Missiles, spacecraft, or assorted but well-controlled space junk that could knock incoming enemy missiles out of the sky are being seriously discussed again in the US defense community.
Troubled by malfunctioning Pentagon computers giving false signals of nonexistent Soviet attacks, and by continuing questions about President Carter's MX missile program, the prestigious Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory has made a new "quick look" assessment of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems, severely limited since the 1972 US-Soviet arms-control agreements.
The verdict: ABMs could be a feasible and relatively cheap and safe way to knock out arriving Soviet ballistic missiles. They may even be able to do it, inside or outside the atmosphere, with ordinary, nonnuclear warheads, says Dr. Robert Kerr, director of the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory where US nuclear weapons are made.
Sen. Peter V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, Dr. Kerr, and Los Alamos lab member Edward Q. Chapin presented these findings and argued for increasing funding for missile defense research and development.
Senator Domenici, who had requested the Los Alamos study, said it showed that ABMs were a "strategic defensive system" that could "no longer be ignored" in the light of Soviet strategic advances. The United States, he said, should "seriously consider" whether to continue as a signatory to the 1972 anti-ABM treaty when that decision is made in 1982.
New Mexico, along with Texas, Utah, and Nevada, has been singled out by the US Air Force as one possible basing site for the administration's huge new MX missile, designed to end the growing vulnerability of US Minuteman missiles.
By strange coincidence, the private briefing on ABM for government and congressional analysts and several defense reporters was held almost simultaneously June 6 with the second false Pentagon computer warning in three days that Soviet land-and sea-based missiles had been launched toward the US.
As in similar incidents June 3 and last Nov. 9, US Strategic Air Command bomber crews were alerted and "engines of some SAC planes were turned on, since SAC responds automatically to any warning signal," Pentagon spokesman Thomas Ross said. Space satellites, radars, and other early-warning means proved the alarm false. It ended within three minutes.
The faulty computer was disconnected for a checkup. The official Soviet news agency Tass warned that "during several minutes the world was on the brink of nuclear war. . . . Strategic nuclear missiles might have been launched in the direction of the USSR several minutes later," Tass claimed.
Sen. John Tower (R) of Texas, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, told a CBS "Issues and Answers" television panel June 8 that the false computer signals were dangerous because they could have led to a premature "launch on warning" or "first strike" by the US.
US officials discounted the Soviet charges of war danger is "ridiculously exaggerated," and said US air and missile defenses were functioning well. However, during the ABM briefing, Edward O. Chapin of the Los Alamos laboratory acknowledged that their assessment, with help from other defense agencies, had left him "shocked over the way US air and missile defense capability had been allowed to deteriorate."
Early-warning radars in Greenland, Alaska, and elsewhere "were not in good shape," Dr. Chapin charged, without elaborating.
The Los Alamos study argues that MX missiles, deployed in concealed shelters and shuttled between them to deceive Soviet bombers or missiles, would be far more effective if defended with associted missile defense systems. These would detect Soviet missiles as they are launched, track them, and finally send spacecraft or low-altitude debris or projectiles in their path.
Senator Domenici and the Los Alamos officials urge that a mix of high and low-altitude ABMs, all of them possibly nonnuclear, could defend US MX sites, cities, and other targets with only about 3 percent of arriving missiles getting through in a Soviet attack.