Reagan administration says prospects for ASAT test ban are dim

The genie apparently is out of the bottle as far as offensive military systems in space are concerned. The Soviet Union has one and perhaps two weapons that can attack satellites. The United States has flight tested an antisatellite (ASAT) rocket and is researching a more advanced version.

And, according to the Reagan administration, there is little prospect for progress in this most difficult area of arms control.

This is the essence of a sobering report to Congress by the administration this week. Soviet threats against US satellites are so diverse, verification problems so great, and the need to be able to attack Soviet space assets in time of war so pressing, according to administration officials, that strictly limiting such weapons may be out of the question.

''Today, we don't see any way possible to have a comprehensive ban on testing ASATs,'' says a senior administration official.

There are legitimate concerns here, even critics of administration plans to press ahead with US ASATs concede.

Virtually anything that can go into space these days could be used to attack satellites, and US officials are not sure this has not already been done.

''Given all the ways there are to attack them, there's not an awful lot that can be done about protecting low-altitude satellites,'' says John Pike, a space-policy expert with the Federation of American Scientists and opponent of the Reagan administration's ASAT program.

The Soviet Union has tested (with limited success) co-orbital ''killer satellites'' that can nuzzle up alongside their victim and explode.

Moscow has proposed a moratorium on ASAT testing, but US officials are leery. Without on-site inspection, they say, the Soviets could keep many such weapons deployed.

More worrisome may be other things not strictly defined as ASATs that could be used against US satellites: antiballistic-missile rockets, intercontinental ballistic-missile (ICBM) boosters, ground-based lasers, or electronic weapons.

For this reason, it is argued, the US must continue testing its ASAT weapon: a small rocket fired from an F-15 fighter jet that rams a satellite with a ''miniature homing vehicle.''

The propulsion portion of this system was first tested last January.

But the more significant aspect of administration resistance to ASAT arms control is that officials do not want any treaty that would prevent the US from destroying Soviet satellites that can track allied naval units and direct conventional attacks in time of war.

And there is, in fact, more to this than ASATs. Satellites and antisatellite weapons are closely tied to President Reagan's push for ballistic missile defenses.

The administration does not want any ASAT treaty that could interfere with US efforts to intercept and destroy attacking nuclear missile warheads.

''There are more than a few things they're talking about in the SDI (strategic defense initiative, or ''Star Wars'' notion) that would be prohibited by an ASAT treaty,'' Mr. Pike says.

It is generally agreed that the US has been more reliant than the USSR on satellites for military purposes, such as photographic and electronic intelligence, and that US satellites are more capable. For this reason, critics say, the US should press for a ban on antisatellite weapons.

But the USSR has been improving in this area and launches many more satellites each year than the US. Officials here say the US space shuttle will have increasing military applicability.

And they assume the same is true with Soviet space systems, such as the Salyut-7 space station. Yesterday, the Soviets launched a Soyuz rocket for rendezvous with the Salyut space station.

''For US and allied security, the United States must continue its efforts to protect against threatening satellites,'' the administration asserts in this week's report to Congress. ''A comprehensive ASAT ban would afford a sanctuary to existing Soviet satellites designed to target US naval and land conventional forces.''

Officials make clear that they are talking here about low-altitude satellites used as part of an attack and not those in higher orbit used for defensive early-warning purposes.

The US, according to administration sources, still hopes to find ways to protect by superpower agreement these high-altitude satellites.

But other experts say that allowing today's relatively unsophisticated antisatellite weapons to proliferate without restraint would make it more likely that all satellites would one day be threatened.

''In confrontations in a world filled with ASATs, fear of a preemptive strike will run high, and the very process of unlimbering ASATs for possible use would drive tensions higher,'' warns a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. ''Since attacks on satellites would be a possible opening step in war, even inadvertent events in space may be mistaken as a signal that war has begun.''

The USSR last year offered a draft treaty prohibiting the testing and deployment of space-based weapons and announced a ''unilateral moratorium'' on launching ASATs.

US officials say the Soviet initiatives are filled with ''ambiguities and loopholes'' and are merely designed to head off testing of the new US system.

Before the US F-15/ASAT device is tested against a target in space, the administration must certify to Congress that it is genuinely negotiating with the Soviets to control space weapons or that such testing is necessary ''to avert clear and irrevocable harm to the national security.''

Thus, the controversy over weapons in space is likely to become more intense.

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