Controversy and acrimonious debates over the arms race are about to reach new heights, both literally and figuratively. When the United States test fires an air-launched antisatellite (ASAT) missile in the near future, an entirely new dimension to US/USSR military confrontation will attract public attention.
For supporters of the program, it is a prudent and restrained reponse to a current Soviet monopoly on space weapons. For opponents, it is a badly thought-out escalation of a potentially extremely expensive and destabilizing arena for arms racing: outer space.
As the flight tests neared, the Soviet Union has stepped up its own propaganda campaign against American military space activities. While denying that they have ever conducted such activities, or that they have (as they really do) an operational ''killer satellite'' space vehicle, Soviet spokesmen from Yuri Andropov on down have announced a ''unilateral moratorium'' on such tests so long as the US system is not tested.
The value of Andropov's pledge is dubious at best. It rests on the promise that the USSR ''never will be the first to test weapons in space'' - a promise already violated long ago by Soviet space shots which have been camouflaged as ''peaceful scientific research probes.'' Andropov merely continued and reworded a long-standing Soviet space lie.
American public debate on this issue has been sparse, and public statements by would-be opinion molders and policymakers have mainly been characterized by a remarkably poor grasp of the technical issues involved. Two primary myths have been promoted by opponents of the US ASAT missile. Together with the Soviet refusal to bargain from reality, these myths may well be the most serious roadblock to genuine bilateral negotiations to limit such weapons.
The two are: First, the Soviet ASAT satellite (the ''killer satellite'') is dismissed as next to nonexistent; that is, it doesn't really work very well so it warrants no US response. Second, the American ASAT missile is billed as a supersophisticated overreaction which will force the Soviets to develop more effective space weapons, thus leaving US space systems yet more vulnerable. These myths have been loudly espoused by congressmen, scientists, disarmament lobbyists, and media commentators. But they are not consistent with the facts.
The existing Soviet ASAT satellite works well. It has scored better than 85 percent successful simulated orbital ''kills.'' The US ASAT missile (not operational until at least 1987) is a limited interceptor system.
Whence came the myths? In part from Soviet space-weapons tests held after the original system became operational in 1971. That first system evidently used a simple radar-guidance system. But in case the US were to install defensive jamming gear on its satellites (an expensive step not yet taken), the Soviets began to develop killer-satellites with infrared terminal guidance and with quicker launch-to-kill flight profiles. These tests have not been very successful.
To mix the statistics of both programs - a successful old system and unsuccessful tests of a new one - is deception or ignorance. Those who are doing so seem to be trying to wish or whitewash away a Soviet weapons system whose reality they don't want to confront.
The second myth - of ''sophistication'' - is a classic red herring. A weapon's sophistication does not determine its effectiveness - its capabilities and reliability do. Some defense analysts claim to find an inverse correlation between ''sophistication'' and ''effectiveness.''
The mission of the US ASAT missile evidently concentrates on one class of Soviet military satellites that use nuclear-powered radar to scan the oceans for naval forces. Beyond that, the system has few capabilities, as confirmed by a GAO report in 1983. It concluded that by 1987 the ASAT missile would be only able to perform 3 percent of conceivable antisatellite missions, and when fully completed could do only a quarter of these tasks.
These faulty opinions originate mainly from an ideological group of West Coast antidefense organizations whose research mostly seems to be quoting each other approvingly and swallowing any anti-Pentagon assertions which come rolling in. They recognize ''experts'' as anybody who will provide assertions which coincide with their preconceived attitudes.
A more cynical - but realistic - approach to ASAT negotiations might go more like this: ''While Moscow won't stop lying, the US has no need to start listening.'' Yet while Moscow's ''American space militarization'' lies fall on such fertile ground in some Western circles, the Soviets have little incentive to abandon such a position so at variance with reality. In this light, Western groups that tolerate Soviet deception on this issue may be one of the - if not the - major impediments to the Soviets' adopting a policy conducive to genuine negotiation: an admission of the truth.