COVER

A DOOMSDAY DECISION

Michael Posner December 6 1982
COVER

A DOOMSDAY DECISION

Michael Posner December 6 1982

A DOOMSDAY DECISION

COVER

Michael Posner

The news caught up with Ed Herschler in Denver, where the Wyoming governor was attending a conclave of western state leaders. He already knew the details. He had been briefed in advance by the White House. But when President Ronald Reagan’s decision to base the MX intercontinental ballistic missile near Cheyenne, Wyo., was officially made public last week, the folksy Herschler evoked the bittersweet dilemmas of nuclear strategists by likening the announcement to word of “a mother-in-law driving your new Cadillac over a cliff, or your teenage daughter coming home at 3 a.m. with a Gideon Bible under her arm.” In short, from Herschler’s sensitive vantage point the MX plan contained both good points and bad. On balance, he said, he was for it.

Good or bad, reassuring or unnerving, the Reagan administration’s $26.4-bil-

velop a momentum that is very difficult to arrest

Between drawing board and deployment, new

weapons systems de-

lion proposal to bury 100 MX missiles in superhardened silos beneath a 22.4-kmlong swatch of real estate somewhere north of Cheyenne is clearly controversial. The MX will now become the focus of a fierce U.S. debate—in Congress, in the press and in the polls—about the nation’s military budget, defence priorities, arms control and the uncharted minefield of U.S.-Soviet relations in the post-Brezhnev era. Above all, for citizens along the 49th parallel, the MX base raised unsettling prospects of a destruction scenario played out over their homes (map, page 34).

In Ottawa, where the federal govern-, ment received a briefing three hours be-fore Reagan’s statement, Prime Minis-8 ter Pierre Trudeau reiterated support^ for “de-escalation or a reduction in nu-^ clear arms.” But he said that he did not° plan to protest the Reagan decision. ASÍS Defence Minister Gilles Lamontagnef told the Commons, the MX move “has| nothing to do, in a way, with Canada.”^

In another way, however, it could have. Former defence minister Allan McKinnon, who has extensive contacts in the North American military establishment, says that he has been informed that to buttress the MX base the Americans will build more antiballistic missiles (ABMs)—designed to shoot down incoming Soviet missiles, possibly in Canadian airspace. Declared MacKinnon: “We are the ones who have to interpret the American actions to our NATO allies, and I’m completely baffled as to how we can interpret this.”

In Washington the MX will face its first trial this week when the House of Representatives’ appropriations committee votes on the 1983 defence bill. Committee member Joseph Addabbo (D-N.Y.) wants to kill funding for the first several missiles to be deployed. The welcome in the Republican-controlled Senate is apt to be no less inclement. Three GOP members have already signed their names to an anti-MX letter written by Ernest Hollings (DS.C.), who has vowed to delete funding from any money bills passed during Congress’ current session. Conceded Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), the president’s closest confidant on Capitol Hill: “He’s probably going to have one of his greater legislative battles.”

Vulnerable: Still, for its champiofis in the air force, the munitions lobbies and conservative factions in both parties, the MX missile is, as the president declared in his prime-time television address last week, “the right missile at the right time.” In virtually every measure of military power, Reagan charged, “the Soviet Union enjoys a decided advantage.” While that seemed to be an overstatement of the facts, it is true that the current arsenal of 1,052 aging Titans and Minuteman missiles is considered to be increasingly vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. And the MX, sheltered in hardened silos, would shore up the U.S. stake in land-based ballistic systems. In the process, the debate will escalate over such issues as “fratricide,” “dense pack” and a staggering price tag for the new technology. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger last week rejected suggestions by critics that the two remaining legs of Washington’s nuclear “triad”—sea-launched and air-based weapons—would provide adequate deterrence against a Soviet surprise attack on land-based forces. “We need the redundancy provided by all three,” he stated.

At the same time, the U.S. administration claims that the MX would provide U.S. negotiators with a valuable bargaining chip at the strategic arms reduction talks in Geneva. In fact, the president told his aides, “If we don’t get this thing, we might as well bring our negotiators home.” Without it, the administration believes, the Kremlin would have little incentive for agreeing to significant cuts in current levels of arms. “They would know,” said Reagan, “we had nothing to bargain with except talk.” Still, it is unclear whether Washington would be prepared to abandon MX deployment in return for a Soviet quid pro quo or whether it needs MX in order to make other, lesser concessions. Indeed, Reagan may simply want the scheme to be on the table at Geneva to see how the Soviets respond.

