Keep the Eyes in the Skies

SINCE his inauguration in January, President George Bush and his advisers have conducted an extensive study of East-West relations. Eyebrows were raised at the length of the process because Bush and his team had participated in the Reagan decisions for eight years and presumably agreed with them. In a long-awaited speech on May 12, Mr. Bush presented an initiative, a resurrection of the 34-year-old ``open skies'' proposal made by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which would allow unarmed aircraft from the United States and the Soviet Union to fly over the territory of the other country for purposes of military surveillance.

It would be difficult to think of any proposal less relevant. Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser, said the plan was mostly of symbolic value in this age of satellite surveillance.

However, at the very moment that the President was making this proposal, his administration was requesting funds for new weapons designed to destroy the satellites, the eyes in the sky that make truly ``open skies'' possible.

The US and Soviet military rely on satellites for general communications, early warning of attack, intelligence gathering, and maintaining military command and control. At present neither nation has the capacity to destroy the other's satellites. The Soviets have a crude, unreliable antisatellite (ASAT) system that has not been tested since June 1982. The USSR declared a moratorium on ASAT testing in 1983, and Congress barred American ASAT testing between 1985 and 1988.

This year holds the prospect of real progress in negotiations on reducing strategic and short-range nuclear weapons and cutting conventional military forces in Europe. Developing and testing ASATs sends the wrong message. It could upset negotiations and initiate an arms race in space.

Despite this, the Pentagon has requested funds for several new ASAT systems in an all-out effort to get development under way. In its budget request for fiscal year 1990, the Pentagon has asked for more than $700 million for ASATs, including over $500 million for developing ASATs under the ``star wars'' program. Shifting star-wars projects toward ASATs is one result of mounting pressure to demonstrate short-term payoffs from the $16 billion spent so far on star wars. This shift is seen in:

The Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), a system slated for cancellation in 1988 but resurrected after New Mexico's senators protested the loss of jobs in their state. MIRACL is a ground-based laser that would work in conjunction with the Skylite Beam Detector, a movable mirror that would aim the laser beam at satellite targets. Testing could begin in late 1989.

The Exoatmospheric Reentry-Vehicle Intercept System (ERIS), originally developed as an early deployment technology under star wars but now being considered by the Army for ASAT use. ERIS is a kinetic-energy weapon - it destroys its target by colliding with it. It could be based on the ground or on ships.

The Free-Electron Laser (FEL), a ground-based laser that may be capable of destroying high-altitude satellites, including those used by the superpowers to warn of an impending nuclear attack.

An ASAT arms race does not make political sense for the US. Nor does it make military sense. We depend on satellites far more than does the USSR. ASAT arms control would guarantee that we could rely on our superior satellite technology during a military crisis.

Instead of devising ways to destroy Soviet satellites, we should commit resources to making our satellites more survivable. The best solution would be to negotiate an agreement that both sides would not test or deploy ASATs but would respect each other's satellites. This would increase stability and decrease the danger of accidental nuclear war.

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