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Killing the Wrong Weapon

December 20, 1987

The Air Force, ordered to cut $10.5 billion from its fiscal 1989 spending plans, has recommended that the single-warhead Midgetman missile program be killed. The recommendation probably will be passed on to Congress by the Defense Department. Restraints on defense spending are unavoidable, given the overriding economic need to get the huge federal budget deficit under control. But it is imperative to kill the right missile--and that is not the Midgetman.

The Pentagon brass has never been enthusiastic about the Midgetman--a small, mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that would be moved around on Southwestern military bases in order to make it harder to hit in the event of a surprise Soviet nuclear attack. The hearts of the brass really lie with a parallel proposal for the construction of 50 ten-warhead MX missiles, in addition to the 50 MXs already scheduled for fixed silos, that would be moved around in railroad cars.

Under pressure from Congress, however, the Reagan Administration has been grudgingly planning the production of 500 Midgetman missiles, with deployment to begin about 1993. Faced with the budget crunch, the Air Force has cheerfully decided to save the MX but kill the Midgetman. That would be a terrible mistake.

American defense officials like to dismiss the Midgetman as the only strategic weapon that was ever designed by Congress. They should tell that to the Soviets, who already are deploying SS-25s--small, truck-mounted ICBMs similar to the Midgetman. And the idea of fielding relatively large numbers of mobile single-warhead missiles in preference to smaller numbers of multiple-warhead ICBMs had a strong following among U.S. defense experts long before influential members of Congress took up the cause--and long before the first SS-25s showed up in the Soviet Union.

From the standpoint of strategic nuclear stability, single-warhead mobile ICBMs are attractive--provided both sides have them--because their greater numbers and mobility make them harder to target, and the resulting increase in survivability makes the idea of a preemptive attack even less rational and more remote.

Putting 500 warheads aboard 50 rail-mobile MXs would not accomplish the same purpose. As the General Accounting Office noted in a recent report, the rail-mobile MX would require six hours' warning of a possible Soviet attack to move out onto the public rail network and approach the same degree of survivability that the Midgetman would achieve within 30 minutes of an attack warning. The MXs' greater vulnerability would tempt military planners to get them moving when evidence of an impending attack was still nebulous, and that movement itself could be dangerously destabilizing at a time of severe tensions.

If you assume that Washington and Moscow do agree to cut the number of strategic warheads roughly in half, the case for going forward with the Midgetman is especially strong. The United States would be foolish to concentrate so many of its allowable warheads on a relative handful of vulnerable MXs.

It's true that 500 Midgetman missiles would cost a lot more than 50 MXs. But killing the rail-mobile MX program would provide some of the extra money, and still more could be made available by keeping the President's Strategic Defense Initiative on a tight leash.

Budget pressures give Congress no real choice but to kill one of the mobile ICBM programs. Considering just what is at stake, the rail-mobile MX is clearly the one that should go.

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