Pentagon technocrats will hand policymakers this week their long-awaited report on how to make the nation's land missiles less vulnerable to Soviet attack.
"This time the political problems are much harder to solve than the technical ones," a Pentagon executive said yesterday.
The recommended scheme for deploying land missiles in the future must be bold enough to reassure senators wavering on the question of approving the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) but not so bold as to keep the Soviets from signing it.
These are the three basic options, each having its own peculiar political problems:
"Shell game": Dig 4,000 holes and then rotate 200 missiles among them covertly. For Soviet gunners, this would require assigning at least one warhead to each hole to be sure of covering all 200 missiles - a demand too heavy to make a Russian "first strike" strategy thinkable, in the Air Force view.
"We shot ourselves in the foot by getting out in front on that one," reasoned a Carter administration executive in criticizing this "shell game" concept. He argued that id Moscow followed suit, U.S. military leaders would never believe Soviet assurances that most of the holes were empty. In the end, critics contend, both sides would find themselves filing up all 4,000 holes with missiles-defeating the purpose of limiting weaponry on both sides through SALT agreements.
Air Force backers of this concept, called MPS for multiple protective structures, counter that they designed verification features into the plan so the Soviets could be sure that only a limited number of missiles were in the fields of holes.
The Soviets during SALT negotiations have assailed the "shell game" scheme, but administration officials have said that it would be allowed under terms of SALT II. In the administration's view, the Soviets by signing SALT II would be signaling their willingness to accept the U.S. interpretation.
Air Force estimate of cost for deploying 200 new MX blockbuster missiles in fields totaling about 4,000 holes: $20 billion to build and $500 million a year to operate.
Missiles in planes: Build 200 transport planes and arm each with one MX missile. This way the MX missiles could take off at the first sign of attack, escaping destruction on the ground. But, critics argue, these planes would still be vulnerable to destruction on the ground by missiles fired from Soviet submarines sailing close to American shores.
The submarines, the critics say, now keep their distance; if the Soviets were impelled to send them shoreward to cope with land missiles in planes the current balance of terror would become more precarious.
The Air Force estimates the aerial option would cost $29 billion for the 200 planes and 200 MX missiles. The cost of operating the missile fleet was put at $900 million a year.
Mixed deployment: Putting 100 MX missiles in existing silos for the Minuteman ICBM and another 100 inside airplanes. Backers contend this would split the Soviet offense; critics fear any missile standing still in a silo will be vulnerable to destruction by Soviet missiles in the 1980s.
The Air Force estimates this combination at $25 billion to build and $700 million a year to operate.
William Perry, Pentagon research director, has changed some of these cost estimates after assessing savings from building strategic weaponry that could perform multiple missions.
For example, one idea is to build a new blockbuster missile that would fit into silos on the ground as well as into the new "Trident submarine. Leading candidate is the Trident II missile under development.
One political objection to the Trident II missile - which is powerful and accurate enough to blow up Soviet missile silos-is that putting it aboard submarines would change the U.S. sea-based deterrent from a retaliatory force to one that could be used against enemy weapons in a surprise strike.