“This is a great day for the Army!” the general exclaimed as the rocket jerked, buckled, then finally exploded, raining white-hot metal on its launching pad. America’s first attempt to orbit a satellite, using the experimental Vanguard rocket, had just ended in nationally televised humiliation. But at least one three-star general was beside himself with delight. Why? The general was an Army general. The Vanguard was a Navy rocket.

The general’s comment, made to President Eisenhower in 1957, sums up as well as any the tenor of interservice rivalries within the U.S. military establishment. Little has changed since Eisenhower’s time. “These days rank officers [generals and admirals] don’t get their promotions for helping the country win wars,” said a retired Air Force general.”They get them for helping their service branch beat the other branches.”

Interservice rivalries express themselves in many ways, from Army tanks too big to fit in Air Force transports to Navy opposition to small aircraft carriers because they would support Marine operations. (The Air Force recently launched a ship to track Soviet missile tests, apparently reluctant to trust the Navy with that job.) But since World War II, the name of the interservice game has been nuclear. Each new nuclear weapon has been thrown up for grabs— whichever service shoved the others out of the way hardest got it. Nuclear weapons have also inflamed interservice hostilities because they are so expensive. Getting your service a new “mission” carried out by very expensive devices (which requires that someone else’s budget be cut to compensate) means dancing into the end zone of Pentagon politics.

The present arrangement of U.S. nuclear forces—Air Force bombers and ICBMs plus Navy missile-firing submarines in the “strategic” arm, Army short-range missiles and nuclear artillery plus Air Force and Navy nuclear equipped fighters on the “tactical” side— emerged only after years of interservice thumb-wrestling. At many junctures things could have gone differently. The Army, for instance, nearly won control over ICBMs. Likewise, present arrangements are not unalterable. Changes in technology or world conditions might lead to changes in nuclear authority.

More than any other service, the Air Force worries about that. As the accuracy of long-range missiles improves, Air Force ICBMs may become vulnerable to attack. But the oceans continue to provide nearly impervious shelter for Navy submarines. So, many congressmen and defense critics continue to ask, why not stop building big missiles on land and put any new ones safely to sea? That prospect makes blue-clad generals about as excited as turning the Strategic Air Command into an FAA-regulated commuter airline.

And with that in mind, it’s easier to understand how all this MX missile business got started in the first place. MX was designed not so much as a response to world military conditions but as a response to Washington political conditions. Whatever President Reagan ultimately decides about the system, its history sheds light on how internal pressures, not defense requirements, often shape the most important and expensive national security projects.

Sandwiched by Submarines

Late in the 1960s, the armed forces had reached an awkward stage. Their major strategic systems—subjects of virulent 1950s interservice infighting and fast-paced 1960s construction— were essentially finished. The Air Force’s B-52 bombers and Minuteman and Titan ICBMs were in place. The Navy’s Polaris-Poseidon submarine fleet was at sea. Unless some new strategic projects were commissioned, activity would slow, budgets would dwindle. So the question of the day became, what next?

The Pentagon’s Institute for Defense Analyses began a series of studies, called “Strat X,” to determine the nature’ of future strategic systems. Early on, Navy submarines became the Strat X planners’ darlings. Missile-firing submarines were nearly “invulnerable” because there wasn’t (and still isn’t) any reliable way to track them under the oceans. Advances in rocket propulsion and miniature electronic circuitry were making long-range waterborne missiles possible, meaning submarines would be able to attack the Soviet Union from almost anywhere in the seven seas. This combination—an undetectable missile “base-moving at random under billions of square miles of water—seemed to make submarines ideal for future nuclear projects.

Meanwhile there appeared to Strat X planners to be fewer and fewer arguments in favor of new land-based missiles. With their known locations, U.S. ICBMs might someday be sitting ducks to Soviet ICBMs (and vice versa) if ballistic accuracy continued to improve. Land-based missiles might become not only vulnerable but stationary targets that could tempt the Soviets to strike first.

Air Force ICBMs did have two things going in their favor. First, they are easier to communicate with than submarines. For the same reason they are safe from detection, submarines are very difficult to reach by radio—the oceans block almost all transmissions. Land-based missiles, however, can use secure, buried communication cables. Second, ICBMs are more accurate than submarine-launched missiles. The “softer” a missile’s launch point, the less precise its flight; submarine-launched missiles, which pop out of the water on a charge of compressed gas before igniting, definitely launch “soft.” And since submarine missiles never know where they’ll be launching from, they can’t employ pre-mapped flight routes. Local variations in the earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields often bend missiles flying untested routes slightly off course.