Another premise of the MX argument is that

it would calm NATO allies’ fears of involvement in any superpower nuclear war. Without the missile, it is argued, the Europeans might complain that the United States was sacrificing its landbased capability just when NATO is deploying Pershing II and cruise missiles abroad. In other words, the Europeans might suspect that they were not simply supporting the third leg of the nuclear triad but that they were the third leg. As a result, a refusal by Congress to build the MX would imperil the scheduled placement of Pershings and cruises in Europe.

Perhaps most decisively, in Reagan’s view, the MX missile would restore parity in strategic forces and strengthen the doctrine of deterrence. Soviet leaders would be reluctant, not to say irrational, to launch a pre-emptive blow, calculating that enough MX warheads would probably survive to inflict a punitive counterstrike. Just how many MX missiles would remain intact is unclear, but that very uncertainty might stay Moscow’s hand from the nuclear button.

The concept of deterrence is now under at-

0 tack as being the fuel

1 that drives the arms race. But the counterargument holds that deterrence has managed to prevent a superpower conflict since the birth of the nuclear age in 1945. To abandon MX, accord-

ing to that theory, would weaken deterrence. And to weaken deterrence is to create the very conditions that might lead one side to exploit a perceived advantage, bringing war. Underscoring that view, the White House last week gave the MX a new, reassuring name: “the Peacekeeper.”

Rebuttal: But for every defence mobilized on the MX’s behalf, there is a predictable and powerful rebuttal. Critics claim that the missile is the Pentagon’s own lethal first-strike weapon—designed not to equalize the strategic balance but to move from virtual parity to a decisive U.S. advantage. At best, its deployment would destabilize the existing equilibrium, creating new tensions and risks, as one of the MX foes, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), noted last week. However, most critiques of the MX plan focus on the proposed “dense pack” basing plan and the cost (page 38).

The technical argument that underlies the dense pack theory is complex and perhaps fruitless. In abstract wars waged largely by computers, programmed by physicists and mathematicians, it is hard to tell the victor from the vanquished, especially when the weapon has yet to be used. MX defenders say that the uncertainties of dense pack only buttress its credibility; no Soviet planner or politician, Reagan insisted last week, “would bet the fate of his country on technical dreams of its vulnerability.” The system’s critics retort that $26.4 billion in a climate of austerity is a daunting drain on the treasury for a system that may not work or that could be traded away in arms control negotiations. Says retired Admiral Noel Gayler, former director of the National Security Agency: “It’s a stupid way to spend money needed for real defence.”

It is indeed axiomatic that projected costs for new weapons systems multiply as rapidly and as infallibly as rabbits. For far less grandiose sums, Gayler and others suggest, the Pentagon could modernize the Titans and Minuteman missiles or harden existing silos. It could also build additional cruise missiles or nuclear submarines, neither of which has yet been subject to wide public scrutiny or doubt.

Some strategists believe that the Pentagon’s ultimate motive is to build an antiballistic missile defence system to protect the ICBMS; any land-based missile—given technological ad-

vances—is now only as dependable as the ABM fortress thrown up around it. But the 1972 U.S.-Soviet ABM treaty limited both sides to two ABM sites—the national capital and one other location. A 1974 protocol agreement reduced the number of ABM shields to one. The U.S. began but did not complete construction at Minot, N.D., where scores of Minuteman missiles are based. If both parties now consent to scrap the treaty, the Soviets will almost certainly build ABM defences for the missile fields closest to Moscow, reducing the threat of U.S. retaliation. That issue is particularly germane to Canada because incoming Soviet missiles would be intercepted directly over Canadian terrain.

A more immediate concern is whether the dense pack configuration violates the SALT II treaty. Although S never ratified by the U.S. Senate, both ü¡ the Reagan administration and the jz Kremlin have pledged to abide by its ^ terms, provided neither side tries to* cheat. One of SALT Il’s clauses bans cono struction of new fixed ballistic missile launchers. Since dense pack is immobile by design, it would appear to breach that prohibition.

Catapulting: Moscow did not miss that point last week despite the Soviet Union’s continuing preoccupation with post-Brezhnev power plays: the elevation of new Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov to the Presidium, a further step toward the presidency, and the catapulting of Geidar Aliyev, 59, Andropov’s erstwhile KGB ally, to the post of first deputy prime minister. In a 3,000word editorial the party newspaper, Pravda, charged that “Washington cannot but know [the MX] runs counter to one of the central provisions of the SALT I and II accords.”

