WASHINGTON — One day in October, 1983, scientists set off 600 tons of explosives 166 feet above the desert at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to test the resistance of a variety of mobile missile launchers to a simulated nuclear attack.
The test, code-named "Direct Course," showed it is possible to build a launcher that could withstand the violent winds and pressures of a nuclear attack. It was a key step in a decade-long process mandated by Congress to deploy the first of a new generation of lightweight intercontinental ballistic missiles, nicknamed Midgetman, by December, 1992.
Fate Far From Certain
But it is far from certain that the Midgetman missile, now in the research and development stage, will ever join the arsenal of nuclear missiles intended to stand ready for a 30-minute, 6,000-mile flight over the Arctic to the Soviet Union. Its road to deployment, strewn with political, scientific and financial obstacles, is as rocky as the Western terrain where the missile would be deployed.
Among the largest obstacles is the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), the 1978 accord with the Soviets to which the United States is adhering although the Senate has not ratified it. SALT II allows test flights of only one "new" missile--the MX for the United States. Constructing new Midgetman silo launchers or concealing missiles to impede verification of compliance with arms control agreements also raise questions about treaty compliance.
"SALT II will not permit a Midgetman," said William J. Taylor Jr., executive director of Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. If the Administration insists on going ahead with Midgetman as well as the MX, he said, it could precipitate "a bloody fight in this country" over whether to break the SALT II accords.
The fight over funding could be equally bruising. "If you think the MX has been controversial, wait till the debate comes on Midgetman," Taylor said. "If the pressure on the defense budget continues, for the Administration to try to introduce a new system is going to be very difficult. And there will be plenty of pressure coming from Europe not to deploy an additional (weapons) system."
To the Administration, however, the single-warhead Midgetman would complement the giant MX missile, which carries 10 warheads. Congress last week approved the production of a second batch of 21 MX missiles, and the Reagan Administration hopes ultimately to deploy 100.
The MX might provide a tempting target for a Soviet first strike, the Administration concedes, because an enemy warhead could knock out 10 MX warheads in a single blow. The less centralized Midgetman, however, would decrease the likelihood that the Soviets would resort to a first strike, most experts believe, because it would reduce the chances that they could quickly cripple the U.S. nuclear force.
But to critics, Midgetman would merely ratchet up the arms race by one more notch--and at enormous cost. By one estimate the price tag could be as much as four times the estimated $26-billion cost of the MX.
Beyond that, some critics contend, the Midgetman, by putting Soviet missiles at risk, would increase Moscow's incentives to try to destroy U.S. missiles first.
"A program that promises to remedy U.S. survivability problems by putting Soviet strategic forces at risk is not likely to increase stability or the prospects for arms control," said Jonathan Rich, a staff member of the Federation of American Scientists.
Feasibility Studies Begun
The Air Force began studying the feasibility of a small intercontinental missile in the early 1960s, even before it had deployed the 550 triple-warhead Minuteman III missiles and 450 single-warhead Minuteman II missiles that now constitute most of the ground-based U.S. nuclear force.
But only in 1983 did the President's Commission on Strategic Forces, headed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, propel Midgetman into the research stage when it proposed cutting back the planned production of the MX from 200 to 100 and moving ahead with a smaller, single-warhead weapon powerful enough to threaten Soviet missile sites.
Now, said Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, "the small mobile missile is high on our priority list." The Pentagon staff working on the program has grown in two years from 17 to about 200, and contractors "are building things you can kick the tires on," said one Air Force officer.
From Weinberger on down, no one at the Pentagon refers to the missile by its popular nickname. An official name has not been chosen, but an Air Force officer working on the project said dryly: "The Air Force, for obvious reasons, doesn't care for 'Midgetman.' "
Regardless of the name, the Administration is thinking in terms of 1,000 of the new missiles--the size of the Minuteman force. That would leave the nation with as many Midgetman warheads as MX warheads on 100 MX missiles.