Space wars and the President's labeling game

Despite a recent flurry of both political and editorial comment regarding a possible ban on the testing of antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, perhaps the most important reason for negotiating such a ban has been largely ignored. This same factor may also account for Washington's continued refusal to show the flexibility needed to move Moscow closer to the bargaining table.

Technology for the proposed United States ASAT weapon, intended to kill military satellites, overlaps significantly with technologies for proposed antiballistic missile (ABM) systems, designed to destroy incoming Soviet missiles and warheads. In essence, both involve projectiles or beams designed to destroy objects in space. ASAT tests would therefore contribute to the development of the administration's desired ABM system, endangering efforts to control the buildup of both offensive and defensive strategic weapons.

Although Congress is debating funding for ASAT tests planned for the near future, the eventual impact of these tests has managed to escape the public eye. The administration claims that it needs these tests because the Soviet Union has deployed an operational ASAT weapon and the US, lacking one, could not retaliate in kind after a Soviet satellite strike. Because of its primitive technology, however, the Soviet ASAT places a very limited number of US satellites at risk - only those at low orbits, which are of the least military significance. In addition, the Soviet weapon is so slow and inflexible in its use that a strike against all endangered US satellites would easily allow detection and retaliation by other means.

The more likely reason for the US tests is an administration desire to develop the technology for its controversial ''star wars'' ABM system under the guise of ASAT weapons tests. The name under which different systems are tested - ASAT or ABM - amounts to a mere labeling game. Thus, the administration hopes to avoid adherence to the ABM treaty, signed in 1972 by the US and the Soviet Union , which limits the testing and deployment of all ABM systems. The President's Strategic Defense Initiative, a multibillion-dollar accelerated research-and-development program aimed toward a nationwide defense, will by its nature lead to violation of this treaty.

One such violation would result from the ''Talon Gold'' system, a pointing and tracking mechanism and a chief part of the President's Strategic Defense Initiative. ''Talon Gold'' would be mounted on a space-based laser system and used as a targeting mechanism for aiming the laser at incoming missiles. The Strategic Defense Initiative, which calls for two tests of this system aboard the space shuttle, seems to contradict the provision of the ABM treaty which bans the development, testing, or deployment of space-based ABM systems or components.

Although the Strategic Defense project director, Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, testified in Congress that his plans would not undermine the ABM treaty, the administration has yet to formulate a point-by-point technical study assessing the effect of each program on the treaty. Meanwhile, other reports have already illustrated numerous Strategic Defense programs that seem likely to result in violations of the treaty.

The treaty protects both sides from a buildup of defensive measures, which would inevitably result in the increased buildup of larger numbers of more sophisticated offensive weapons designed to overcome them. Because we are therefore better off without a defensive weapons race, the ABM treaty stands as one of the fundamental victories of arms control. In fact, President Reagan's own Scowcroft Commission has proclaimed it ''one of the most successful arms control agreements.''

The administration evidently hopes that the responsibility for violation of the seminal ABM agreement can be circumvented by labeling its newly developing technologies as ASAT weapons. While this may superficially avoid the problem, the result of this maneuver would be seriously detrimental to US security. In claiming that tests with considerable ABM application are not covered by the ABM treaty, we set the precedent for both sides to conduct more and more tests and deployments with strong ABM potential, all the while claiming they do not threaten the treaty. Eventually, the ABM treaty would be eroded in substance without formal abrogation by either side.

If one doubts that the administration holds such intentions, one need look no further than the President's own science adviser, George Keyworth, who admitted that ''it is important to establish near-term milestones'' for a ballistic missile defense, and that ''one is a geosynchronous ASAT capability. It may be the best way for the ASAT mission, but a geosynchronous ASAT capability is important to test the technology to destroy missiles in each of the three layers.''

By agreeing to fund ASAT testing, the very same Congress whose calls for a reaffirmation of the ABM treaty have not been heeded by the President would, in essence, be awarding him the first steppingstone toward its eventual demise.

And Congress would do this prompted by the administration's claims that our ASAT ''inferiority'' necessitates an arms race into space. Defense experts, on the other hand, have recommended that the US redirect the funds, now estimated at $10 billion, from ASAT development to the protection of our satellites. This would make the Soviet ASAT weapon even less practical than it is now for inflicting any significant damage to our satellite capabilities, and at the same time preserve the sanctity of space. In addition, present verification technologies could preclude any secret developments in Soviet technology significant enough to change the situation.

If all of these labels - ASAT, ABM, Strategic Defense, and ''star wars'' - have you confused, they should. Imagine a congressman in an election year, with numerous other concerns, trying to seek out the President's true intentions. The only way to halt these labeling games is to stop acting as if these technologies can be taken in isolation, and instead to discuss the future of space as a whole. Given the importance of the ensured survivability of both US and Soviet satellites - and of the ABM treaty - to our long-term security, there is no more important goal than a comprehensive ban on the testing and deployment of all space weaponry. Unfortunately, this cannot be accomplished if the administration continues to mislead the Congress and the people by masking its true goals for space weaponry.

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