Daniel O. Graham says there's nothing ''Buck Rogers-ish'' about wanting a US defense that really defends. The retired lieutenant general, head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency under President Ford, strongly supports the space-based missile defense program advocated by President Reagan on March 23.
He has reason to. For more than a year General Graham has been advocating a program called ''High Frontier'' that he says fulfills the President's call to exploit America's high-technology lead in behalf of national defense.
The difference: Mr. Reagan has asked that new technologies be developed in coming years, with installation of a working defense system perhaps decades away. General Graham argues that the time to begin a defense against Soviet missiles is now, using today's technology.
The privately financed High Frontier strategy, developed during the past 18 months by a team of about 20 scientists and engineers, calls for a three-layered US defense. The first layer, using existing technology, would consist of 432 US satellites armed with nonnuclear missiles that would intercept Soviet missiles shortly after launch. As a backup, ground-based clusters of nonnuclear missiles would protect each US missile site from Soviet warheads that penetrated the space-based defenses.
These two lines of defense could be put in place within the relatively short span of six to seven years, says General Graham. More satellites using advanced technologies - yet-to-be-developed particle-beam weapons or other so-called ''Star Wars'' defenses - would be added as the third component four to five years later. Although the plan would cost about $24 billion over the first five or six years, the reduced need for other defenses, such as superhardened missile silos, would ''more than pay for it,'' according to Graham.
The Graham plan has yet to gain any wide acceptance in US scientific circles. ''I cannot take this proposal seriously. It is fundamentally flawed and just hasn't been thought out,'' says Kostas Tispis, who has studied the technical aspects of US strategic defenses for many years as director of the Program in Science and Technology for International Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. Tispis, who debated General Graham on Canadian television recently, says the Soviets could easily fool the High Frontier satellites by equipping their missiles to release small objects that would look like thousands of additional missiles to the sensors aboard the US satellites. He also predicts the cost of orbiting the US satellites would be roughly $120 billion, nearly 10 times more than High Frontier advocates claim.
If the United States attempts to deploy such a system, say critics of space-based defenses, including Tispis, it would generate instability in the superpower standoff. They argue that such a defense, combined with the presence of US offensive missiles, might convince the Soviets that the US was seeking to launch a nuclear first strike. The result, says Tispis, is that ''the Russians will either build missiles like crazy to overcome it, which they have the capacity to do,'' or develop space-based weapons to destroy the US satellites.
That view, counters Graham, ''is a odd notion of US intellectuals that has never been bought by the Soviet Union. You really have to wrench your mind out of whack a little to say it is destabilizing to defend yourself, but it's not destabilizing to (threaten to) blow the other guy to smithereens.''
Adoption of a missile-defense program by the US would only restore the kind of balance between offensive and defensive weapons that the Soviets have always maintained, says Graham. ''Russia spends one ruble on strategic defense for every ruble spent on offense; the US spends one dollar on defense for every 10, 000 on offense,'' says Graham, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency until 1976. (The US intelligence community agrees that the Soviets are spending more than the US on such research.)
Critics who have attacked a space-based defense as ''Star Wars'' hokum - ineffective, expensive, and technologically improbable - are missing the mark, says Graham.
The President's commitment to a defense capable of shooting down incoming missiles is ''not a gimmick,'' says the general, who served as a military adviser to Mr. Reagan in his 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns. ''It's something that man (Reagan) really believes in.''
''It is grossly unfair to trivialize this important strategic statement with talk of ''Star Wars,'' Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and so forth,'' he says. ''There's nothing Buck Rogers-ish about High Frontier. If you read what the President said, he never said anything about laser beams or particle beams or anything like that.''
Reagan, says Graham, has made ''probably the most important strategic move since World War II by setting forth a strategy that gets us away from mutual assured distruction (MAD), that strange notion that the security of the United States should be perpetually based on our ability to slaughter Russians after they've slaughtered a lot of Americans.''
Although High Frontier would not make US cities invulnerable to Soviet attack , it would make such an attack more difficult, and hence, less likely, says Graham. He says the Soviets would be forced to abandon the present ''simple arithmetic'' of aiming two warheads at each US target. Instead, they would be faced with the ''calculus'' of trying to determine which warheads would get through and which targets they would hit.
If High Frontier prods the Soviets to build their own missile defense, then ''we can not only get rid of MAD, we can move into a new arena of arms control wherein both sides agree to deploy nonnuclear systems that will prevent either side from conducting a first strike against the other,'' he says.
Although his financial backers are political conservatives, the general says his proposal is apolitical. There is no reason for nuclear freeze advocates not to welcome his plan, he says, since it offers to ''stop the spread of nuclear weapons with (defensive) technology instead of relying on the signature of (Soviet leader Yuri) Andropov on a piece of paper.'' Unfortunately, he says, both freeze advocates and ''the 'big-bomb boys,' the old, all-offense school of military thought that has dominated our thinking on military matters,'' base their arguments on the slogan, ''There is no defense.''