WASHINGTON — It is a proposal as irrepressible as the children's classic "The Little Engine That Could." And critics say it is just about as realistic.
The United States, or so the proposal goes, should hide its land-based nuclear missiles inside cleverly disguised railroad cars, keep them in garrisons during peacetime and send them out to roam the nation's railroads in times of superpower crisis. Mingling unobtrusively with commercial traffic, the missile force would remain safe from Soviet attack and ready to do its deadly business at a moment's notice.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney asked Congress on Tuesday for a fiscal 1990 defense budget that includes initial funds for moving the nation's 50 MX missiles from their fixed silos to rail cars. But there are a few "ifs" in his plan.
The system will work if U.S. leaders see a Soviet strike coming in time and give the order to trains to leave their vulnerable garrisons; if the trains have the run of the nation's 150,000 miles of tracks unhindered by sabotage, accidents or the punishing electrical effects of nuclear warfare, and if the Soviets cannot pinpoint the locations of the trains by unmasking their disguises or tapping into the easily accessible network of commercial rail operations.
"The problem with the MX rail-garrison plan is that rather than taking minutes to mobilize, it takes a matter of hours," Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) said. "The concern is that it gives the Soviets incentive to launch a surprise attack . . . while the missiles are still in the garrison, where they can be destroyed before they get out on the tracks."
Transferring the MX to rail cars also has a lot of things going for it, not the least of which is price.
At about $5.4 billion, the cost of putting the MX on the rails is less than a quarter of the cost of the chief competing proposal--the development and deployment of a whole new missile called the Midgetman, which would be mounted on trucks and ride the nation's highways.
The 50 MX missiles, with 10 nuclear warheads each, already exist. The proposed 500 single-warhead Midgetman missiles would have to be built from scratch.
Cheney, facing a need to trim the defense budget he inherited from the Ronald Reagan Administration, recommended scrapping Midgetman development in favor of basing the MX on the rails.
He faced opposition not only from influential Democratic congressmen such as Dicks, who have championed the Midgetman, but also from Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser, who headed the 1983 presidential commission that first proposed the Midgetman.
Consequently, Bush finessed the decision by choosing both missile systems, although he will ask only for money to develop--not yet to deploy--the Midgetman.
This is not the first time that the nation has seriously considered putting its land-based nuclear missile force on the rails. When a similar scheme was considered for the Minuteman missile in the early 1960s, it so fired the nation's imagination that the Lionel Train Corp. began producing a miniature boxcar whose roof opened up to allow a model Minuteman missile to pop off in a mock launch.
Lionel stopped building the tiny missile train in 1963, after the Pentagon rejected the rail-basing scheme and decided to put the Minuteman in underground silos. One Lionel employee, citing concern for safety in today's toy market, said recently: "You could never sell that kind of thing these days."
But that is exactly what Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch, who calls the rail-garrison scheme "mobility at a comparatively bargain price," has succeeded in doing for the MX.
The Air Force has identified 10 bases, from Louisiana to Washington, where MX missiles could be housed in garrisons along rail tracks and scrambled onto rail cars in time of crisis. As examples of periods in history that probably would have sent the missiles onto the commercial railways, the Air Force cites the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel.
Opponents of the rail-garrison scheme charge that the return on the $5.4-billion investment would be a less stable balance of nuclear terror. The Soviet Union, they say, would recognize that only a Pearl-Harbor style attack would remove the threat posed by the MX missile force's 500 accurate warheads while they were still housed in their vulnerable garrisons.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. John Deutch says the best way to deter a surprise Soviet attack is to maintain a U.S. force that would survive such an assault and be available for retaliation.
"The rail-garrison MX system doesn't demonstrate that property of survivability unless it has strategic warning--hours as opposed to minutes," Deutch said. "As a result, it makes the possibility (of a surprise attack) more likely, not less likely."