IN RESPONSE to community and Congressional protest, Secretary of Defense Laird has halted construction of an anti-ballistic missile base in Reading, a Boston suburb. No further work will proceed at the site, the first of 14 planned around the country, pending completion of a general review of defense strategy in early March. The Sentinel ABM system, ineffective, wasteful, and unwisely provocative to the Soviet Union, should be severely curtailed.
In a September 1967 speech to Congress, Laird's predecessor, Robert McNamara, described Sentinel as a "thin" system intended to meet the threat of a missile attack from China through 1975. No system, McNamara said, could be adequately effective against Russia's sophisticated arsenal, and he opposed any attempt to develop one. Russia would respond only by developing its offensive missiles until they can out-number or elude our anti-missiles, launching the crazy spiral of an arms race.
The official rationale for a thin system--defense against China--is highly contestable. China now possesses no intercontinental missiles capable of attacking the United States. Yet the military proposes to build a system that Jerome Wiesner, John Kennedy's Science Advisor, believes would be almost immediately obsolete, and which can never be realistically tested because of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. ABM proponents further assume that China might use her first long-range missiles even before developing simple decoy devices, already known to the American military, that can render Sentinels almost useless. As a response China could only expect obliteration of her own people. The tortured illogic required for such a Chinese decision is imaginable only by using our own.
Lieutenant General Alfred D. Starbird, in recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, countered these arguments by telling startled Congressmen what they hadn't been told last year when they approved initial funds for the program: the Defense Department views the $5.5 billion system as only a first step in keeping up with an increasingly complex Chinese force. The final price tag is unknown.
THE DEFENSE Department had good reason to hid its motives from Congressional critics. The United States and Russia are on the verge of opening talks on curtailing he weapons race, and open-ended development of ABM's would upset the delicate balance of terror necessary for stability between the two nations. What Secretary McNamara most feared might very well happen: the ABM system could compel the Russians to respond.
In fact, it seems that the Nixon Administration has embarked on a new kind of Brinksmanship and that Congress has okayed a program whose ends are radically different from those it approved. At a recent press conference President Nixon dismissed the idea that Sentinel was intended "simply for the purpose of protecting ourselves against attack from Communist China." Secretary Laird, speaking of the impending missile discussion with Russia, said last week, "I think it's most important, as we go into these talks, to have defensive as well as offensive missile systems up for discussion, debate, and negotiation."
Government strategists reason that Russia will feel pressured to negotiate in the face of an ABM program. Russia is more likely to resent the Administration's high-handed tactics as a breach of good faith. The increased tensions strung between the superpowers would be dangerous and unnecessary.
Local objections to ABM's are more short-sighted but nonetheless valid. The base's location in Reading makes the Boston area a prime target for nuclear attack, and creates a finite chance of an on-site accidental explosion. A limited, strictly regulated number of ABM's may well be necessary to deter an accidental missile attack by Russia or China, but they ought to be situated far from a metropolitan area, where their long range would make them just as effective.
Domestically, Sentinel is most objectionable because it distorts national priorities and absorbs billions of dollars that should be invested in our cities. As Vietnam costs diminish, the arms racers stand poised to absorb the financial bonuses which belong in a re-structured program against poverty.
To proceed with an ABM program, the military now asks of Congress $1.7 billion and authority to acquire their second and third sites in Seattle and Chicago. In the Senate, at least, there is an even chance that these requests will be refused, a reassertion of Senate power in foreign policy long-awaited since Vietnam.