US space-weapons research effort shifts into higher gear
One year after President Reagan's dramatic ''Star Wars'' call for new defenses against nuclear weapons, the push is on to make it reality. The White House is about to name a ''Star Wars'' ''czar'' who will report directly to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and oversee a stepped-up program of technical research.Skip to next paragraph
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The administration wants nearly $2 billion in its fiscal 1985 budget for spending in this area, a 71 percent jump over current annual spending. The total bill will reach $24 billion over the next five years, according to administration estimates, and it is likely to spiral upward from there.
In fact, there is much more to this than just defending against Soviet missile warheads, important as that is.
Increasingly, it is felt, the next battleground will be directed from, if not located in, the high ground of space. And many of the ''Star Wars'' technologies being explored will be just as important in any high-tech conventional war of the future, featuring ''real time'' intelligence and battlefield rockets whose sensors provide pinpoint accuracy.
There is much overlap, too, with the new United States antisatellite weapon, which recently had its first test shot. Still, the subject remains highly controversial, even within the administration itself.
''No one knows how effective defensive systems can be made, nor how much they might cost,'' says one administration expert.
Will it work? No one is promising a magic bullet that could actually render nuclear warheads ''impotent and obsolete,'' as the President suggested a year ago.
''We're not talking about a force field that is absolutely impenetrable over the entire United States,'' White House science adviser George A. Keyworth II said last week. But recent rapid advances in data processing and lasers at least make the notion of defending against missile attack worth exploring, it is felt.
Critics warn that any system inevitably will allow a few nuclear weapons to penetrate and therefore could heighten nuclear tensions. But this may miss the point, Dr. Keyworth and other scientists respond. They are optimistic that enough enemy missiles and warheads could be zapped (with directed-energy) or splattered (with very high-speed projectiles) that an opponent could not be comfortably sure that his attack would succeed.
This new form of deterrence, based on increased uncertainty, it is argued, is better than the old massive-retaliation policy, dubbed mutual assured destruction.
Officials are stressing that this is all merely speculative and that they are just probing the technological possibilities. Some tests in space could be carried out before the end of the decade, but actual deployment of an advanced missile defense system is not envisioned until after the year 2000.
''There are significant uncertainties which need to be answered before we can make any major decisions on deployment or indeed on full-scale development,'' concedes a senior Pentagon official.
But officials also warn that the US must develop a hedge against Soviet advances in ballistic missile defense. The Soviet Union has the world's only operational antiballistic missile (ABM) system, albeit a relatively unsophisticated one. But it is building new antiaircraft systems that could have potential for missile defense, as well as radars that US officials suspect may violate the 1972 ABM Treaty.