PRESIDENT Reagan has just provided Congress with the certification required for conducting the first in a series of tests of the United States' antisatellite (ASAT) weapon system against a target in space. This brings to the foreground a revolutionary development in weaponry, previously eclipsed by the administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly referred to as ``star wars.'' The SDI remains a vision for the future which is decades away from realization, at best. ASATs are with us, here and now. If ASATs are to be controlled, the effort should begin immediately.
Since the late 1960s, the Soviets have operated and maintained a ground-based ASAT weapon. In 1977, the US responded with an ASAT program of its own. With the President's certification, the program is ready to start its final test phase.
The United States and Soviet antisatellites reflect differing approaches to satellite attack. While the Soviet weapon is lofted into orbit by a large booster rocket and then must chase after its target before making an interception, the American ASAT ascends directly to its target after launch from an F-15 aircraft.
In comparison with the Soviet ground-launched system, the United States antisatellite permits more rapid launch and interception. Since the US ASAT is not dependent on a few missile launchers, as is the Soviet system, the US approach has another advantage: A much larger number of satellite attacks can be undertaken at the same time. These characteristics have led experts to conclude that, once deployed, the US ASAT will be superior. There is, however, an area where the US lags behind. Although both syst ems reportedly cannot attack satellites at high altitudes, Moscow's ASAT has a longer reach.
If viewed in isolation, these weapons are of minor concern. They cannot attack the majority of militarily significant satellites. These are deployed relatively deep in space. What is troubling is what these developments portend for the future.
Failure to constrain these weapons now will likely lead to an open-ended US-Soviet contest in ASAT development and deployment. Press reports already suggest that the US is considering development of a far more capable space-based laser ASAT. And, the Defense Department claims, the Soviets are moving in a similar direction.
Should these efforts proceed unabated, we can eventually expect deployment of ASATs that will make today's systems look like toys, by comparison. All American military satellites -- the eyes, ears, and voice of US security -- would be placed in jeopardy. In consequence, the delicate balance of terror would be even more precarious.
Of equal significance, ASAT development is a back door to advanced ballistic missile defense. Though BMD is a more demanding task, killing satellites and destroying nuclear weapons involve similar technologies.
An ASAT competition could lead to the more lethal interceptors and lasers, better sensors, and pointing, tracking, and computing devices required for BMD. In time, today's satellite-killers could be transformed into the kind of capability being studied under the SDI.
Absent agreement on controlling antisatellite development, the push of technology could lead to an advanced BMD system, even if national leaders eventually decided against pursuing the fruits of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
The most clear-cut approach to the problem is a ban on ASAT weapons. But such an approach is at present politically untenable.
A ``grandfathering'' arrangement could provide a more viable arms control option, at this time. Under such an accord, the Soviets would be permitted to retain their ASAT and the US would deploy its ASAT. But deployment of more advanced ASAT weapons would be prohibited, as would testing ASATs at high altitude. Unlike a total ban, this approach need not prejudice research or negotiations on the SDI and, therefore, would avoid generating unnecessary resistance by strategic defense proponents. By keeping SD I on the bargaining table, such an accord should also please advocates of space arms control.
Besides being politically viable here, such an approach may be acceptable in Moscow. It trades the technological advantage of the US for the altitude advantage of the Soviet system. Moreover, the Soviets have shown interest in grandfathering arrangements in conversations with Westerners. Since this would prevent the development of more-capable ASATs, this approach also makes good strategic sense.
At the Geneva talks, the Soviets have explicitly tied nuclear arms reductions to the SDI, making immediate progress in these areas unlikely. No such conditions have been placed on ASAT arms control. This presents President Reagan with an opportunity for an arms control breakthrough on the most concrete element of the emerging space arms competition. He should seize it at the November summit.
Alex Gliksman, a Washington-based defense and arms control consultant, formerly directed the US Senate Foreign Relations Arms Control Subcommittee staff.