Whether or not the administration's presentation succeeds in advancing the MX program -- or in improving either the understanding or the posture of U.S. strategic forces -- remains to be seen. The administration's rhetoric regrettably remains quite divorced from its actions. The result has been to obscure whatever rationale lies behind the strategic program.
1. The president in his speech laid great stress -- including animated charts in blue and red -- on the numerical gap that has emerged between the Soviet and American strategic forces, particularly ICBMs. If one followed the numerical argument, one might be surprised at the ultimate conclusion: to cut the Carter MX program in half, from 200 to 100 missiles. Yet, one should not be surprised. From the first, the administration has treated the numerical gap with great reverence as an argument and with considerable disdain as a criterion.
The administration itself decided to phase out three Titan II squadrons and the five remaining B52D squadrons, and confirmed the decision to phase out 10 Polaris submarines. The outcome will be a drop in the number of U.S. strategic delivery vehicles by almost 300 -- from more than 2,000 to some 1,750. Meanwhile, the Soviets retain in their strategic forces posture some 2,500 strategic delivery vehicles (if one excludes the Backfire bomber). In short, during President Reagan's term, the numerical gap will expand, as a consequence of administration decisions, to its historic maximum.
To be sure, these particular reductions have long been on the services' contingent cut lists. One cannot be sure to what extent that represents the time-honored tactic of creating a hole in the force structure to justify new procurement. But the administration's embrace of these reductions quite clearly demonstrates that such considerations as cutting operational costs and safety weigh far more heavily in its decisions than does the numerical gap.
The administration's decision to proceed with a reduced MX program plus the companion decision to proceed with 100 B1 bombers may persuade those who cannot count or who are more interested in weapons systems than in force structure that it is proceeding to restore parity or even to achieve "superiority" (for those who take the Republican platform seriously). But these programs, though costly, are far too limited to have a major impact on the overall force balance. They will not substantiate the proclaimed strategy of the administration -- to "prevail" in an extended nuclear war.
2.1 Though very little is known about fratricide and the effects of dust and debris, the Dense Pack basing mode for MX will increase uncertainty and may thereby strengthen deterrence. But it is clearly not a high-confidence measure to deal with the problem of ICBM vulnerability. A generation ago, anyone who had dared suggest at SAC headquarters that ICBM dispersal be abandoned and that missiles be brought together toward Ground Zero -- within the destructive range of, say, a single 25-megaton warhead -- would have been recommended for a straitjacket. The administration asserts that it can dramatically increase silo hardness. One certainly hopes that such efforts will be successful, yet one's confidence is scarcely increased by last year's strategic program that stated that Titan II silos (now being abandoned) could be hardened to 5,000 psi to house the MX.
No engineering demonstration of Dense Pack is feasible. One can only leave to the technical experts the question of whether such design hardness is convincing in the absence of nuclear testing. If sufficient hardening is not achieved, even though uncertainty is increased, the vulnerability problem remains unsolved. The Soviet targeting problem would be correspondingly eased.
Even if the silo-hardness design were actually achieved, the Soviets have available to them measures to counter Dense Pack within a few years of initial deployment. Either earth-penetrators or other innovations (not yet discussed in the open literature) would permit silo destruction. The next logical (though not inevitable) step to deal with silo vulnerability would be ABM deployment. That, however, would require modification, if not renunciation, of the 1972 ABM Treaty. That is an issue on which we should reflect now.
3.2 The administration's present and prospective MX difficulties are to a considerable extent its own creation. From the first it has inordinately tied the case for the MX to a survivable basing mode. Yet U.S. ICBM vulnerability is determined primarily by the trend in weapons technology and by Soviet actions. Nonetheless, silo vulnerability has been blamed on U.S. decisions, especially on arms control (that, one presumes, was SALT II's "fatal flaw"). Much of the rhetoric about "closing the window of vulnerability" presupposed some easy U.S. solution to ICBM vulnerability. Thus, the administration has now become entangled in its own rhetoric: for in the years ahead, the window of vulnerability will gradually and inevitably open more widely.
If reducing vulnerability were the only or prime consideration, the clear answer would be to abandon the search for an invulnerable ICBM basing mode -- and, with all its risks, to go to sea. But the case for MX has always rested elsewhere. ICBMs provide accuracy, controllability and selectivity not available in the submarine force. ICBMs remain, therefore, an essential ingredient in any U.S. nuclear strategy that provides extended deterrence for our allies overseas. Above all, the MX provides the possibility of offsetting the disturbing Soviet advantage in throwweight. It maintains the pressure on the Soviets: should the Soviets continue the nuclear arms competition, we can prospectively match their burgeoning counterforce capabilities.
This prospect underlies the usefulness of the MX as a bargaining chip in arms negotiations. It was for this purpose that the MX was designed in 1973 -- in the days of the scarcely remembered SS9. The MX decision should have never been tied exclusively to the silo vulnerability issue. For it is only in the context of matching Soviet throwweight and counterforce capabilities that an affirmative MX decision -- even though the program has now been squeezed down to the point of marginality -- remains fully warranted.
In designing U.S. strategic forces, rhetoric is no substitute for logic. The administration has created its own perplexities. By its rhetoric and actions, it has ensured maximum controversy with minimum effect on the force balance. It has thereby contributed further to the destruction of the national consensus that had emerged in the late '70s on strengthening the nation's defenses.