The New York Times
September 13, 1981, Sunday Book Review
Call It Suigenocide
MX Prescription for Disaster. By Herbert Scoville Jr. Illustrated. 231 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. Cloth, $15. Paper, $6.95. By THOMAS POWERS
BACK in 1969 it was proposed to Henry Kissinger that the United States seek a ban on MIRV technology in the first round of strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union. MIRV stands for multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle. MIRV is to missiles what Samuel Colt's six-shot revolver was to the cap-and-ball horse pistol. With a six-shooter, one man may shoot many men. With MIRV, one missile may shoot many missiles. This may seem a small and obvious improvement, but it had a large effect. MIRV destroyed the only genuine nuclear strategy we had - the idea of the perpetual standoff, the ''mutual assured destruction'' that made war unthinkable. MIRV was ''destabilizing.'' Accurate MIRV's reintroduced the idea of war - something you could win by being first with the most.
Back in 1969 only a few people saw this clearly. Henry Kissinger did not. He h as since publicly regretted not having paid closer attention. At the time, he was inclined to side with the Department of Defense, which saw MIRV as an advantage, something we had and the Soviets didn't. As a result SALT I was negotiated and signed without an agreement on MIRV, which the United States began to deploy on its Minuteman and Poseidon missiles in 1970. There are no secrets in the world of strategic arms. The Soviets knew what we were doing. They began to deploy MIRVs in 1975. Now Soviet ICBM's with accurate MIRV's threat en - at least theoretically - the entire U.S. land-based missile force of 1,000 Minutemen and 52 Titans.
It would be hard to exaggerate the alarm this has generated in military and intelligence circles in Washington. It's not that the Pentagon thinks the Russians are working toward the moment when they can catch us on the ground in a bolt-out-of-the-blue surprise attack. But, in the sort of crises that might lead to war, they could - thus facing us with the awful choice of kissing our ICBM's goodbye, or preparing to launch on warning, which means, in effect, to launch when the computers tell us to. The problem is a genuine one, and it lends an aura of safety, simplicity and innocence to the long-ago days of single-shot missiles in hardened silos when there was simply no way for either side to destroy the weapons of the other.
The Department of Defense has a solution to the problem. It is the Missile Experimental, or MX - a large new missile, the biggest allowed us under SALT - each one equipped with 10 superaccurate MIRVs. The Air Force wants to hide 200 of the missiles among 4,600 protected shelters in Nevada and Utah. The Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, is currently trying to decide if this is a good idea. The cost of the Air Force proposal has been variously estimated at up to $100 billion. The purpose of the proposal is to protect our landbased missiles against a Soviet surprise attack. The cause of the proposal is the failure to reach a SALT ban on MIRV technology in 1969, when there was still time. We might refer to this as the $100 billion misunderstanding.
There is a great deal more that might be said about the MX. It can all be found in Herbert Scoville's short lucid book ''MX: Prescription for Disaster,'' which is also the best and the most accessible introduction to the entire issue of strategic arms. I can think of no other single volume that so well captures the flavor of the debate, summarizes its main arguments and outlines its history, without forgetting what it's all about - the threat of war on a scale so awesome we ought to call it suigenocide. M r. Scoville is clear on this point: What we need is not a Band-Aid like the five-year MIRV lead, but a policy that offers ''security now and in the next century.'' This may seem overambitious, but nothing less will do. Men can never forget how to make nuclear weapons. We must learn to control them and - in all probability - to survive them for so long as the race shall live.
There are two basic styles in the discussion of nuclear war - the prophetic and the rationalist. Mr. Scoville is a rationalist. He has spent his entire life in one end or another of the weapons business, beginning with the nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos in 1946 and including eight years with the C.I.A. (trying to keep track of what the Russians were building) and six years with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. For the last decade he has been active with various private arms control efforts. He writes in the tone of one confident that man is a thinking animal, that a persuasive argument, clearly expressed, will carry the day against fear or bureaucratic inertia. This is a surprisingly hopeful view for a man who has spent so many years watching the arms builders achieve one technical triumph after another.
Mr. Scoville has two main arguments against the MX as proposed by the Air Force. The first is that it will not really be hidden. The Soviets can target 4,600 warheads on the 4,600 shelters and destroy them, just as they are rapidly approaching the point where they can destroy Minuteman now. Where is the sense in giving the Soviets reason for scrapping SALT limits and building 4,600 more warheads?
The second argument addresses a point even more troubling. The MX's 2,000 warheads will threaten the entire Soviet ICBM force - 1,400 launchers representing three-quarters of the Russian strategic forces. (United States ICBM's represent only one-quarter of our strategic forces.) In a crisis tipping toward war, the very existence of the MX will push the Russians toward a pre-emptive strike. Where is the sense in giving the Russians incentive for a desperate act in times of tension?
But clearly Washington is determined to build something. Mr. Scoville has sensible suggestions: Phase out land-based missiles entirely, put the MX on small submarines at sea and exercise restraint in its design (don't make it so accurate that the Russians have to do so mething to protect their ICBM's). These are breathtaking proposals. Take ICBMs away from the Air Force? Give MX to the Navy, which likes big nuclear-powered subs, not small diesel-powered craft? Voluntarily refrain from building superaccurate missiles, when the Russians are busy doing so? In the world of Washington these proposals are unthinkable, and Mr. Scoville knows it. But he believes in reason, he has exercised it powerfully in this sane little book, and the rest of us must hope his faith is well placed.
Thomas Powers is the author of ''The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA.'' He is currently writing a history of American strategic weapons.