The imperfect accuracy of submarine missiles seemed tolerable, however; their warheads are accurate enough to hit any city or large military facility. The only targets they can’t be relied on to hit are enemy missile silos. Land-based ICBMs, on the other hand, might be made effective enough to destroy silos. But, many analysts asked, why do we need that? The ability to “kill” silos is useful only if you intend to strike first, starting a nuclear war. If your concern is deterring war, by maintaining an assured capacity for retaliation, submarine-missile accuracy is plenty.

This logic tormented the Air Force generals. Try as they might, they couldn’t poke a hole in it. But most of them would rather have been shot down by Baron von Richthofen than relinquish their missile role to the Navy. So during Strat X days, they began to dream of ways to make ICBMs “mobile,” and hence less vulnerable to attack. Already the Pentagon had studied and rejected proposals to put Air Force missiles on special trains or even trucks that would ply the interstate highway system. Too risky; too much chance of collision, derailment, or Amtrak food. Now the Air Force proposed what Pentagon insiders called the “flying submarine”—a giant airplane, maybe the C5A, which would cruise the skies as submarines cruised the oceans. “Air mobility” studies on a “flying submarine” continued for some time. At one point a Minuteman was actually test-dropped and fired from a C5A, although it didn’t fly far.

The “flying sub’s” most obvious drawback was cost. Large airplanes are extremely expensive to keep in the air, both because they burn so much fuel and because jet engines wear out rapidly under continuous use. (Contrary to the popular notion, B-52s are not “always in the air.” “Air alert” status is very rare and has been used only for brief periods during international crises.) There were other, more damaging problems with the plan. “Flying” submarines lacked secure communications and hard-launch accuracy, just as the regular kind did. So what was the point?

Air Force officials began to feel despondent. They had already gone out of their way on many occasions to proclaim that Minutemen would soon become vulnerable to improved Soviet missiles. Unfortunately it is a common Pentagon practice for services to “talk down” their existing weapons as part of the sales campaign for new ones. To hear some Air Force generals tell it, Minuteman ICBM fields were being kept operational solely as an act of charity to starving security-guard agencies. Thus there was a double danger: if the Air Force succeeded in convincing Congress that Minutemen were no longer good, but failed to advance any Air Force alternative, the Navy might sweep away big-missile “missions” entirely. In 1973 the Navy won funding for full-scale work on Trident, its longrange missile submarine. Sensing impending disaster, the Air Force began advanced design work on what would become the racetrack MX. MX was to move around in some way to avoid the sitting-duck dilemma. Of course, the places where MX would be moving around would still be relatively small, known locations, subject to attack. But that problem wasn’t foremost in the Air Force planners’ minds. There was another, much more serious threat to the fledgling MX system—the Army. Why not, the Army was asking, protect future generations of Air Force missiles with an antimissile missile? During the 1950s strategic shake-out at the Pentagon, anti-missile missiles (called ABMs) were the only large, potentially ultra-expensive nuclear “mission’ the Army had won. Unfortunately for the Army, anti-missile missiles didn’t work too well. The $3 billion Safeguard ABM system installed near Grand Forks, North Dakota, had so little promise it was decommissioned just five months after becoming operational in 1975. But maybe, the Army was saying, maybe some new, different ABM would work.

This prospect gave Air Force generals the willies. Because the anti-missile job is so elaborate—requiring different types of interceptor missiles guided by super-sophisticated radars and computers—in a new joint ICBM-ABM setup, the defensive part of the system would probably be larger and more expensive than the offensive part. That meant the Air Force would be rescuing the ICBM concept only to see the bulk of the glory (and the budget money) go to the Army. So as the first MX question had not been “How can we best locate new U.S. missiles?” but “How can we keep new missiles away from the Navy?,” the new question became not “How can we best protect the MX?” but “How can we keep the Army out of the MX project?”

