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Reagan's Strategic Plan: Right on the MX, Wrong on the B-1

By Richard L. Garwin

The gradual evolution of the strategic force was emphasized and highlighted by the Presidential campaign and by preemptive actions of the Carter administration to minimize criticism by the Republicans. Having promised to do more, the Reagan administration has been learning the realities--in particular that it cannot have "more" of everything at the same time that it goes ahead with every new strategic system. The turmoil was punctuated by the October 2, 1981 announcement of the Reagan strategic program.

First, the Reagan program improves the survivability and performance of the warning senors, communication to the command centers, and communications to the strategic forces. It also initiates a research and development program leading to a less vulnerable communication system. I agree that it is desirable to modernize the communication and control system and that it is feasible to provide enhancements. The President is correct in emphasizing the urgency and benefits that are associated with improving the performance of the communications systems, but given the Reagan administration's financial commitment, it remains to be seen how much less vulnerable these systems can be made.

Second, the program will develop a variant of the B-1 bomber, possibly deploy 100 aircraft beginning 1986, and will continue research and development toward an advanced technology bomber--"Stealth." B-52Gs and B-52Hs (and eventually B-1s) will carry more than 3000 cruise missiles beginning 1982. Existing KC-135 aerial tankers will receive new engines. I thoroughly support the deployment of 3000 cruise missiles on the B-52s, but believe that since the B-52s launch their cruise missiles from outside Soviet airspace, only the missiles have to penetrate Soviet air defenses, diminishing the need for a penetrating strategic bomber. Unless the Stealth program were so successful as to provide a cheaper, more effective alternative to the B-52/ALCM combination no new bomber should be built. The B-52s are flyable beyond the year 2000, according to official Air Force studies, and the defense program has better uses for the money than to put it into B-1 development and acquisition.

Third, the program continues construction of Trident submarines--which carry 24 missiles as opposed to 16 carried by Poseidon subs--at a rate of one per year, initially to house the Trident-I, which is also being installed in existing Poseidon submarines. The program will also develop a larger 6000-mile range Trident-II missile for deployment on Trident submarines in 1989. It will also deploy several hundred submarine-launched missiles beginning in 1984. Both the cruise missiles and the Trident-II missiles will be much more accurate than current submarine-launched ballistic missiles; in the event that our land-based forces are taken out by a Soviet first strike, they will provide a survivable strategic system capable of destroying Soviet silos, if necessary. How the Reagan administration will handle counting and verification aspects of SLCMs--which are small enough to confound detection--under some future arms control agreement is not clear, however.

Fourth, the program modernizes the land-based missile force by developing the MX missile, which can carry ten warheads, and by initially deploying at least 100 of these missiles in Titan and Minuteman silos "that will be reconstructed for much greater hardness to nuclear effects." Research and development will be pursued on three "promising, long-term, basing options for MX" with a selection of "one or more" by 1984: continuous Air-borne Patrol Aircraft; Ballistic Missile Defense of silos; Deep Underground Basing. In my opinion, none of these is satisfactory: the aircraft, because it patrols over the ocean would be highly detectable and vulnerable; the defended silos, because each defense unit would have to withstand the ten or 20 Soviet warheads that are targeted on each silo--an impossible job; and the deep underground basing, because a system which can be dug out after a couple of weeks is both unsatisfactory to many and vulnerable to missile-delivered nuclear mines. If the MX is built, it can be satisfactorily and economically deployed in the Smallsub Undersea Mobile (SUM) system, two or four MX missiles to a small non-nuclear powered submarine. Studies (most recently by the Townes Commission) show that the communication reliability to such a fleet, and the accuracy of these missiles deployed on it, would be comparable to that of an MX deployed on land. Also, it would be much more survivable. Finally, such a system would place the most desirable U.S. military targets at sea and away from civilian centers. SUM, however, suffers from the bureaucratic problem that it is not a natural deployment mode for the Air Force, and the Navy fears it might compete with the continued production of Trident submarines and the development of the Trident-II missile. Probably SUM will be studies along with the other deployment modes.

The President announced clearly, "We will not deploy 200 missiles in 4600 holes, nor will we deploy 100 missiles in 1000 holes. We have concluded that these basing schemes would be just as vulnerable as the existing Minuteman matter how many shelters we might build, the Soviets can build more missiles, more quickly and just as cheaply." This statement, correct in my opinion, puts an end to the sequence of deceptive basing solutions advanced by the Air Force and the Defense Department under President Carter.

Missing from Reagan's recommendations on improving land-based forces is an effective low-cost ballistic missile defense of the 1000 Miniteman silos, a much easier job than defending 100 high-value MX silos. This defense against Soviet warheads can be achieved by the use of buried nuclear explosives to throw up debris that destroys incoming warheads, by the "SWARMJET" system of launching a shotgun blast of 10,000 small unguided raockets at each warhead as it approaches the target silo. Perhaps now that the deceptive basing scheme is out of the way, real effort can be applied to analyze this shorter-term ICBM modernization option.

Fifth, the program proposes to upgrade strategic defense--by deploying F-15 aircraft to replace F-106 intercepters, improving radar, expanding research and development on ballistic missile defense, developing technologies for space-based missile defense, and expanding the civil defense program. I believe that a modest level of continental air defense provided by our AWACs aircraft when they are at home, together with tactical fighters at home would be worthwhile. To creat a more effective air defense, especially if it is to serve against bombers and cruise missiles, would require an enormous commitment of resources, but would defend us against only a minor part of the Soviet threat, while we are unable to defend against the more significant threat from ballistic missiles.

Overall, the President deserves high marks for jettisoning the deceptive-basing Multiple Protective Shelter system for the MX missile, a bold act which opens the way to a proper assessment of the entire strategic posture. His improvement in command and control will provide the basis for a "launch under attack" capability. This will insure against some unexpected Soviet breakthrough which would imperil the other two legs of our strategic deterent, i.e., a breakthrough in anti-submarine warfare or a breakthrough that would imperil the survival of our strategic aircraft. His proposal to develop both the MX and the Trident-II missile calls for further analysis, however, since the Trident-II could just as well be deployed in Minuteman silos, or in any of the other MX basing modes thus far considered. Furthermore, the President's proposal to harden existing silos fails to address the problem of land-based IBCM vulnerability because it is impossible where they are threatened by a modest improvement in Soviet accuracy. A 30 per cent increase in accuracy, for example, can compensate for a tripling of the hardness of the silo.

In summary, I thoroughly endorse President Reagan's cancellation of the multiple-shelter system: his emphasis on improving communications and control; his decision to build the MX and to delay the deployment decision until 1984. I believe, however, that we do not need to spend $6 billion to develop the MX missile and spend $6 billion to develop the Trident-II missile. If we are going to build an ICBM compatible with the Trident submarine, then we ought to consider seriously putting that missile in silos or deploying it in aircraft, under ground, on small submarines, or the like. If we are going to build an MX missile, then surely we should take advantage of the encapsulation and self-sufficiency of the missiles to deploy them on small submarines, at the same time augmenting the sea-based deterrent.

The Reagan team is now engaged in its first attempt to use arms control to enhance national security--the Geneva negotiations or theater nuclear weapons in Europe. I hope that a dual approach, combining force modernization with arms control, backed by hard analysis in both, can replace naive calls for greater expenditures or for immediate disarmament.

Richard L. Garwin, Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School, is a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense on matters of military technology and arms control. A member of the Council of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, he has advised several presidents and testified before numerous Congressional committees on national security issues.

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