Not the Ultimate Missile
MANY AMERICANS STILL derive a sort of childish glee from new developments in technology--microwave ovens, electric "pong" games and digital watches are a few examples. Advances in strategic weapons technology are no exception. Everyone knows that for each new weapon the Americans have developed, the Soviets have produced another one just as deadly, just as awesome. And people have also come to realize that efforts undertaken in the name of defense are invariably viewed by the other side as aggressive threats to stability requiring still further escalations of nuclear capability. But many Americans still maintain an implicit faith in Yankee ingenuity; they continually hope for the development that will put the Russians in their place and give the U.S. a safe and lasting strategic superiority. The MX missile is one more such hope that will surely prove to be every bit as futile and destabilizing as past systems have been.
The land-based, mobile MX intercontinental ballistic missile, which has apparently received the green light from the Carter administration, has two characteristics that separate it from our current land-based missiles. First is the MX's mobility. Current missiles, which rest in silos scattered throughout the country, are considered sitting ducks for a new generation of Soviet land-based missiles that are highly accurate and obscenely powerful. To make the missiles less vulnerable, the MX is designed to ride on 12 miles of track buried five feet below the ground in "hardened" tunnels. The missile would be randomly moved around on its tracks and have the capacity to be launched from any point within the tunnel. Since the Soviets would never know what portion of the trench to target, this feature of the MX would insure the ability of a substantial portion of our land-based missiles to weather a Soviet first-strike.
The second characteristic of the MX, which often attracts less publicity, is its lethality: the MX would have substantially more throw-weight and accuracy than missiles currently in the American arsenal. This would be of particular value in attacking Soviet missiles, whose hardened silos appear to be effective against all but the most accurate and powerful of missiles.
These features would be worthwhile only under the presumption that the Soviets would do nothing to counteract a new threat to their land-based missiles, that the U.S. was interested in launching a first-strike against the Soviet Union, or that the Americans had given up all hope of negotiated arms ceilings. But these assumptions are not, or should not be, true. The facts show that the MX would be more costly than useful, would be dangerously destabilizing, and would present problems of verification that would severely hamper future efforts at arms control.
MISSILES AND BOMBS in the American "triad"--a triple-faceted defense system consisting of nuclear bombers, submarines and land-based missiles--may be targeted as either "counter-value" or "counter-force." Counter-value weapons are targeted for Soviet cities in the belief that guaranteeing the destruction of Soviet society after a Soviet first-strike would deter that attack in the first place. Counter-force weapons, on the other hand, are aimed at Soviet missile and military installations. These weapons traditionally have been viewed as aggressive and possessing less deterrent value; the argument holds that it does little good to use counter-force weapons in a defensive situation, for if the U.S. were launching a response to a Soviet first-strike, missiles would simply be destroying empty silos. More recently, though, the doctrine of "limited counter-force" has emerged, and the MX is designed to satisfy the needs of this doctrine.
Limited counter-force targets Soviet missiles to give the U.S. a limited response to a limited Soviet first-strike against our missiles causing only minor American casualties. Under such circumstances, MX proponents fear that the Soviets would doubt our willingness to launch counter-value weapons, inviting a Soviet retaliation and assuring mutual destruction. According to the argument, a limited Soviet attack could only be deterred by U.S. readiness and capability to retaliate against the missiles remaining in the Soviet arsenal and against once-used silos to prevent reloading. Backers of the MX say the missile is needed for such an option because current land-based missiles are too vulnerable to a first-strike and the air and sea weapons on the triad lack either sufficient accuracy or power to threaten a residual Soviet missile force.
Mobile missiles are a double-edged sword, however; if they prove reasonably invulnerable for the Americans, they will be equally so for the Russians. Soviet mobile missile technology has progressed even further than its American counterpart, and if the U.S. developed accurate silo-busting missiles, the Soviets would likely respond by putting their land-based missiles on tracks, affording them greater protection. This predictable Soviet response to the MX would seem to negate whatever value it has as a weapon for effective limited counter-force; if the MX is invulnerable, it would be unable to wipe out similarly mobile Soviet missiles and therefore be useless to develop. If, on the other hand, Soviet mobile missiles could be destroyed by accurate, high-yield weapons, then the MX itself would be vulnerable to a first-strike, eliminating its main selling point.
Yet these arguments do not even consider the enormous cost involved. With a price tag of $30-$40 billion, the MX would be the most expensive U.S. strategic weapons system ever. For the same caust we could produce literally thousands of cruise missiles; for slightly more than half that sum we could manufacture 13 trident submarines equipped with over 300 ballistic missiles.
Another option would involve upgrading the accuracy of current sub-launched ballistic missiles. This could give our currently invulnerable submarines silo-busting capabilities, if this were deemed desirable.
THE COST AND QUESTIONABLE value of the MX, however, do not describe all that is irksome about the missile. While the MX would be clothed in the rhetoric of limited counter-force and deterrence, it would bring the U.S. capabilities closer to launching a first-strike against the Soviet Union than they have ever been. At least in part, current Soviet programs of escalation constitute a reaction to American development of new multiple, independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, to breakthroughs in missile accuracy, and to the development of the cruise missile. Adding the MX to our arsenal could only heighten Soviet fears of an American first-strike, send them into yet another frenzy of rapid nuclear weapons development, and forestall any willingness on their part to negotiate arms reductions. What we view as defensive measures can easily be seen by the other side as aggressive weapons warranting stepped-up defensive measures of their own.
The final problem that the MX presents to arms control efforts is one of verification. Hidden underground in unmarked tunnels, MX missiles could not be easily identified or counted by Soviet satellites. Underlying any serious attempt to limit strategic capabilities must be the ability to have independent verification of missile levels. The U.S. should exercise considerable caution when confronting not only the possibility of escalating the arms race, but of foreclosing any future attempts at negotiated reductions.
The MX, then, is simply not worth it--not the costs involved nor the anger posed to prospects for sane solutions to the intractable problems of nuclear escalation. Deploying newer and more deadly weapons in the past has never produced stability but has merely raised existing instability to higher and more costly levels. There is no reason to believe that the MX will be any different. For a negotiated, stable deterrence to endure, our efforts should be directed not at producing greater and more sophisticated weapons, but rather at eliminating the psychology of nuclear one-upmanship.