'Star Wars': What are the options?

Antisatellite (ASAT) weapons tests and a costly research effort on futuristic space arms present Congress with tough choices on security and arms control. Unfortunately, we seem to be rushing ahead without a full understanding of the implications of a space arms race.

To facilitate the learning process, the Office of Technology Assessment arranged a space arms control workshop, at my request. McGeorge Bundy, President Kennedy's national-security adviser, chaired the meeting, which brought together 20 experts from the nuclear weapons laboratories, industry, and the arms control community. Following are some of the highlights.

Proponents of space weapons argued that space is one military area where technological virtuosity rather than brute production capacity counts. And America's strength lies with its technology. These specialists concluded that space weapons would allow the United States to seize a strategic advantage over the Soviets. ''Why else would the Kremlin want space weapons talks?'' these experts asked.

Arms controllers countered by noting that this advantage has led the US to be more dependent than the Soviet Union on space for security. This dependence is increasing. Even if the Soviets lag behind technologically, they will acquire increasingly deadly space arms. The deployment of an ASAT launched from Soviet Backfire bombers is one short-term possibility. This group concluded that the US had the most to lose from an ASAT race.

Those favoring rapid development of space weapons argued that to emphasize space arms control now would foreclose deployment of space-based ballistic missile defenses (BMDs), which could render nuclear weapons impotent.

Independent of the desirability or the feasibility of BMDs, arms control advocates stated that, without an ASAT accord, BMDs would be highly vulnerable to satellite killers. With ASATs, it might be 10 times cheaper to destroy than to deploy BMDs. Even ground-based missile defenses would be vulnerable. They require space-based elements for tracking and battle management. Unconstrained ASAT deployments would doom futuristic BMD systems, these participants claimed.

All participants agreed that an ASAT accord would not remove all threats. Verification would be less than perfect. There would be no guarantees against ASATs launched as ''covert space cargo.'' Ostensibly peaceful space activities, such as rendezvous, could provide training for satellite attacks. And Soviet antimissile missiles allowed by the ABM treaty could attack satellites as readily as missile warheads.

Therefore, even with a treaty in place, the US would have to spend money on countermeasures in reducing vulnerabilities and incentives for attack. Satellites could be hardened against nuclear effects. The US should:

* Create ground-based communications as backups.

* Store extra satellites for launching in an emergency.

* Deploy many single-mission satellites rather than become totally dependent on a few multirole space systems.

But most experts believed residual ASATs were less of a threat than weapons designed and tested as ASATs. The mixed testing record of Moscow's 20-year-old ASAT demonstrates the complexities involved in destroying satellites.

Several arms control arrangements were presented. ''Rules of the road'' constraining peacetime activities, such as rendezvous, and creating no-entry zones around satellites, were suggested.

A test ban was discussed. But as a former Pentagon official noted, a viable accord must provide symmetry in capabilities. Currently, only the Soviets have a fully tested ASAT.

One specialist claimed that the Soviets might agree to ''grandfather'' the US ASAT. Such an accord would leave low-altitude satellites at risk while sparing most satellites that orbit beyond Soviet ASAT reach.

Some favored a total ban. This would avoid the symmetry problem, but would the Soviets accept the US ASAT as an equal to their older system? Moreover, a ban would protect all satellites, not just those at high altitude.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has endorsed this last approach. And Soviet President Chernenko claims he is prepared to dismantle his ASAT. Negotiations are the only way to test Soviet seriousness. If we are to succeed, talks must start now.

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