A Day at the Racetracks

The answer, so it seemed to Air Force researchers, was the now-familiar “racetrack” scheme by which 200 missiles are shuttled among 4,600 “shelters,” presenting the Soviets with 4,600 targets. (There are about 1,000 silos for Minuteman ICBMs, and hence 1,000 existing targets.) It was thought that 4,600 targets would be more than the Soviets could handle, even considering development of the multiple warhead (“MIRV”) that gives attacking missiles some advantages over missiles on the ground. (One attacking missile with a ten-warhead MIRV might be able to “take out” several missileS sitting in silos or shelters.) At this point another political factor became crucial to the MX design. It was the SALT treaties.

The first SALT treaty, ratified in 1972, had proven almost as difficult to get past the Pentagon as the Politburo. In return for their backing of SALT I, President Nixon had promised the strategic services expensive new goodies—the B-1 and cruise missiles for the Air Force, Trident and Nimitz-class supercarriers for the Navy. SALT I also went a long way toward formalizing the modern military dogma that expensive is better. Since the nature of the treaty (perhaps of necessity) was to limit numbers but not cost, arms development now seemed to Pentagon planners little more than a budgetary exercise. Whichever side could spend the most on its weapons would win.

SALT II, if approved, promised to limit the number of MIRV-tipped attacking missiles the Soviets could direct against an MX system. It also limited the number of new missiles the U.S. could build; in fact SALT II would have frozen the U.S. ICBM inventory at almost exactly its pre-MX total. For every MX built, a Minuteman or Titan would have to be decommissioned—another argument, to the Air Force, for building only a small number of MXs, but making each one incredibly “capable.” It was as if a car fanatic had been told he could have just one car, but it could be any car in the world.

Not surprisingly, the Air Force decided to make its MX the Lamborghini Countach of ICBMs. It would have ten independently targeted warheads, a highly advanced guidance system that could be reprogrammed rapidly, and also be very big. That last feature found a receptive audience in Congress.

For years, many congressmen who thought MIRV was a talk-show host had nonetheless been deeply concerned about U.S. strategic missiles, for one and only one reason—theirs were bigger than ours. Whenever a hearing on nuclear strength was convened, a little scalemodel display of ICBMs was sure to be sitting on the chairman’s desk. Soviet models would tower over U.S. ones in an H.O.-gauge phallic triumph. Congressmen couldn’t seem to take their eyes off those little models, and would thunder endlessly about “throw weight.” Senator Henry Jackson seemed virtually transfixed by this factor.

What Jackson and the others didn’t seem to understand—and what Air Force officials soon learned not to explain—was that Soviet missiles are bigger because they are much less efficient. Soviet ICBMs are liquid-fueled, while U.S. ICBMs are solid-fueled; in addition to being more complex and less reliable, liquid-fuel systems simply take up more space. Also Soviet warheads, because of their low-quality electronics, are very large and heavy, requiring a larger missile. U.S. warheads are light and compact.

Minuteman had been, in many ways, a rare triumph of the “better is better” philosophy. Recognizing that small hydrogen warheads are more than enough to do the job, and thata small missile is much easier to handle than a large one, Air Force designers had concentrated on building the best, not a set of giant toys to amuse Congress. Now they were learning their lesson. The Air Force has long wanted to decommission its 54 large, liquid-fueled Titan II ICBMs because they have little military utility and are a threat to explode in their silos (as one did last year in Arkansas, killing two airmen). But Congress won’t give permission; the Desktop Lobby wants something big to tell the folks back home about. And when it came to MX, they wanted something awesome. So the Air Force obliged. MX grew to 192,000 pounds, almost three times the weight of Minuteman. Of course, such size would make MX extremely difficult to shuttle around on a carrier truck, or position on its launcher, complicating the plan considerably. But the complication was forgiven when the Air Force realized another benefit of excessive bulk. MX would be too big to fit on a submarine. Size would provide the ultimate insurance, Air Force brass felt, against their new missile ever being put to sea.

When President Carter was lining up support for the SALT II treaty, his turn to buy off Pentagon interest groups came. This time the Army got new battlefield nuclear missiles, the Navy got a commitment to more Tridents, and the Air Force got the racetrack MX. President Reagan, who opposed the SALT II treaty and has suggested leapfrogging to a SALT III, might consider before he goes forward whether the country can afford any more arms limitation.

Gimme Shelters

While the “racetrack” succeeded in fending off the Army, Navy, and Desktop Lobby, it generated an impressive new range of problems. First, it was not so much a new missile as a new means for launching a missile. Almost all of its $50 billion to $100 billion cost would be for concrete roadways, gargantuan carrier trucks, and those thousands of expensive but empty shelters. Very little money would actually be spent on bang-producing weapons. Modern defense planners call this arrangement “soft kill.”

