Another Possibility: Ballistic Missile Defense

The burning defense issue now before the Secretary of Defense is how and where to base the MX. Like alot of us for whom ICBMs are simply impersonal if essential doomsday devices, Mr. Weinberger doubtless wishes he could put the MX on the moon and out of mind, leaving him free to go on to more agreeable problems. There will be no such luck. The report of his MX basing advisory group is due in time for a decision around July 1. Whatever the answer, it will be disputed by a considerable segment of the population.

The Soviets have made the MX necessary, if we are to keep up our end in this seemingly perpetual confrontation. However unreal and illogical the idea of all-out nuclear war, it is something we must be prepared for if we are to have any chance of preventing it. For if we look sufficiently well prepared, clearly able to sustain a first strike and hit back with devastating accuracy, then these many-headed nuclear monsters may end up like their ancestors, the guns of the United States Coast Artillery, which never tired a shot in anger.

Now that the McNamara strategy—if it could be called that—of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, is out of style, there is general agreement that we need missiles that can, with precision, knock out hard military targets. This sort of strategy requires highly accurate weapons, and it also presupposes sure and instant communications. So far, at least, land-based missiles have a clear advantage over submarine-launched ballistic missiles in both of these categories. Where the submarine shines is in its relative invulnerability.

Although there are still some who doubt it, the conventional wisdom today has our Minuteman ICBMs vulnerable to a Soviet first strike. It they were knocked out, our retaliation would presumably have to take the form of city-busting. Simply possessing that capacity for revenge gets us back to the old mutual assured destruction concept. Since the poverty and incredibility of that concept are now well established, and since submarines still have a long way to go before they can be as accurate and responsive as land basing, Mr. Weinberger, it seems, will have to choose between the enormous and politically unpopular construction project in Utah and Nevada or swallow some misgivings and put the things to sea.

Maybe it is grasping at straws, but there does seem a third possibility—ballistic missile defense. Our last ABM effort, Safeguard, was a modest one, which went on the scrap heap almost as soon as it became operational. Under the ABM treaty, each side, the Soviets and ourselves, is limited to 100 ABMs and two sites. That treaty, incidentally, comes up for review next year.

Research on ABMs, however, was not banned under the treaty. The Soviets, according to publicly available evidence, have gone ahead on experiments in the exotic world of lasers and charged-particle beams. Ballistic missile defense of cities and other large areas poses very great problems, probably insuperable ones, if I understand what I have heard. But point defense of missile sites is something that may be well within the grasp of ABM technology, especially if the charged-particle beam proves a manageable weapon.

When the ABM treaty was signed in 1972, it was considered to be a stabilizing move. If neither side protected itself very much, went the reasoning, then each would be too vulnerable to risk attacking the other. Besides, in 1972, Soviet missiles were too inaccurate to take out our Minutemen, and everyone knew we would never launch a preemptive strike.

Now we are in a different era, with Soviet SS-18s threatening our land-based force. There was little enthusiasm. and precious little money, in the Carter Administration for ABM research. Perhaps that was the right decision, but not according to some sensible and knowledgeable people.

If a practical antiballistic missile defense is something that could come out of an accelerated, which is to say, heavily funded, research program, it could certainly solve a lot of problems, to mention the tranquility it would bring to the 20,000 square miles of desert presently being eyed as the home of the MX.