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MX’ed Feelings About Missiles

3 minute read

Wanted: a nice home for a 192,000-lb. nuke

Where to put the MX, a 96-ton, six-story-tall behemoth loaded with ten nuclear warheads? That political dilemma has most of official Washington ducking into fallout shelters. Congress last week voted to withhold any additional funding for MX deployment systems until the President decides how and where he wants to install the fearsome rockets. The President will not decide until Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger decides. And Weinberger will not decide until he gets some recommendations from a 15-member expert panel chaired by Charles Townes, a Nobel-prizewinning physicist. When will that be? “Nobody knows,” says Pentagon Spokesman Henry Catto. “These are enormously weighty things.”

The most publicized plan for deploying the missiles is now nearly synonymous with MX itself and with the controversy surrounding it. Under this $40 billion scheme, the missiles would be wheeled around 200 high-security drag strips scattered over 10,000 miles in the desert wastes of the West. This brobdingnagian shell game is intended to foil any Soviet strike by baffling the enemy: unaware of each missile’s actual location, the Soviets would be obliged to target all 4,600 MX shelters to guarantee success. But the drag strip system has been assailed by critics (including Presidential Candidate Reagan) as technologically dubious and ridiculously expensive. Two months ago the powerful, conservative Mormon church joined the naysayers, beseeching the White House not to station the MX in Utah and Nevada. Then a brace of hawkish Republicans, Senators Paul Laxalt of Nevada and Jake Garn of Utah, marched into the Pentagon with their own panicky manifesto denouncing the Air Force’s plan to put MX in their states. Next Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment chimed in with a careful report that found serious fault with each of the proposed deployment plans. There has been comparatively little debate on the need for the missile, the most powerful single weapon ever designed by the Pentagon. But all this flak has dimmed prospects for the desert drag strips and given the Administration a severe political migraine. If Reagan does not settle on a deployment plan by next month, he may jeopardize MX funding for the fall and beyond.

Though his choices may consist, as Garn says, of “no good alternatives,” the options previously mulled and culled sound even worse. A plan called “Sea-sitter” envisioned pinioning minimissiles on a fleet of roving seaplanes. Other proposals would have made giant molehills out of mountains: one called for sticking the missiles inside mountains for protection, and another would have placed each missile at a peak’s southern foot, thus providing a natural barrier wall, since the Pentagon expects the Soviet CBMs to come gliding in over the North Pole. The Continuous Air Alert Carrier sounds space age; in fact it entailed floating a flock of coastal blimps, each holding a small MX snug to its underbelly.

Other brainstormers—all patriots, most half-serious—variously suggested trucking the big missiles along the nation’s highways (tolls could be a problem), loading them onto freight trains or secreting them on river barges.

All these schemes attempt to outwit Soviet missiles with what the Pentagon calls PLU: preservation of location uncertainty. So far it is only the MX project itself, scheduled for completion at the end of the decade, that is maintaining a high degree of PLU .

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