MX also promised to reach new horizons in actually getting complex weapons to work. Minuteman had already caused some concern in this regard; the Air Force had never managed to test-fire one from an operational silo. After several attempts ended in failure, operational testing simply was halted. Minutemen now are tested from the rocket range at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where white-coated lab technicians simulate “surprise” launchings planned months in advance. (The Russians have managed to launch a few ICBMs from operational silos, but likewise conduct most of their tests under labcoat conditions.) Minutemen are not only smaller than MXs, but are based in a much simpler way—one permanently mounted missile in a fixed silo. If they didn’t function under actual combat conditions, what would become of their far more complex cousins?

Originally the racetrack MX was to be forever circling its loop on a super-heavy carrier-launcher-shield truck—a device that doubtless would have been subject to frequent breakThe Air Force was in danger of rescuing the big-missile concept only to see most of the glory (and budget money) go to the Army. downs, leaving its missile stranded. Next it was decided each MX would be dismounted awhile in one shelter, then moved to another, and so on, an arrangement perhaps worse from the reliability standpoint because it would mean frequent loading and unloading, a very delicate job when it comes to a nuclear-armed missile. Meanwhile, because of its many possible launch points, MX would have a much more complicated guidance system than Minuteman, opening a new avenue to malfunction.

At one point the racetrack scheme called for each 23-shelter “loop” to have 22 dummy missiles in addition to its one real missile. To make the dummies sufficiently convincing to Soviet surveillance satellites, they would have the same weight as the real missiles, be refrigerated like the real missiles, and emit radio, magnetic, and radioactive signals identical to the real missiles’—a highly complex bit of costume jewelry. There was a danger that the fakes would fail.

Some of these complexities, it must be said, were not without laudable purpose. An inspection port atop each shelter was designed to make verification of compliance with the SALT II treaty possible, and that was a gesture of commitment to arms control the Soviets have never been caught making.

The racetrack MX found itself in trouble when great public opposition arose to its cost and the amount of land it would consume. These objections have been extensively covered in the press, and are serious; yet in themselves they are not sufficient reason to oppose MX. After all, ours is a rich nation. If spending $100 billion for a new missile system were a necessity, then the money would have to be found. By the same token, if paving Utah were the only way to defend the country, then obviously Utah would have to go. But when the SALT II treaty collapsed in the Senate, the rationale for “landmobile” basing collapsed with it.

Four thousand six hundred shelters, always a somewhat mystical figure to the public, had been arrived at by means of an elaborate calculation of how many targets the Soviets might hit if they fired all the ICBMs allowed them under SALT II. It turned out that 4,600 targets would be more than the Soviets could handle, so, assuming the deception phase of the “shell game” worked (that is, that the Soviets didn’t know which shelters to shoot at), 4,600 shelters insured that many MX missiles would “survive” even an all-out strike. But with SALT II gone, nothing would prevent the Soviets from overwhelming a racetrack MX by sheer force of numbers.

“Soft kill,” in which most of the money is spent on accessories rather than weapons, was the villain here. By building an extra ICBM with a ten-warhead MIRV, the Soviets might expect to destroy up to five MX shelters (missile strategists plan two warheads per target to include margin for error). But the extra ICBM would cost the Soviets a great deal less to construct than the five MX shelters and their attendant racetrack, carriers, dummy missiles, and so on—the “soft” part of the system. Without SALT II the racetrack design meant swimming upstream; it could be countered more cheaply than it could be built.

Of course the same grim logic applied to the Soviets. If they attempted to build a mobile ICBM system in a non-SALT world, we could counter it much more cheaply than they could put it up. All these “counterforce” arguments assumed, of course, that somebody would be willing to risk a first strike. Leaving aside the many inconclusive arguments about this question (for instance, even a 100-percent-successful first strike on Minuteman and Titan ICBMs would destroy only one quarter of the U.S. nuclear arsenal), “counterforce” thinking also assumed something else—that the attacking missiles would work. As time went along, this looked like a bigger and bigger assumption. While both U.S. and Soviet ICBMs were improving, they were not achieving the longpredicted killer accuracy necessary to make them a threat to the 50-foot concrete slab of a reinforced missile silo.

