President Jimmy Carter last week sent his shock troops into the Senate foreign relations committee to soften up conservative opposition to the SALT II treaty which he desperately needs Congress to ratify to bolster his re-election chances. Among those who gave evidence were the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their view: SALT II is useful—but only if the U.S. vigorously modernizes its strategic forces. A key element ofthat modernization is the MX missile. But while Carter has given MX the go-ahead, an outcry is building over its deployment. Maclean’s Los Angeles correspondent William Scobie reports:
Top U.S. military brass claim it is “vital to national security.” California Governor Jerry Brown calls it “a $70-billion boondoggle.” Nevada’s politicos grumble that it will make their gambling, tourist-reliant state “a nuclear bull’s-eye.” Environmentalists protest that it will ruin a fragile, precious desert ecology. Yet the storm over the Pentagon’s all-new MX missile has barely begun. This 95-ton monster, carrying 10 MIRVs—independently targetable warheads—each with the power of 20 Hiroshima bombs, is going to be a
major political issue over the next few years.
The MX (for missile experimental) is destined to change the face and the economy of the U.S. southwest. In the next week or two, President Carter is scheduled to announce his decision on how and precisely where the vast MX complex—200 rockets by 1989—will be deployed. It is a decision of tremendous importance, both for the California aerospace industry and the people of four desert states, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, where the Pentagon wants to site this science-fiction weapon. The MX involves a construction project described as “larger than the Alaskan pipeline.” Ultimate cost could run as high as $70 billion U.S. a year or more, but for the moment, the Pentagon’s conservative price tag is $30 billion.
The MX is the biggest land-based missile permitted under terms of SALT II, the new strategic arms agreement with the Soviets. And because of SALT, Carter’s aides are leaning heavily toward a bizarre “basing mode” blithely known as “the zipper ditch.” Under this plan, 200 trenches, each 20 miles long, would be dug across the four states. Each mis-
sile would rest on a huge, 350-ton, movable launcher carried along rails in an underground tunnel. Each tunnel would be studded with steel and concrete protective shelters. Among these 8,800 shelters, the 200 MXs would be constantly shunted, to and fro, in an effort to keep the Soviet military from guessing their whereabouts.
In time of war, the trench roof would pop up to release its angel of death. In time of peace, the ditch could be “unzipped”periodically to allow Soviet satellites to verify that the U.S. had not sneaked an extra missile in, thus violating SALT.
It would be a 4,000-mile rail systemequivalent to a coast-to-coast railroad. And it could take up an area of 3,000 to 4,000 square miles since, to prevent a Soviet ballistic missile’s knocking out two or three MXs with a single strike, those missile subways must be at least a mile apart.
In Carson City, state capital of Nevada, last week, lawmakers were distinctly cool toward the notion of placing this system in their backyard. Nevada already houses the big nuclear test site, from which explosions rock the gambling palaces of Las Vegas. “How much of the national defence burden should one state have to bear?” asks Democratic congressman James Santini.
A Pentagon team is now visiting local leaders to peddle the plan—apparently the winner out of 35 “ICBM basing concepts” studied over the past six years. But Nevada Governor Robert List is insisting on a series of public hearings throughout the state before he gives any support to the zipper ditch, although he talks of the “terrific boost” thn project would give to the state economy. Other western leaders have expressed similar fears, especially after hearing Air Force Chief of Staff Lew Allen describe the southwestern deserts as “a sponge” that could soak up Soviet ICBMS.
The agile Brown, with an eye to next year’s presidential primaries, denounces the program as “mass transit for missiles.” (In gas-starved California, Brown is pushing a billion-dollar mass-transit scheme.) He charges that MX “shifts the American defence doctrine from mutually assured deterrence to a new posture where we fight nuclear war.”
“It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,” says Brown. And what is that? Just what is it that the MX force could do that cannot be done by America’s existing 1,054 land-based Minuteman and Titan missiles? In his speech to Congress on SALT II, Carter declared that this “verifiable mobile deployment system will enhance stability” by curtailing So-
viet chances of a “successful first strike.” But congressional doves respond that MX is the ransom the president is paying for Senate ratification of the SALT II treaties. Carter, they charge, is throwing MX—a costly sop indeed—to Senate hawks in hopes of winning the 67 “ayes,” that two-thirds vote needed for ratification.
But at least last month’s decision to go ahead with the MX has made California’s defence industry happy. It means 50,000 new jobs and around $9 billion in business for the state. Northrop alone will pick up a cool billion in contracts.
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