WASHINGTON — A senior Pentagon official, disagreeing with the Air Force and other Pentagon chiefs, urged Congress Tuesday to double the size of the mobile Midgetman missile and to arm it with three warheads instead of the one now planned.
These changes could save $20 billion, said the official, Donald A. Hicks, who is undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.
With Congress about to debate a major increase in funding for the small intercontinental ballistic missile, Hicks' testimony is likely to inject additional furor into consideration of an already-controversial new weapon.
"He shot the program right in the head," Rep. William L. Dickinson of Alabama, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters. "He's going to have an increasingly tough job selling the concept to the Congress."
Dickinson contended that Hicks' remarks, made at a hearing of the Armed Services subcommittee on research and development, ignored the finely tuned compromise that allowed the Reagan Administration to overcome congressional opposition and move ahead with its plans to modernize the nation's nuclear arsenal.
That compromise entailed deploying the 195,000-pound, 10-warhead MX missile while beginning work on the 30,000-pound, single-warhead missile dubbed the Midgetman.
One congressional source pointed out that the small missile, recommended in 1983 by a presidential commission headed by retired Lt. Gen. Brent A. Scowcroft, was favored by "the moderate to liberal crew" that was influential in reducing the deployment of the MX from 100 to 50 weapons.
"They're not going to be swung over by savings," said this source, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "They're concerned about reducing warheads. He's clearly lining himself up for some problems."
As recommended by the Scowcroft commission, the Midgetman would be deployed on military bases in the Western United States and would be placed in mobile launchers for dispersal in a period of high East-West tension.
Supporters argue that its mobility, and the protection given the launchers, would help it survive the effects of an enemy nuclear strike. And they contend that the single warhead on each missile would make the weapon a less valuable target than the 10-warhead MX during a surprise attack.
At the Pentagon, a senior official distanced himself from Hicks' testimony and said it would "stand for itself."
However, while officials made it clear that Hicks was not offering a formal shift in Pentagon policy on the weapon, the single-warhead missile has never been overly popular at the Defense Department. Even as the Pentagon has requested funding to begin full development, the Midgetman has been the subject of numerous studies.
The Pentagon is seeking $1.4 billion for the Midgetman program in fiscal 1987, more than doubling the $624 million made available in the current year. In 1988, the funding would jump to a proposed $2.6 billion, for a 300% increase over two years.
"We're still following the recommendations of the Scowcroft commission, and these recommendations were fully supported and funded by Congress," said Air Force Lt. Col. Don Brownlee, a Pentagon spokesman.
Asked after the hearing whether his view was supported by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, Hicks replied: "He recognizes my feeling about this."
Hicks told the subcommittee that by placing three warheads on the weapon, the planned deployment of 500 Midgetman missiles could be reduced to 170, at an anticipated savings of $20 billion. Under current estimates, 500 small ICBMs would cost $46 billion to $50 billion, he said.
With three warheads, the missile would weigh as much as 75,000 pounds but would still be mobile, he said--a key factor in reducing the likelihood that the Midgetman arsenal could be wiped out in a surprise attack. However, reducing the deployment to 170 weapons also could make it easier to eliminate them with a barrage of Soviet weapons.
At the same time, Hicks also introduced a note of caution about the development of a "hypersonic" airplane, to which President Reagan has attached high priority.
"Before we know if we can do the job," he noted, three years of work are needed on the engine of the craft, which Reagan has said could make a Washington-to-Tokyo flight in two hours.
And, countering unofficial reports that the classified cost of the so-called Stealth bomber is skyrocketing, Hicks told Congress in open testimony for the first time that the airplane is likely to cost only 2% to 3% more than the B-1B bomber. The B-1B's ultimate price tag has been estimated at $280 million to $400 million for each plane.