Shuttle links up to national security mission Satellite launch next month seen helpful to arms control

A new generation of signal and electronics monitoring satellites to be launched by the US shuttle next month opens up possibilities not only for weapons targeting but also for arms control.

This judgment - which flies in the face of conventional wisdom - comes from John Pike, associate director for space policy of the Federation of American Scientists. For a decade, it has been widely held that today's technological thrust helps concealment and hinders detection of strategic arms control violations.

In the previous decade technology was viewed as more benevolent; in the form of spy satellites it suddenly opened the way for confident verification of arms control by making possible unilateral monitoring of an adversary's weapons testing and deployment.

Mr. Pike, one of only a handful of American specialists on high-tech intelligence who work in the public domain, presented his thesis at a Frankfurt Peace Research Institute arms control conference Dec. 13 and 14. He bases his optimism not only on the new United States signal and electronics spy satellite to be launched into geostationary orbit over the Eastern Hemisphere in January, but also on new photo reconnaissance and missile-launch detection capacity that will be going operational in the next few years.

These include:

*The signal-intelligence collection satellites to be launched on the US shuttle in the next few weeks.

*The Improved Keyhole photo reconnaissance satellite (IKON or KH-12) to be launched in 1986.

*The Booster Surveillance and Tracking System (BSTS) to be deployed in the early to mid-1990s.

The new generation of electronic signal and electronic intelligence telemetry that will be inaugurated shortly will have vastly greater capability than its predecessors, Pike notes.

So will the IKON, to be launched by the shuttle in June 1986. This will be able to ''distinguish objects less than six inches across, 24 hours a day, and transmit (the photographs) via satellite for immediate processing and interpretation.'' Moreover, in contrast to previous spy satellites, it will be highly maneuverable and thus able ''to appear over an area of interest in an unpredictable fashion.''

The IKON will be able to fly wide-angle, low-resolution missions at high orbit, then swoop down for narrow-angle, high-resolution missions at low orbit. And the planned constellation of four of these ''birds'' will be able to make passes over any designated area every 20 minutes or so if desired.

This photo capability is especially important for verifying mobile missiles. Any clandestine activity could be carried out only in 20-minute spurts. And Pike points out that mobile missiles ''will not be very mobile if they have to be pinned down between passes.'' The IKONs will have lots of maneuver fuel and can be refueled as needed. The number of IKONs could also be increased if necessary.

As currently planned the IKON will not be able to see through cloud cover. But infrared sensors that penetrate clouds could easily (if expensively) be added to these modular satellites as required.

The BSTS (previously called the Advanced Warning System or Defense Support Program 2) is part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (''star wars'') program. According to Pike, BSTS will track missiles in their initial boost phase by improved mid-wavelength infrared sensors with high resolution. This system could be used to detect ''relatively minor changes'' in the performance of a test rocket ''and could perhaps determine what modifications to the rocket were being tested.'' Since it observes directly what a Soviet test rocket does rather than intercepting the Soviet telemetry, it could partly resolve the thorny Salt II problem of encryptation.

Pike acknowledges that the submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) is an exception to his general thesis of technology favoring detection over evasion at this point. This discrepancy arises because nuclear-tipped warheads are indistinguishable from those with conventional warheads. Pike contends that long-range SLCMs will constitute such a small percentage of superpower strategic nuclear capability, however - and in any case be countable within a 10 percent margin of error - that this is not a serious problem.

A different problem from the point of view of arms control is the applicability of the new surveillance capacity for real-time ''star wars'' targeting as well as for monitoring of arms control compliance.

This means that the reassurance potential of the new American technology for verification is offset by the disquieting potential (for the Soviet Union) of simultaneous target acquisition by the US. And when the Soviet Union catches up with this technology the US will feel the same uneasiness.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.