No U.S. or Soviet ICBM has ever.been tested along the actual route it would fly in wartime, north-south across the pole. All missile testing by both countries is done east-west, over the Pacific, and then the results are “projected” for polar flight. The problem here is obvious—to test a missile on its actual wartime route, the Soviets would have to fire it into the U.S., and vice versa. But, as several recent press reports have made clear, missile accuracy can be perfected only by tests along the actual route to be employed. Local variations in gravity, magnetism and upper-atmosphere weather (factors collectively known as “bias”) cannot be compensated for unless they are test-mapped. Missiles flying without benefit of bias “maps” can still be very accurate—accurate enough to destroy something as small as.an .air base or factory—but they probably can’t be relied on to hit missile silos.

Recently Strategic Review, a hard-line military journal, got this information the closest it has been to official print. “Nothing has been put forward which technologically supports the belief that we (or the Soviets) could, with any degree of confidence, expect to hit one silo at ICBM range, let alone 1,000 of them distributed over an area equal to one-third of the United States,” Strategic Review‘s editorial said.

So the two underlying assumptions of the mobile MX had begun to crumble. Total Soviet ICBMs and warheads were not going to be held down by SALT II. But perhaps the Air Force had fallen for its own hype, and Soviet missiles were not accurate enough to destroy fixed silos anyway. This seemed to suggest it was time to change the MX plan. The Air Force thought so, too. Time to make it more complicated and more expensive.

Big Bird and Other Cartoon Characters

When Reagan took office, he was well disposed to new strategic weapons but upset over the racetrack scheme’s land-grab provisions. So, the Air Force began to wonder, how can we keep the mobile-basing idea alive, but make it take up less space? About that time a much more important event rocked the Pentagon—Reagan’s budget projections for defense were announced. The Navy reigned as number-one service with 38 percent of the budget. On tap were more supercarriers, more Tridents, battleships with cruise missiles—the Navy’s entire Christmas list had won administration approval. But Air Force top-shelf projects, the MX and the B-1 bomber, were shunted off to the limbo-land of “further study.” The Army didn’t get much to speak of, either.

Suddenly the Army and Air Force, former nuclear rivals, looked each other deeply in the eye. Strings swelled in the background, autumn leaves fell to the ground in slow motion, and the services said to each other, “Where have you been all my life?” An ad hoc Army-Air Force alliance was formed. The two services would cooperate, through private administration contacts and votes in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to oppose further Navy budget increases. They would also form a united front insisting on MX. And as a little token of affection, the Air Force would put the Army back into the ABM business.

At once word was leaked that what MX really needed was an ABM (now called a BMD, or “ballistic missile defense ,” to remove the ABM stigma). An Army-run ABM would enable the MX layout to shrink, since the presence of a defensive missile would compensate for a reduced target area. All manner of ABM proposals began circulating at the Pentagon, everything from anti-missile “space cruisers” to a land-mobile, “shell game” ABM that would be shuttled around just like MX. Never mind that MX had been designed in its dizzyingly complex way specifically to avoid the need for an ABM; politics, not military considerations, was driving the new alliance. One Air Force general called the MX-ABM plan “an ideal marriage,” neglecting to mention that the Navy was holding a shotgun to the groom’s back.

MX-ABM advanced when administration officials said Reagan might be willing to let the 1972 ABM treaty with Russia expire. (Nixon had originally signed the treaty in no small part because of its enthusiastic Air Force backing.) Of course, most ABM schemes still had the same minor defect that caused occasional misgivings over Safeguard—they involved shooting a nuclear bomb into the path of a nuclear bomb. Setting off nuclear bombs over your own territory seemed, well, a flawed concept. But MX-ABM might finally bring the Air Force’s land-mobile dream to reality and give the Army a super-sophisticated nuclear-tipped missile, something it has longed for since its Nike and Jupiter missiles lost out to Air Force competitors in the 1950s.

Then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger threw the entire MX project into a power dive when he revived the “flying submarine” idea. Weinberger wanted to put the new missile into the air, getting rid of MX bases altogether. His plan called for a fleet of new airplanes operating from a combination of old and new airfields. The planes would be an ultra-efficient new design nicknamed “Big Bird,” able to stay aloft for long periods—maybe two days—without refueling or wearing themselves out. Thus some Big Birds would “always be in the air,” their whereabouts unknown to Soviet targeters.

