Braking the 'star wars' momentum

IT might come as a surprise to many Americans, but President Reagan's futuristic 'star wars' missile defense system has a powerful lot of today's budget resources and development thrust in it already.

President Reagan was in effect acknowledging the momentum behind his administration's comprehensive space defense program when he told Congress this week that seeking a treaty ban on satellite weapons would be fruitless.

The White House says (a) the Soviets already are out in front on an antisatellite system, and (b) verification of compliance with any treaty would be nearly impossible. It likely well believes this.

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But the larger point is that the administration's policy on space, missiles, and nuclear weapons is heavily driven by the military's views; arms control is secondary. Fundamentally, it's star wars that the administration is driving toward - a system that can destroy offensive weapons in flight. Many Reaganites think the Soviets are already off and running, so the United States must get on with its program too.

The President's Commission on Strategic Forces issued a report this week that tried to cut a reasonable line between the buildup and arms-control factions in the United States. It cautioned not to expect too much, too soon from talks. It criticized the nuclear freeze movement for potentially locking the US into destabilizing, outmoded systems. But it also warned against tampering with the 1972 antiballistic-missile treaty by pushing antimissile defense systems. It disputed the cynical view of some Reagan aides, that Washington is being duped by Moscow by arms negotiations, and it recommended a cautious step-by-step approach to arms control.

How odd and disappointing that the Democratic presidential race has so far mostly drawn a blank on this issue of US space/missile defense programs, or has tried to oversimplify it into which candidate was first to favor a nuclear freeze.

The 1972 antiballistic-missile treaty rightly allowed for research and some development on defensive systems. The critical line it set was between testing and deployment.

The defense budget already shows terrestrial and extraterrestrial sections. The 1985 and 1986 department of defense budgets contain several billion dollars for ''strategic defense initiatives'' - almost a defense budget in itself. Antisatellite weapons are discussed as part of the overall strategic requirement. The mandate for a package of measures - including F-l5 launched weapons and anti-satellite and space weapons - is broad and ambitious. Administratively, the program is institutionalized in a Pentagon space command.

So much momentum has gathered that it may soon be more a question of which defensive system to build, rather than whether to build one at all, say experts concerned about the Washington trend. Trying to control so much activity by treaty can only become more difficult.

One can't be naive about Soviet intentions. What they have been doing all these years in space with their docking maneuvers bears suspicion.

But Washington has a duty to examine its own steadily rising commitment to space weaponry - a commitment larger than has been acknowledged.

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