack. And when President Bush ended his speech Friday night, it lived up to its reputation as a survivor.

With Bush abandoning one major missile on the drawing board and scrapping thousands of others already in place, the Midgetman emerged as that rare new weapon with a future.

It remained on course for development through 1997, when a decision must be made whether to begin production.

The secret of the Midgetman’s success resides just a few doors down from the President’s Oval Office.

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In 1983, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, then a consultant and distinguished former Air Force general, headed a blue-ribbon presidential commission established to rally bipartisan support for the Ronald Reagan Administration’s plan to modernize the nation’s nuclear arsenal. The heavy-duty MX Peacekeeper missile was the heart of that effort, and the Scowcroft Commission predictably delivered a boost to get it funded.

But the commission also served up a surprise: a warning that the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were too weighted toward highly powerful, accurate missiles--each tipped with multiple nuclear warheads. In a superpower crisis, the panel said, such missiles might be a sufficiently tempting target to persuade one side to try launching a nuclear first strike.

The commission’s answer: an alternative system of “comparatively low-value missiles containing only one warhead.” Its report explained that “a single-warhead ICBM, suitably based, inherently denies an attacker the opportunity to destroy more than one warhead with one attacking warhead.”

The Midgetman was born, and soon won such a following on Capitol Hill that it was dubbed “the congressman.”

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But the fact that the Midgetman competed for funds with the $16-billion production line of the MX missile, which the Air Force prefers, slowed the pace of its development. So far, the United States has spent $3 billion but flight-tested models just three times.

Adding to the Air Force’s concern were the technical difficulties of building a mobile launcher that could move around in conditions of snow, rain and nuclear tempest and still launch its missile on a moment’s notice.

But Friday evening, the President made the choice look easy. He terminated a plan to put MX missiles on roving rail cars and endorsed deploying the Midgetman in existing silos. “It makes it potentially a lot cheaper,” a senior defense official said. “Who knows if it will change attitudes about it?”

Friday night’s challenge will not be the last, however. If the Pentagon decides to begin production, Congress will confront one feature of the Midgetman that is far from small--a $30-billion estimated cost for the proposed force of 300 to 500 missiles.

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