The Reagan administration has notified Congress that it will consider going back to playing some kind of shell game with the MX missile to make it hard to hit, the same basic concept it lambasted when championed by President Carter.
This time around the idea is to explore building comparatively few shelters for the MX, constructing them out of sterner stuff and protecting them with anti-ballistic missiles.
Until recently, President Reagan, who during the campaign assailed Carter's plan to rotate 200 MX missiles among 4,600 cement shelters in Nevada and Utah, talked only of putting the MX in existing Minuteman and/or Titan holes while exploring the possibility of basing the missile deep inside mountains or aboard airplanes. The Pentagon said it would assess anti-ballistic defenses for the missile at the same time.
But on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger wrote a skeptical Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the administration intends to go beyond those possibilities in hopes of making the MX less vulnerable to increasingly accurate Soviet warheads. Tower had complained that pouring more concrete around existing silos would do little to protect the new MX land missile against the Soviet threat.
"The administration intends to explore deceptive basing of offensive missiles as an option within the BMD ballistic missile defense program," Weinberger wrote.
This administration commitment to explore other basing concepts for the MX had "a significant impact" on Congress as it decided whether to approve $2 billion for the MX in fiscal 1982, according to Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services strategic subcommittee. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday cleared the Pentagon money bill containing the funds for the MX.
Pentagon officials speculated that the Pentagon's newly expressed flexibility on MX basing may have helped their cause in the House as well. There, Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.) on Monday came within two votes of getting the Appropriations Committee to delete money for the MX, only to lose by 263 to 142 when he tried to do the same thing on the House floor Wednesday night.
At the moment, Pentagon officials said, combining deceptive basing with an advanced missile defense to protect the MX is in the study stage. But building a limited number of blast-resistant shelters and rotating the MX among them is definitely a focal point of the exploration, they added. The anti-ballistic missile radars could be mobile, too, for added survivability under nuclear attack, they said. One idea is to build 500 shelters for 100 MX missiles along with an advanced ABM.
This would be a scaled-down version of what the Air Force had in mind when it recommended, as a minimal MX deployment, 100 missiles rotated among 1,000 shelters built on military land in the West.