WASHINGTON — The Air Force's plan to kill the single-warhead Midgetman missile has touched off a ferocious and highly unusual debate in Congress that will have important implications for arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and a lasting effect on the structure of the nation's nuclear deterrent force, leaders in Congress and defense experts said Tuesday.
Indeed, the small, mobile Midgetman is a rare weapons system: one supported by Democrats in Congress and opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Air Force recommendation this week to Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci to end the $45-billion program was motivated by budget constraints that forced the service to choose between funding a mobile version of the 10-warhead MX missile and the more expensive--but more survivable--Midgetman.
Powerful Democrats are mounting an effort to restore money for the Midgetman in next year's budget at the expense of additional MX missiles or the controversial "Star Wars" missile defense system. But they admit that they face a difficult fight to save the missile without Pentagon support.
The struggle, being waged now in private meetings with the Reagan Administration, will erupt in full force during congressional consideration of the 1989 defense spending bill early next year.
The debate over the Midgetman is a house-of-mirrors version of ordinary defense fights in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. In this case, one finds liberal Democrats--not conservative Republicans--warning of a "window of vulnerability" to a surprise Soviet nuclear strike and proposing a hugely expensive new weapon to close it.
Republicans in Congress and the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs--not the arms control community and the peaceniks--argue that no such vulnerability exists and that whatever problems the United States has with its land-based missile force can be solved for a quarter of the cost of the proposed Midgetman program.
"There is virtual hysteria in this town trying to save it," said Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a former Marine and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who opposes the small missile. "Midgetman should never be built--and I predict it will not be--because it is simply ineffective and much, much too expensive."
The outcome of the debate will affect the Reagan Administration's stance in negotiations with the Soviets on reducing long-range nuclear weapons, officials said. In the strategic arms reductions talks (commonly refered to as START) in Geneva, the Administration has proposed banning mobile land-based missiles like the Midgetman on grounds that they contribute to the arms race because it takes several warheads to destroy a single mobile missile whose location cannot be pinpointed.
The Soviet Union has two such mobile systems--the SS-24, based on rail cars, and the SS-25, which travels on trucks. The United States has none yet deployed, although the Pentagon wants to build a rail-mobile version of the MX. Advocates of the Midgetman argue that the Soviets will have no incentive to give up their mobile systems unless the United States builds its own.
Aspin Backs Midgetman
"I have never heard anybody suggest that the way to get a START agreement is to unilaterally cancel the weapons systems that are being negotiated," said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and one of Midgetman's strongest backers. "You've got to build weapons systems to get the Soviets to negotiate seriously."
The Administration contends that it will still have the mobile MX force to talk about, if Congress agrees to fund it, and that the nation has submarine-launched missiles and other survivable systems that can be relied on.
Aspin said that he would meet with Carlucci Thursday to ask him to reverse the Air Force's recommendation. Although Carlucci's position on Midgetman is not known, one Pentagon official said: "There's no great enthusiasm here for Midgetman, never has been . . . . In a time of great stringency, the Midgetman is a prime candidate" for elimination.
This defense official noted also that Midgetman is the "first weapon ever crafted in Congress and literally forced on the department," prompting some critics in the Pentagon to dub it the "Congress-man" missile.
The Pentagon argues that the mobile version of the MX would be almost as survivable as the Midgetman and costs only about $12 billion for 500 warheads, compared to $45 billion for 500 Midgetman missiles. It contends that U.S. security would be better served by channeling the additional funds into the Administration's "Star Wars" program--sharply criticized by Democrats--which is designed to provide a space-based shield against nuclear weapons.
Carried on Large Trucks