The Senate displayed admirable common sense by voting last week to impose a ceiling of 50 on the number of MX missiles that can be deployed in vulnerable, fixed-base silos. A bill pending in the House that would put a still lower cap on the MX program is even more appealing.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the most influential Democrat on defense matters, had wanted a cap of 40 MXs, but he accepted the 50-missile "compromise" reluctantly offered by President Reagan in order to avoid any chance of ending up with no ceiling at all. The President chooses to interpret the Senate action as a mere pause on the road to fulfillment of his plan for deployment of 100 of the big 10-warhead missiles. But the lopsided vote shows that the intent of Congress is to top off the program.
Even in the unlikely event that a survivable, politically acceptable basing mode could be found for the MX, the missile is not the best response to the threat posed by the huge multiple-warhead strategic missiles that have been deployed by the Soviet Union. But putting the MX in old Minuteman missile holes, where it would be vulnerable to destruction unless launched at the first sign of a Soviet attack, makes no sense at all.
Congress has nonetheless voted funds for 42 MXs; the Administration has been seeking authority for an additional 48 in fiscal 1986, which will begin next Oct. 1. The amendment approved by the Senate last week would allow the Air Force to build 12 missiles next year, and would accept the probable necessity for production of several dozen more as spares and test vehicles, but total MX deployment would be limited to 50 unless the Administration came up with a survivable basing mode acceptable to Congress.
Last week's MX vote came against a disturbing background of budget cuts for military readiness--things like spare parts, ammunition stores, combat medical facilities and other necessities for the conventional, non-nuclear conduct of war. Committees of both the House and the Senate have recommended cuts of well over $1 billion in the amount requested by the Administration, which itself was inadequate.
There is always a tendency, even more pronounced in Congress than in the Pentagon, to shortchange the readiness budget in order to avoid hard choices among competing weapon systems, which have much more potent political constituencies. This is dangerously wrong.
Several operational commanders testified in vain that readiness programs should be protected. The most sobering argument is the one made by Gen. Bernard Rogers, supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, that shortages of ammunition and other materiel could compel the alliance to make "early use" of nuclear weapons to repel a Soviet attack because non-nuclear capabilities would quickly be exhausted.
House and Senate conferees should remember that cold reality when they meet to hammer out the final version of legislation dividing funds between readiness and several dubious weapon systems--prominent among which is the MX.