U. S. A.

Trying to close the ‘window’

Reagan unveils a plan to reduce U.S. vulnerability to Soviet missiles

Michael Posner October 12 1981
U. S. A.

Trying to close the ‘window’

Reagan unveils a plan to reduce U.S. vulnerability to Soviet missiles

Michael Posner October 12 1981

Trying to close the ‘window’

U. S. A.

Reagan unveils a plan to reduce U.S. vulnerability to Soviet missiles

Are America’s landbased nuclear missiles now vulnerable to attack by the Soviet Union? And if they are, what should the United States do about it? Those questions have challenged American defence experts for several years. Last week, after months of analysis and review, the Reagan administration submitted its own answers, setting off a new round of debate that is likely to have international reverberations. In essence, the administration believes that its land-based force of 1,052 Titan and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is increasingly vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. As Moscow’s relentless military buildup continues and as the accuracy of Soviet ICBMs improves, the U.S. missiles—buried in fixed silos in seven Midwestern states—could be quickly wiped out in a surprise nuclear attack. America’s retaliatory capability would then depend on its aging fleet of B-52 bombers and on the less accurate missiles fired from nuclear submarines. This has come to be known as the “window of vulnerability”: a theoretical time frame in which the Kremlin might be tempted to exploit its strategic advantage.

To close that window, the administration has unveiled a five-part $180.3-billion (U.S.) program, as controversial as it is costly. Its most contentious element may be the MX missile—proposed successor to the Titan and Minuteman launchers. Under Jimmy Carter, the air

force had concocted a bizarre scheme to deploy 200 MX missiles—each carrying 10 nuclear warheads—at 4,600 subterranean shelters in Utah and Nevada. By constantly shuttling the missiles from silo to silo, Moscow would be kept guessing about the precise locale of the warheads. Now, Reagan has prudently abandoned that proposal. The project faced strong political opposition in Congress and in the West. It carried the highest price tag of any construction undertaking in history—an estimated $100 billion. And even if built—or so the president suggested last week—it would not have prevented the Soviets from assembling as many missiles as were necessary to destroy the entire network of MX shelters.

Instead, Reagan wants to build 100 MX weapons by 1986 and base 36 of them in already constructed Titan and Min-

uteman silos, reinforced to withstand the impact of an atomic blast. Logically, however, this plan is no less handicapped. If the existing silos can be hardened to survive a nuclear attack, why is the MX missile needed at all?

In fact, reinforcement is simply a stopgap measure. No American missile would likely survive a Soviet warhead landing anywhere near its target. Nor, in the short run, is there any way to close completely the window of vulnerability. What the current master plan does is buy the administration a few years of time—time, perhaps, to reach a verifiable arms reduction treaty with Moscow. Or, more probably, time to conduct an intensive research and development program to find a better MX basing system, one that may involve a new, anti-ballistic missile defence.

The Pentagon will also modernize other elements of its strategic arsenal, including production of 100 B-l manned bombers development of the radar-elusive Stealth bomber (for the 1990s); deployment of cruise missiles on Trident submarines and on newer B-52 bombers; upgrading the communications network that would link the U.S. nuclear triad (land-, seaand air-based weapons) in wartime; and, with Canada, improving North America’s air defence and surveillance abilities. Presumably some aspects of the Reagan plan will become bargaining chips in the next round of arms limitation talks.

But the administration is clearly committed to most of its declared strategy. It was no coincidence that Defense

Michael Posner

Secretary Caspar Weinberger prefaced the president’s announcement with release of a 99-page report documenting the stark reality of the Soviet military buildup. Many experts have questioned the very premise of a window of vulnerability (contending that Soviet missiles are not as accurate as claimed), and whether the U.S. retaliatory punch is lethal enough to give the Kremlin’s Politbüro serious doubts about the wisdom of a first strike. But that view has no strong support within the White House. The growth of Moscow’s military machine far outpaces what would be needed to defend the U.S.S.R. adequately, the Pentagon insists. And, as Reagan himself noted at a news conference last week, “the Soviet Union has made it very plain that it believes [a limited nuclear war] is winnable.”

The question now is whether Congress—already bristling at the prospect of cutting another $13 billion from the federal budget—will settle the president’s strategic arms package. Some changes may be made, but most Washington observers regard the U.S. military buildup as a bipartisan issue, with solid grassroots support. Even at $180 billion, Reagan is not expected to be given a very tough fight. <£>

ficial, the Canadians were ham-fistedly warned that it would be imprudent for them to mix in the politically sensitive domestic issue of the Clean Air Act. Although Roberts claimed that the withdrawal was a result of “confusion,” Conservative MP John Fraser, his shadow cabinet counterpart, thought otherwise. Fraser charged that the backdown was a “gross capitulation to the bullying tactics by special-interest groups in the U.S. who are prepared to do anything to gut the Clean Air Act.” In Washington there was little question about the priority of environmental programs with the Reagan team: low. Plans for increased military spending have cut drastically into federal monies for social and environmental programs. (The Environmental Protection Agency had its budget slashed in half and by 1982 will have cut one-third of its staff.) Clearly, guns have won out over butter and better air. That view was annoyingly brought home to Canadians last week when a group of midWestern U.S. politicians toured southern Ontario to see damage wrought by acid rain produced by coalburning American plants. Said Ohio

State Representative Thomas Gilmartin in defence of American eco-ethics: “The pollution comes from our industries built up in wartime. We hope you do not press us so much that we cannot afford to keep up our strength to keep peace.”

But the war of the words was not all one-sided. In Washington, Finance Minister Allan MacEachen continued his onslaught on Reaganomics, particularly the tight money policies which have forced Canadian interest rates “higher than required to control our money supply.” MacEachen was joined south of the border by External Affairs Minister Mark MacGuigan, who aired his concerns at New York’s Center for Inter-American Relations. Some of his comments to the black-tie dinner proved disconcerting to his hosts. His defence of Canadian take-overs of foreign-controlled oil and gas subsidiaries caused one of the centre’s main donors to storm out, claiming that he had been “insulted.” Nevertheless, MacGuigan’s tough-talking nationalism looked somewhat toothless considering that Ottawa has shelved its brave plans to strengthen foreign investment controls.