AFTER years of controversy and budget cuts, ``star wars'' may be about to get a proton of additional respect. The reason is not so much the program itself, which, after seven years and $24 billion, is still far from its goal of being able to zap thousands of warheads speeding through space.
Instead, it is because of euphoria over the successes of the Patriot missile in the Persian Gulf, shifting perceptions of who America's enemies are, and President Bush's decision to narrow the goals of the program, officially called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Boosters of SDI hope these events will garner more funding for the program on Capitol Hill. But many in Congress still find President Bush's plans too grandiose.
The result is a sharpening debate over the kind of defenses the nation needs - a debate likely to make SDI once again a central part of this year's budget dispute. Indeed, the fight is symbolic of the type of political maneuvering that is expected over all defense spending in the post-Gulf-war era.
``This is going to be the most visible example of cold-war weapons trying to get a new lease on life after the Gulf war,'' says John Pike, head of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists.
SDI budget for 1992
In its proposed 1992 budget, the administration is requesting $295 billion for defense spending, $4.6 billion for the star-wars program. Last year, the program received $2.9 billion.
Critics already point out that the proposed budget does not include the cost of Operation Desert Storm.
While few expect the administration to get all it wants this year, there will likely be increases in select areas, and the overall program may not suffer the cuts it would have normally.
``It will give the program a specificity and support within Congress we haven't had in the past,'' says Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida.
If the political dynamics do change, one reason would be the Patriot missile, the little-weapon-that-can in the Persian Gulf, which has been shooting down Iraqi SCUD missiles like skeet.
Although the Patriot was not developed as part of the star-wars program - critics like to point out that SDI officials downplayed research on similar interceptors in the past - it has demonstrated the feasibility of fielding a limited protective shield against missile attack.
``I think the record of the Patriot adds a tremendous credibility to the concept of defending against incoming ballistic missiles,'' says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
At the same time, the administration's plans to reduce the scope of the program could ease some hostility as well.
Under the Pentagon's trimmed-down version - given the official imprimatur by President Bush in his State of the Union speech - the aim is no longer to develop a defense against thousands of Soviet ballistic missiles. Rather, the goal is to create a system capable of blunting a limited attack, probably a few hundred salvos or less, from any adversary.
Thus President Reagan's original vision of an impenetrable dome that would make nuclear weapons obsolete has become more of a top hat to protect against a relatively small number of volleys from either the Soviet weapons or a third-world despot.
Short- and long-range protection
As currently envisioned, the Pentagon plans to develop a series of advanced Patriot-like missiles - perhaps by the mid-1990s - that could be deployed with US ground forces or aboard ships to knock down short-range salvos.
For longer-range threat, SDI officials are looking at a network of roughly 1,000 orbiting satellites (``brilliant pebbles'') that would intercept enemy missiles soon after launch and other satellites (``brilliant eyes'') that would search for warheads later in flight.
These would be augmented by a web of 750 to 1,000 ground-based interceptors. The program, dubbed Global Protection Against Limited Strikes, is estimated by the Pentagon to cost around $40 billion.
Elements of the new program are likely to win support among lawmakers, many of whom have long advocated a more limited approach to deal with such things as accidental launches and the third-world threat.
The simpler ground-based systems, are likely to get a big boost. But many critics are quick to point out that these systems represent only a fraction of the current SDI program.
Nuclear threat seen diminishing
For the rest of the program, the barbs will be as pointed as a particle beam.
Detractors consider space-based weapons technologically infeasible. Democrats in Congress worry about the impact of space weapons on the US-Soviet nuclear balance and fear such a system would violate the antiballistic-missile treaty.
``People are breaking out in star-wars fever,'' says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado. ``The Patriot didn't have anything to do with star wars.''
Others consider the threat of even a limited Soviet launch, as well as an accidental one, overblown. The primary hitch, though, is money.
``I'll take another look at it,'' says Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio. ``But I'm not sure we should be prepared to spend maybe hundreds of billions of dollars on a supersophisticated SDI system.''