Stop a race in space arms -- before it gets off the ground

Last year I offered a Senate resolution urging the resumption of arms control talks on antisatellite (ASAT) weapons. Since then, there has been little movement toward the negotiating table and a great deal of activity indicating that the United States and the Soviet Union are on the verge of a military space race. This is a troubling development, one that requires greater attention to arms control than has so far been the case.

The US-Soviet competition is no longer just in so-called killer satellites, though their development continues apace. A myriad of exotic and deadly concepts are rapidly moving from the drawing board to the test range. The picture of outer space toward the year 2000 is of satellites attacking satellites, and beams from space neutralizing missiles on the ground.

In the contest for this high ground, the US has recently made a number of dramatic decisions. The Air Force's Space Division has been rechristened as a separate Space Command. Next fiscal year the military space budget climbs from its current level of $2.9 billion to $4 billion. As a consequence, defense programs in space will for the first time hold a higher budgetary priority than its peaceful exploration.

As for exotics, the Pentagon spends $300 million a year on laser weapons and one has been test-fired from an aircraft. Press reports indicate that the US soon will be testing an F-15-launched ASAT which some analysts claim has the potential to sweep the skies of 100 to 200 Soviet satellites in a day. This system will be operational in the second half of this decade.

The Soviets have not been innocent bystanders in all this. Since the early 1970s, they have possessed an operational space weapon which joins the SS-9 missile to an ASAT interceptor. The Soviets have worked intensively to perfect this weapon. On June 19 a test of this ASAT was one element in a coordinated series of weapons launches, involving land- and sea-based strategic missiles, a MIRVed SS-20 theater weapon, and experiments involving ballistic missile defenses. To some observers, this test sequence suggests that the Soviets view offensive space weapons as part of a scenario for waging nuclear war. Additionally, Moscow has an active beam-weapon development program that is said to be five years ahead of our own.

It was in response to the Soviet ASAT deployment that the US decided in 1978 to develop a counter. The result was the F-15/ASAT combination. At the time, the response was designed, in part, as a bargaining chip that would draw the Soviets to the negotiating table. Between 1978 and 1979 three rounds of talks were held. Plans for a fourth fell victim to the invasion of Afghanistan. Agreement also fell victim to Soviet intransigence. The Soviets had two objectives in the talks: to scuttle the US shuttle while leaving their ASAT alone.

Washington's interest in space talks was cooled by the Soviet attitude, but the success of American space efforts has put space arms control into deep freeze. It is becoming increasingly evident that the US ASAT represents a technological leap ahead of the crude and inflexible Soviet system. Planners now see the program as a way of cutting the Kremlin off at the pass in space.

Such a space policy is shortsighted. Space technology knows no bounds - any American advantage may prove momentary. The cost of a space race will be enormous, judging from the billions already committed before it gets off the ground.

The US is far more dependent upon satellites; we, more than the Soviets, require stability in space. For the same reason, the costs and risks of such a contest would be higher for us. It could also detract from our ability to meet the requirements of traditional defense activities on earth.

Today we rely heavily on satellites for commercial and military communications. By tracking military developments, military satellites have made negotiations possible; without satellites, treaty verification would be a serious problem. Satellites are vital for guarding against strategic attack in time of peace and for the command, control, and targeting of US missiles in time of war. A space race will increase the cost of conducting these important activities. For instance, hardening satellites and adding antijamming equipment to deal with space threats will make it more expensive to build and to launch satellites.

I am not opposed to the deployment of space weapons if such action is necessary. But for me, necessity is a product of a lack of alternatives rather than of technological opportunity or of temporary advantage. In the absence of a serious arms control effort, I remain unconvinced that a military competition is unavoidable.

Today's situation is very different from that which predominated during the last set of negotiations. The US ASAT and related military space activities have the Soviets worried. Some analysts claim that Moscow may wish to halt the competition which they started now that they realize they are not in a position to dominate. Clearly, issues such as verification may daunt even the best of intentions, but assessing these issues as well as judging the Soviet attitude toward arms control requires a return to the negotiating table.

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