THE DEBATE over the MX missile will soon reach a crescendo when Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger issues his long-awaited recommendation on how to deploy the 10-warhead missile. For weeks, the press has been feeding on leaks and rumors. Some reports foresee a truncated version of the Carter administration plan to hide some 200 missiles in a maze of 4,600 shelters in Nevada and Utah. Others have Weingerger favoring a plan to place MX missiles aboard mammoth C5A transport planes.
Missing from much of the recent reporting, however, are assessments of how the MX in its various suggested "basing modes" might affect the strategic nuclear balance and the prospects for arms control. Time magazine skirted such questions in its recent cover story on the Reagan defense build-up. So did CBS in its five-hour report on "The Defense of the United States."
This is one reason why MX: Prescription for Disaster is a timely and important book. Many of the arguments that Herbert Scovile Jr. makes in the book are not new. Scoville's made them before, and his colleague at the Arms Control Association, William H. Kincade, ably presented the strategic case against the MX in an article in Foreign Policy over a year and a half ago.
But in the midst of the political controversy over just where to put the MX, arguments over the alleged "destabilizing" features of the missile have faded from public debate. Ironically, this has happened at a time when the Reagan administration has raised fundamental questions about the value of previously negotiated arms-control arguments, injecting more uncertainty into the arms race.
Scoville has studied U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons for most of his professional life as a scientist for the Atomic Energy Commission, Defense Department official, assistant CIA director, assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and, now, president of the private Arms Control Association. So one cannot lightly dismiss his contention that, far from deterring nuclear conflict, the MX may make nuclear war more likely. Certainly, Scoville's arguments are more compelling than some advanced by some MX critics.
Some critics, for example, have focused on the issue of the accuracy of ICBMs. In a real shooting war, their arguments go, U.S. and Soviet missiles would be subjected to the uncertain magnetic and gravitational properties of the polar region, and neither side could be confident of knocking out the opponent's land-based missile force. And if our land-based Minuteman force is not, for this and other reasons, vulnerable to a first-strike attack, the argument continues, we do not need the MX.
One problem with this line of argumentation, from an arms-control perspective, is that it minimizes the destabilizing implications of the MX, which is almost certainy going to be deployed, no matter what some critics think. If our land-based missiles are not vulnerable to attack, it stands to reason that the MX will not threaten the Soviet land-based nuclear deterrent either. That may be the case. But if Soviet planners believe that their missiles are threatened by the MX, they may, in effect, move their fingers closer to the trigger to protect against the possibility of a preemptive attack.
Another criticism of the MX that could turn out to be counterproductive from the arms-control point of view centers on the environmental consequences of the "shell-game" basing plan. Certainly, in political terms, this has been the most vulnerable feature of the Carter administration's plans for the MX, attracting opposition from groups as diverse as the National Cattlemen's Association and the Mormon Church. But overreliance on this sort of criticism could produce a Pyrrhic victory for arms-control supporters if it results in the deployment of the MX missile in Minuteman silos. Such a move would provide the United States with a first-strike weapon without resolving the vulnerability question.
It's to Scoville's credit he does not give undue emphasis to these two lines of argument. Scoville's main point is that the vulnerability of land-based missiles is an real concern, even if the actual performance of missiles, he insists, the United States would have enough warheads to threaten the Soviet ICBM force, which carries 70 percent of the Soviet nuclear deterrent, with a first-strike attack. This, he reasons, will impel the Soviet Union to adopt a posture of launch-on-warning of an impending attack, increasing the chances of an accidential nuclear war. Beyond that, he argues, MX missiles may become "flashing beacons" that may draw Soviet fire during an intense crisis.
Clearly, as Scoville sees it, we would be better off to foresake the means to threaten Soviet land-based missiles even if they have the capability to threaten ours. As he puts it, "This anomalous situation occurs because only one-third of our deterrent is at stake when ICBMs are vulnerable, while three-fourths of that of the Soviet leaders think the bulk of their nuclear deterrent is in jeopardy."
If MX missiles must be deployed, he argues, they should be placed on small submarines at sea. Since such submarines would be difficult to target, it would minimize the Soviet incentive to launch a preemptive strike. The United States also could make do with 100 missiles if they were deployed in this manner, and this would pose less of a threat to the Soviet missile force than a 200-missile network.
Some defense experts will, undoubtedly, find much to quarrel with in Scoville's book. Much of his thesis rests on the argument that the MX cannot be deployed on land in a "survivable" fashion. For if MX missiles can survive a Soviet attack, the Soviets will have little incentive to launch a preemptive assault even if their land-based missiles are threatened by the MX. MX proponents have argued that if the Soviets vastly exceed the limits of the unratified SALT II treaty, a land-based MX could still be protected by an antiballistic missile But given the increasing interest in an ABM-defended MX, his treatment of the ABM issue is less than exhaustive.
Scoville writes that the "most important weakness in the ABM solution" would be the probability that it would open up the ABM treaty for the renegotiation -- or even kill the treaty altogther. But if the ABM was deployed in response to a massive Soviet buildup, there would be precious little left of arms control to preserve.
In addition, some MX proponents have maintained that the MX could usher in a new era of strategic stability if the Soviets reacted to the MX by deloying their own mobile missile system. If this happened, both sides would have "survivable" land-based missile forces, erasing the temptation for either side to take advantage of the other's vulnerability. Scoville's reply to this sort of argument is that a Soviet land-based mobile missile system might prove to be "nonverifiable," creating a situation in which the United States is unable to gauge accurately the size of the Soviet nuclear force. But some SALT proponents reply that in making this claim Scoville underestimates U.S. intelligence and verification capabilities.
In the final analysis, the problems with Scoville's thesis may be more political than technical. The prospect that a Reagan administration would accept a situation in which U.S. land-based missiles are vulnerable but Soviet missiles are not is nil. Indeed, some point out that even without the MX, the United States may develop a first-strike threat against Soviet land-based missiles by retrofitting its Minuteman missiles with the Mark 12a warhead. In addition, interest at the Pentagon in Scoville's proposal to base the MX on small submarines is slight, at best.
Still, domestic political pressures are clearly working against the Carter administration plans for the MX. Will they also lead to proposals that arms-control supporters can live with? The plan to deploy the MX on C5As could provide arms-control backers with a nontargetable missile they say is necessary for strategic stability. An MX missile deployed on C5As might also be less accurate than a silo-based missile, dminishing the MX's first-strike threat. Cutting the planned missile force by half -- another rumored course of action -- should reduce the potential vulnerability of the Soviet ICBM force.
Perhaps after the MX basing decision is announced, the press will turn once again to the effect of the MX on nuclear deterrence and the arms race. If it does, MX: Prescription for Disaster may be a good place to start.