WEDNESDAY, January 31, 1990

If Congress Can't Cut This

By Ronald Fraser

Then it can't make headway on headway on headway on Pentagon budget

As congress takes up debate on the Pentagon budget, the members should think a. moment about the con fused people in Chelsea Wis., Lovingston, Va., and dozens of other communities. These people are having trouble squaring the apparent end of the cold war with the Air Force's continuing preparations for a retaliatory nuclear strike.

They can't quite reconcile 300-foot-high military towers sprouting in their backyards with President Bush's expressions of sympathy for Mikhail Gorbachev's political plight. Nor can they reconcile the towers with a recent proposal by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the recommendation quickly rejected by Mr. Bush--was to ground the President's airborne commend center because the likelihood Soviet sneak attack is so remote.

Known as the ground wave emergency network, the Air Force program consists of a two-part network of relay towers stretching from Maine to California. The towers are designed to survive electromagnetic-pulse disruptions during the first 15 minutes of a Soviet nuclear sneak attack. If the primary military channels to Air Force land-based missiles and nuclear-armed bombers were cut, it would serve as a backup means to transmit Pentagon retaliation attack orders.

The network symbolizes the fate of many yet-to-be-built 80's-era weapons that, in Pentagonese, have been "overtaken by events." When these weapons were conceived, the Evil Empire was as expected to last well into the next century.

If Congress is truly looking to carve out a "peace dividend" from the military budget, it might start here, with these small, often-overlooked programs. After that, it might be easier to extend the same logic to the larger weapons systems, such as the B-2 bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative, which account for a much greater share of military spending.

The ground wave emergency network is rooted in President Ronald Reagan's 1981 National Security. Decision Directive 12, which calls for a communications system that could survive a nuclear attack. A crude stop-gap measure, the network is to be replaced by a sophisticated satellite communications system in the late 1990's.

The Air Force is only now completing the first phase, a self-contained 56-tower network linking the Pentagon to bomber and missile command centers. The second phase, consisting of 40 more relay towers, is still on the drawing board.

People living in the shadow of the proposed second-phase towers wonder why, with peace breaking out across Europe, the Air Force needs 40 more towers. The Air Force's response: for insurance, in case an enemy destroys some of the first 56.

Actually, how many towers are enough was never resolved. In hearings before Congress in 1983, Donald Latham, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control and Communications, put the issue this way, in typical bureaucratese:

"How much survivability do you want to buy? . . . We can cover and get connectivity across the continental United States with about 45 nodes[towers]. But that is not enough if I really look at cutting up this network with a few weapons or a few terrorist attacks. How many nodes do you want in order to give you absolute assurance? I don't know the right answer to that. It is some number more than 45 and less than 500."

If Mr. Latham couldn't decide how many towers are enough while the cola war was still hot, how can the Air Force know the right number in this new postwar era? Uncertainty abounds. No one really knows weather the electromagnetic impulse would be a big problem or not in a nuclear war. So the value of the towers. So the value of the towers will always be speculative.

Besides, even if the impulse could disrupt communications with U.S. bombers and land base missiles, that would hardly leave us defenseless. The President could retaliate with the 3,00.0 nuclear warheads aboard the 20 or so submarines we keep at sea at all times These subs are invulnerable to Soviet at-tacks, and most experts agree that a few thousand surviving warheads would deter a first strike by the Soviet Union.

Yet, the Air Force persists in upsetting one community after another in its search for sites for the next 40 towers. And the illogic is stunning. Officials insist the towers are essential to U.S. security, even as current events discredit this rationale. Then they turn around and tell local folks not to worry, the chances are slim that this critical communications system would become a target for Soviet missiles in an all-out war. The people thing near the towers are not so sure.

At $1.1 million a tower, the program is small potatoes compared too-late-for-the-war weapons, like the B-2 bombers, at $530 million apiece. But far more than money is at stake here. In any bureaucracy, momentum tends to keep programs going long after they have lost their reason for being.

Now that our need for a big insurance policy to retaliate against a Soviet sneak attack is on a downward slide, what should become of the halffinished communications system?

Why not put the last 40 towers on hold leaving the 56-tower system in place and ready to use, if needed? Why not wait and see if the $6O million insurance policy is really needed?

The real challenge posed by this program is plain. Congress needs to display the common sense to cancel a small, interim cold war insurance policy that has been overcome by events If it can't do that, what are the chances that it will create a real peace dividend by halting the more costly cold war weapons that we no longer need?