Moscow — It would be known, by any who live to tell about it, as World War III, but there would be a distinctly otherworldly quality about it. . . . For it would be won or lost in outer space.
Satellites would take out other satellites. Laser or particle beams would demolish nuclear missiles, as helpless as they were expensive, in mid-air. Or, who knows? The beamers might just destroy each other.
It all sounds like lunacy, or like a fascinating bit of science fiction, but for one problem: It could conceivably come true.
Such scenarios loom in the background of fresh concern in recent weeks that the superpower race for space is going military.
US Defense Department sources say that earlier this month, the Soviet Union conducted a successful test of its so-called "killer satellite," packed with explosives designed to put an enemy orbit-mate out of commission.
The Soviets, meanwhile, are charging that the planned April launch of a reusable American space shuttle represents what one official account termed "an important element in US preparations for the use of space for military purposes."
Insert the word "theoretical," Western experts here say, and the Soviet allegations make more than a little sense.
The analysts point out that a majority of superpower satellites already in space have at least potential military uses.
Some reconnoiter troops. Some look at the weather. Others communicate. All could be crucial in case of war.
The military potential of the US shuttle ship is even greater.
The shuttle -- reusable, and with enormous cargo capacity -- could literally capture enemy satellites and bring them back to Earth. Indeed, one of its planned functions is to ferry home US satellites in need of adjustment or repair , diplomats here note.
The shuttle could also conceivably provide an operations base for the laser -- and particle-beam weapons under the active exploration by the United States -- and, though the Soviets cloud such subjects in official secrecy, presumably by the USSR as well.
Quoting what it listed as various US news reports, the official Soviet news agency said March 20 that the US shuttle program is intended to examine facets of laser warfare, launch spy satellites, "ensure Pentagon communications" in time of war, and help guide "combat missiles."
Former US Defense Secretary Harold Brown said last year that the Soviets seemed to be working on a space shuttle of their own, although apparently at a pace well behind the US.
By comparison with the shuttle, Western experts here suggest, the reported Soviet antisatellite scheme remains small change.
The technology involved -- in effect, matching the orbit of an enemy satellite and then either exploding or ramming into it --is not overly sophisticated by space-age standards, they say.
US antisatellite plans are said to be more ambitious, including possible ground-to-air projectiles designed to chase targets and operate at varying altitudes.
With strategic arms limitations talks stalled -- and Earthbound, at that -- effective curbs on space weaponry seem far off.
The Americans and Soviets briefly discussed antisatellite programs at two meetings in Switzerland, but the negotiations broke off in 1979.
The Americans reportedly suggested a ban on the likes of killer satellites while the Soviets, in rebuttal, raised the issue of the US space shuttle.
Western diplomats here say the Americans didn't seem overly upset by the stalemate at the time, apparently feeling they had much to gain by pursuing their own relevant research and development effort s.