WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration and the Air Force, countering critics who say the controversial MX missile would be wiped out by a Soviet nuclear strike, told Congress on Friday that missile silos have a better chance than previously believed of withstanding attack.
"It is more survivable than we thought it was," Gen. Bennie Davis, chief of the Strategic Air Command, told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Paul Nitze, President Reagan's special adviser on arms control, agreed with Davis and renewed the Administration argument that Congress should support the weapon because it would strengthen the American hand in the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms control talks opening this week.
Asked if the negotiations will be successful if MX is killed, Nitze said, "I cannot see how it would be done. We could try, but I don't think it would be successful."
Still, he was uncertain about whether the talks will succeed in achieving Reagan's goal of "deep reductions" in the ever-growing number of nuclear weapons.
"I'm not very good at estimating odds," Nitze told Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) when asked about prospects for the talks.
Proxmire pressed Nitze, asking, "So you're saying it's uncertain?"
"Yes," Nitze answered.
Within the next two weeks, the House and Senate will each vote twice on whether to release $1.5 billion to buy 21 more MX weapons. Two years ago, Congress approved the first 21 of a planned 100-MX force.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd on Friday decried the Administration's link between the MX vote and the arms talks as "hot rhetoric."
'There's No Connection'
The West Virginia Democrat said at his weekly news conference that "to exaggerate a linkage . . . is wrong. There is no connection."
And former CIA Director William Colby joined congressional opponents of the MX missile, saying the weapon is irrelevant to the likely outcome of the arms control talks.
Colby appeared at a news conference with Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore)., another MX opponent who said the missile has become the "glass jaw" of the American strategic defense system.
The MX was designed a decade ago to replace the Minuteman missile, the heart of America's land-based nuclear deterrent, a three-legged defense that also includes bombers and submarine-launched missiles.
Many Plans Studied
But the Pentagon has studied more than three dozen MX basing plans, trying unsuccessfully to come up with a way to make the 10-warhead weapon invulnerable to attack from increasingly accurate Soviet missiles.
Finally, the Pentagon decided to house the MX in the basing plan for which it was designed--Minuteman silos. The 100 MX weapons will be in silos on Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and Nebraska.
The biggest danger facing the silos in an attack is the enormous shock wave generated by a nuclear explosion. Thus, the Pentagon has been studying methods of "hardening" the silos to make them more survivable.
The Pentagon has in the past told Congress that Soviet targeting advances made the Minuteman force vulnerable to attack. That led MX critics to argue that it made no sense to house the missiles in vulnerable spots.