The Pentagon, however, dismissed the charges. The MX, Weinberger observed, requires no new construction of separate launchers since the weapon is, in effect, self-propelled, carrying its launcher in a cannister attached to the missile. Added Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle: “Moscow is wrong.” The Soviets, he said, were

themselves guilty of dozens

of technical violations of SALT II.

For Moscow now to accuse the

United States of loose interpretation of its rules “makes an absurdity of the whole SALT process.”

U.S. Kremlinologists weighed the im-

plications of the Pravda article, the first detailed Soviet response to the MX announcement. Noting Pravda’s assertion that Moscow does not intend to “chase the U.S.A. in the creation of new weapons,” they judged its tone less inflammatory than similar outpourings in the past. But they seemed uncertain whether Moscow would build its own new generation of ICBMs or find other ways to reply.

Meanwhile, the U.S.Soviet dialogue remains essentially acerbic. Each side freely professes a desire for better relations, but, like two wary strangers approaching a darkened corridor, neither is prepared to enter first. In a speech last week to the Communist Party Central Committee, Andropov expressed his willingness to negotiate genuine arms control agreements but he said that Moscow will make no “preliminary concessions.” The U.S. state department promptly

welcomed the arms control portion of the statement but added that any U.S. move would only be in response to prior Soviet action—with regard to human rights, Poland, Afghanistan and Kampuchea.

Stalemate also reigns in the arms control arena. In Vienna, where the issue is theatre nuclear weapons, the U.S. “zero option” is on the tablean offer not to deploy 572 Pershing II and cruise missiles if the Soviets dismantle their 320 SS20s and an equal number of SS-4s and -5s. But little progress is expected until the first NATO missiles are actually in place in late 1983. In Geneva the issue is strategic arms. Again, Washington has proposed deep cuts in the warhead arsenals of both sides. But Moscow has apparently countered with a broader plan which seeks ratification of SALT Il’s agreed levels (2,250 bombers and missiles) plus a further reduction of 25 per cent. Some Western sources, including West German Defence Minister Manfred Woerner, were optimistic. But Moscow itself was at pains to discount notions of progress.

Hotline: Indeed, the only overt movement last week was Reagan’s offer of co-operation on three fronts: advance notification by both sides of upcoming nuclear weapons tests and of major military exercises; exchanges of data on nuclear forces; and studies of the feasibility of expanding the world’s most important and least-used telephone circuit, the Washington-Moscow hotline (actually a Telex link). Pravda deemed that proposal “useful” but asked, “If 10 telephones directly linking Moscow and Washington, red or blue, are attached to 100 MX missiles, will those missiles become less dangerous?” While such confidence-building measures are encouraging, their value seems principally cosmetic.

They are certainly peripheral to the coming congressional debate on the MX. Most administration officials acknowledge that the program’s chances in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives are remote. The White House strategy is to win in the Senate, then negotiate actual dollar amounts in the traditional House-Senate conference. “Of course we can win,” predicted Senator John Tower (R-Tex.), “if the White House pulls out all the stops.” Democrat Joseph Addabbo was equally optimistic that the anti-MX forces would prevail but he cautioned: “I’m leery of the president’s charisma. I have lost to him before.”

Threat: The coalition arrayed against the missile is broad and deep, including representatives of the burgeoning nuclear freeze movement and some Wyoming ranchers. Opponents argue that the missile is simply unnecessary; that the Trident submarine, cruise missile and B-l bombers now in development provide adequate deterrence against any Soviet first strike. The farmers perceive a threat to ownership of their wide-open spaces. MX funds, insists Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), would be far more usefully spent improving U.S. conventional forces. Some critics doubt the efficacy of dense pack, while others claim it will jeopardize arms control agreements, giving another ugly twist to the arms race spiral.

Against all of that stands the moral suasion of Reagan, the relentless defence lobbies and the influence of the Pentagon. Indeed, even if Congress kills the MX this year, the air force is expected to try again in 1984. Somewhere between the drawing board and deployment, new weapons systems seem to develop an irresistible momentum. They can be delayed, short-changed on research funds, even cancelled. But, ultimately, the military juggernaut is not denied. Resistance wears down. Existing systems grow obsolete. Later, if not sooner, Congress succumbs.

As a result, many observers think a Reagan defeat now would not be very significant. He can always try again and, in the interim, berate the Democrats for failing to keep the United States strong. Besides, putting the MX on hold would likely take the edge off the nuclear freeze movement. In sum, for Ronald Reagan, the MX missile may well be like watching a mother-in-law drive a new Cadillac over a cliff—and having the car survive, dented and creased, but essentially intact.

With

Ian Anderson

in Ottawa.