Soviet killer satellite - fact or fiction?; Some experts call reports only 'rumor'
Washington — A report that the Soviet Union has launched into low Earth orbit a ''battle station'' capable of destroying US satellites is being probed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
The report, which claims the antisatellite battle station is armed with clusters of guided missiles, is made in the latest issue of the authoritative Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine.
Pentagon spokesman Henry Catto had no immediate comment on the magazine's claim, but said that he would look into it. According to Pentagon sources, the DIA will provide an Air Force spokesman with an unclassified assessment of the Aviation Week assertions later this week.
Defense Department analysts declined Tuesday to confirm or deny the Aviation Week assertion that the Soviet Union now has a more permanent antisatellite capability. One spoke of the report as ''speculation and rumor'' and another seemed surprised about the boldness of the magazine's claims. An Air Force source contacted by the Monitor flatly rejected the Aviation Week report.
Last March a Soviet hunter satellite apparently caught up with a target satellite over Eastern Europe and then blew up, peppering its quarry with shrapnel in what was thought to be Moscow's first successful antisatellite test in more than three years.
If the Soviet Union has developed a more effective satellite- killing capability, as the magazine report suggests, the United States has good cause to be concerned, say defense analysts. They point out that the US has some 400 satellites in space, of which about 100 are still operating. According to a former head of Air Force intelligence, Gen. George Keegan, the United States relies heavily on satellites - for communications intercept, weather prediction, strategic communications, and soon for the precise navigation of ships and aircraft.
Many satellites in low earth orbit are of the photographic reconnaisance variety, notes Edgar Ulsamer, senior editor of Air Force Magazine, who concedes that the satellites' survival might be imperiled by the battle station the Soviet Union allegedly now has in orbit.
But Mr. Ulsamer stresses that the Soviet Union still would not have the ability to reach satellites in high, geosynchronous orbits - such as those that provide early warning of ballistic missile attack.
Nevertheless, he warns that Moscow is actively seeking to bring high-flying US satellites within its reach by hurling the necessary weaponry aloft on a rocket similar to the US Saturn V.
The US has no orbiting antisatellite battle station of its own, but in 1984 it will deploy a two-stage antisatellite rocket, built by Ling-Temco-Vought and Boeing, on F-15 fighters. Its performance details are highly classified.
The prospect of laser-armed satellites clashing in space now is more than a remote possibility.
General Keegan believes the Soviet Union is well on the way to developing a high-energy laser weapon. Indeed, according to Robert Hotz, a former editor in chief and publisher of Aviation Week, a new generation of space weapons is emerging both in the US and USSR.
Writing in the latest edition of British Aerospace Quarterly, Mr. Hotz claims that they utilize the high-energy technologies of lasers and particle beams ''that can disable or destroy other spacecraft or intercontinental ballistic missile . . . nuclear warheads by heat or penetrating shock (when) traveling at the speed of light over ranges up to 3,000 miles.''