Big Birds had the same failings as the old flying subs. They would be difficult to communicate with, especially during the electromagnetic “pulse” many scientists believed would fuzz out radio transmissions nationwide if even a few Soviet warheads were exploded in the air. Missiles from Big Birds, considering their “soft” air-dropped launch, would also be hard to direct. In fact they would have to rely on radio guidance from satellites or ground stations, guidance that would probably be knocked out by the pulse.

So there were valid military reasons to oppose Big Bird. Then there were the reasons that mattered to the Air Force.

It would seem, on first inspection, that Big Bird would have appealed to the Air Force brass. After all, it would provide them with many new airplanes and bases, in addition to their long- – sought new missile. But Air Force reaction was hysterical: the generals moved swiftly to plant every anti-Big Bird story they could, and helped arrange for their trained seal, Senate Arrned Services Committee Chairman John Tower, to appear before Reagan and warn that Big Bird could never be approved on the Hill.

What was at work was an intraservice rivalry within the Air Force itself. The Air Force generally splits into three factions: bomber advocates, missile advocates, and “tac air” advocates who are interested in fighters and related planes. Missile advocates thought they had the bomber group on the run when the B-1 was canceled; it looked as if their argument, that lumbering manned bombers are a throwback to Billy Mitchell, had carried the day. But then the bomber faction rallied with its Stealth project and, almost miraculously, whipped up strong congressional support for a reincarnation of the B-1 (now called the “B-1B” to make it sound like something new).

This Big Bird, the missile mavens thought, sounds suspiciously like a bomber. Sure, it would carry an ICBM and never venture far from U.S. air space, but the main part of the project would be an airplane, and that would mean involving pilots, mechanics, flight planners, and others from the bomber hierarchy.

But what finally united all Air Force factions in a primal scream of righteous indignation was the revelation of how Big Bird would look. In order to use little fuel and stay airborne for long periods, it would be powered by propeller engines. Propellers, scourges of the sky. Air Force engineers thought they had tossed propellers onto the scrap heap of history along with dirigibles and aviator goggles. Big Bird’s top speed, for fuel conservation reasons, would be 150 m.p.h. One hundred and fifty. Some cars do better! Weinberger was proposing that the Air Force defend the country with a giant Piper Cub! Intraservice rivalries were temporarily set aside when this affront to the whole nature of aerial dignity was revealed.

The MZ Alternative

Next came the “scaled-down” MX. Its origin is generally traced to the Townes Commission, a blue-ribbon panel of scientists and military analysts Reagan appointed to advise him on missile matters.

Scaled-down MX called for 100 missiles shuttled among 1,000 shelters or silos. Whether to use shelters (as with the original racetrack plan) or silos (as with Minuteman) had become a point of debate. One of MX’s most annoying engineering weaknesses, usually overlooked in the exhausting process of reciting the system’s problems, was that shelters would be more vulnerable to attack than silos. Horizontal shelters would be partially above ground, not buried, with their entire length exposed instead of just one end; they could probably withstand only 600 pounds per square inch of blast pressure; while silos can be made to endure 3,000 psi. In a sense, if shelters were used, the MX planners’ prophecy of first-strike threats could be self-fulfilling: instead of Soviet ICBMs becoming more accurate, U.S. missiles would be destroyed by warheads landing further away.

A scaled-down MX using silos, meanwhile, offered more security but reduced mobility. It would be complicated and time-consuming to hoist missiles up and out of silos, instead of just rolling them in and out of shelters. And either way the scaled-down MX was housed, the soft-kill dilemma remained—almost all the money would be spent on auxiliary facilities instead of weapons.

Are there any proposals left over that could provide a new missile without a lot of money spent for nothing? Yes, there could be another option, one I will christen the “MZ” missile. MZ would entail a new, improved ICBM (bigger than Minuteman, if the Desktop Lobby insists) installed in existing Minuteman silos. (Many Minuteman silos are larger than the missiles they accommodate, or could be modified for larger missiles in other ways.) Project MZ would emphasize a reliable missile design attuned to real-world combat conditions; its main benefit would be to replace older Minutemen, missiles of questionable reliability, with a more dependable. weapon. Congress could insure that reliability, not magnificence, would be MZ’s outstanding feature by specifying that all MZ testing, after the first few prototypes, be done from operational silos.

