WASHINGTON — What happens when--with the stroke of a superpower pen--a costly Pentagon weapons program loses a big chunk of its reason for being? Does the program wither? Does the federal deficit shrink?
Maybe. Maybe not.
If the Pentagon's anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) program is any guide, the program will not only survive intact, it may even flourish--winning unsought funding and greater visibility from Congress.
Anti-tactical ballistic missiles--still in the experimental phase--originally were intended to destroy short-range and medium-range Soviet missiles, both nuclear-tipped and conventionally armed, as they hurtle toward targets in Western Europe. Last year, the Pentagon spent more than $70 million to investigate ATBMs, according to Lt. Gen. John Wall, commander of the Army office that directs research and development in this area.
But Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces, as the class of medium-range nuclear missiles is called, will be eliminated by the arms control treaty President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev are expected to sign when they meet here early next month. So the Pentagon's most sophisticated--and most expensive--versions of the ATBM, the Extended Range Interceptor or ERINT, and a proposed new version of the existing Patriot air defense missile are a pair of would-be weapons programs in search of a threat to counter.
As a result, ATBM program officials, backed by a wide range of powerful constituents, have scrambled to find new reasons to justify the weapons. And already they see a brighter future than ever: Congress has just added $75 million to accelerate the program, the Israelis are pushing for continued development of the ATBM as a shield against possible Soviet-built missiles deployed in Syria, and some Reagan Administration officials want it deployed quickly as the first step in the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the so-called "Star Wars" anti-missile program.
Moreover, conservatives insist that ATBMs capable of countering medium-range missiles must be developed as insurance against Soviet cheating on the INF treaty.
The ERINT and the proposed new version of the Patriot were to have been capable of picking off Moscow's SS-23 and SS-12/22 Scaleboard missiles before they could hit air bases, supply depots and command bunkers of North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
The prospect that these two classes of missiles will soon cease to exist does not bother Larry Capps, an Army colonel who directs the Pentagon's Task Force on Tactical Missile Defense. The technological crown jewels of his program are the ERINT and the next-generation Patriot missile, weapons which by some estimates could cost $11 billion to build.
Says Work Should Continue
Capps argues that work on the two weapons systems should continue.
"You have to look beyond that (the medium-range missile accord) and keep your options open to counter a response threat," said Capps in an interview last week. "We should not be limiting ourselves to what we presently know the Soviets can do."
In plain English, that means the Pentagon expects Moscow to develop new arms to threaten NATO's key facilities in the wake of the forthcoming accord. And when that happens, Capps reasons, the United States will be glad it developed an advanced ATBM system.
Capps is not alone. In fact, the most ardent supporters of the ATBM program are on Capitol Hill, where enthusiasm for the ATBM seems to have swelled on the eve of the superpower summit. Led by Sens. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lawmakers have added $75 million to the Pentagon budget for accelerated research on ATBMs. Most of that would be funded under the Strategic Defense Initiative budget.
'Ace in the Hole'
"Oddly enough, the future of ATBM is brighter than it was," declared Mark Albrecht, a defense aide to Wilson. "ATBM is an ideal policeman for an INF agreement. If the Soviets cheat massively, we'll be able to detect it, and if they cheat modestly, then ATBM will be our ace in the hole."
Although the ATBM program was conceived long before the President's 1983 speech launching the "Star Wars" missile defense program, it also has gained luster in the eyes of those Administration officials and lawmakers who are eager to deploy the weapon as an early installment on SDI. Wilson and Quayle are fervent proponents of such early deployments.
The ATBM's potential as a step toward a more comprehensive system of missile defenses was underlined in the 1983 Hoffman Report, prepared for the fledgling Strategic Defense Initiative Office by Pentagon consultant Fred Hoffman.
"We can pursue such a program option within ABM treaty constraints," Hoffman wrote in reference to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limits development and deployment of defensive systems. But the ATBM technologies "might later play a role in continental United States defense," the study added.