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A New Missile Gap Game


It is always a grim affair when politicians use scare tactics to lobby for their pet innovations in national security. It is worse when the Administration gives in to them.

Last week, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford & Co. got their anti-ballistic-missile system. In the midst of an otherwise eloquent address on the danger of a new arms race. Defense Secretary McNamara announced that the U.S. would begin to deploy a $5 million "thin" system principally to protect our Minuteman ICBM silos.

The Administration's decision was a response to the Soviet's construction of a similar umbrella around several cities. Since the Russians' efforts became public knowledge last year, there has been inecssant howling from Republicans and some Democrats about a new "missile gap." Richard Nixon-- the victim of the last such "gap"--theratened to make ABM's an issue in the 1968 Presidential campaign.

McNamara, however, argued that the thin ABM shield is "Chinese-oriented." He did not give much attention to the overwhelming probability that this country could sustain a surprise Peking attach--if China were actually rash enough to hit the U.S. with nuclear weapons--and still retaliate with sufficient force to liquidate the Chinese. Peking's harried leaders are surely aware of this. They also know that Cina cannot hope to achieve anything approaching nuclear party with the U.S. for many decades.

The latest American step is a strategic error. Even "thin" U.S. systems may encourage the Russians to thicken theirs. The U.S. would feel compelled, no doubt, to keep up--and speed up what has been a fairly quiescent arms race. Affluent America can afford this no better than the frugal Soviets as McNamara openly admitted.

More important, the United States will alaways have enough effective missiles to destroy Soviet society should the Russians start a nuclear war. Defensive missile technology is simply not advanced enough to keep apace with the constant refinements in offensive weaponry.

McNamara himself said that an ABM system "Can rather obviously be defeated by an enemy simply sending over more offensive warheads, or dummy warheads, than there are defensive missiles capable of disposing of them".

And there is little hope for even an ABM-crazy Soviet Union to attain strategic equality with the United States. America's three-to-one offensive missile edge over the Soviet Union is not expected by anyone to change much in the next few decades.

All this did not have much weight with an Administration's in political trouble. After gamely resisting demands to start deploying ABM's, it has succumbed-- with the full knowledge that the system will grow with in several years into a costly White elephant.

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