Naturally MZ would cost a fraction of what even a scaled-down MX would cost, freeing up funds for other military or social needs. One important military need the money might cover is small missile-firing submarines that could prowl the U.S. coasts. (For more on the small-sub proposal, see “Sighted S.U.M., Sank Same,” by Bill Keller, The Washington Monthly, May 1980.) Small submarines would compliment the ponderous Trident fleet, providing large numbers- of very hard to find targets. Tridents may 20 turn out to be good submarines, but they are so expensive only a few will be built; the current plan calls for just 12. Small submarines would have the same weaknesses as Big Birds—they might be hard to communicate with in time of war, and their radio-guided missiles might be susceptible to pulse disruption. But they would be truly “invulnerable,” even harder to find than Tridents. So cover-all-bases strategy dictates that security will be found in a continued mix of land and sea missiles—Minutemen and MZs because they are accurate and easy to communicate with, Trident and small-sub missiles because they cannot be caught in a first strike.

MZ is the idea endorsed (although not under that name) by Strategic Review, whose editorial board includes many retired generals and admirals. It’s not too late to build support for the plan, especially if the scaled-down MX, like its forerunners, falls under the weight of its own costs and assumptions. But wait a minute—wouldn’t MZ, by using existing silos, continue to run the risk of destruction by a Soviet first strike? No more so than scaled-down MX. By presenting Soviet targeters with 1,000 shelters or silos to shoot at, scaled-down MX offers nothing more challenging than Minuteman’s 1,000 targets. Considering only 100 of scaled-down MX’s 1,000 shelters or silos would be loaded, the system might be a great deal more vulnerable than Minuteman—since if the Soviets discovered any way to determine the location of even some of the missiles, they would then have to destroy fewer than the present 1,000 targets.

Pentagon planners can advance the scaled-down MX scheme because they know full well that Soviet ICBMs are not reliable enough to deal a devastating blow to 1,000 silos, and will not be for a long time to come. If they are not, MX is not needed at all. MZ will do fine, and will be available sooner.

With Services Like These…

That last bit of evidence—that MX went through the mill and came out looking as though its sponsors had forgotten the reason it was supposed to be needed in the first place—is by far the most troubling. It’s proof that MX has been a game all along, a game of interservice rivalries, high-technology addiction, and budget politics. National defense has played at best a minor role in the affair.

Military philosophers like to say that service branches exist only to prepare for war, training troops and building equipment. Once war begins it will clear everyone’s mind of petty interservice jealousies. “Unified” commanders will be appointed, and all services will rally ’round them.

It’s hard to understand how highly trained officers can bear participating in this fractured flickers system, either from the standpoint of their own self-respect, or the oaths they took to defend their fellow citizens. They are furiously making preparations they know full well to be too expensive, too cumbersome, or worst of all just plain no good—and relying on the horror of war to sweep it all away.

That did happen in the last war we won. When it began, U.S. armed forces were stuck with any number of devices that didn’t work (like tanks whose cannon pointed sideways) and strategies blind to real-world conditions (like reliance on battleships). Foolish ideas were beaten back by the sheer urgency of events, the services cooperated, and disaster was avoided. But the cobweb-clearing effect of war did not work as well in Korea, and it failed utterly in Vietnam—perhaps because there are now three major services instead of two (the Air Force was part of the Army in World War II), perhaps because Pentagon bureaucracy is now so much more elaborate and self-serving (there is a command structure whose sole purpose is to monitor the Cuban “combat brigade”).

World conditions, as well as Pentagon hierarchies, are different now in other ways. When World War II began, there was time to effect change—years, in fact, to revise policies and rebuild arms before the major invasion campaigns were launched. In the next war there may be no such luxuries. Long-range, fast-moving weapons will not wait for the minutes of Joint Chiefs of Staff meetings to be typed.

Armed service leadership may be burdened by its share of fops and fools, but there is another faction present. Most officers (and civilian defense officials) continue to be sincere, public-spirited people who value peace and country above their positions on the organizational chart. Unfortunately, it is a rule that in bureaucracies bad drives out good; members of the Pentagon’s public-spirited faction have had a very hard time of it lately. But if they are encouraged by the public, the press, and the administration, they may be able to prevail in the military reform so desperately needed. Sensible machines and policies must be in place before the next round of fighting begins—that is our best hope to prevent more war, and our only hope to survive it.

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.