WASHINGTON — In the most severe challenge yet to President Reagan's "Star Wars" plan, 46 senators Thursday demanded a huge cutback in the missile-defense effort when the Senate Armed Services Committee sets money ceilings on Pentagon programs next month.
The bipartisan coalition called for no more than a 3% after-inflation increase for the Strategic Defense Initiative rather than the sharp increase Reagan requested for fiscal 1987, the budget year starting Oct. 1.
"Our concern," the 46 senators said in a letter to the Armed Services panel, "is that the Strategic Defense Initiative has received excessive and inappropriate emphasis in the Department of Defense's budget.
"Not only are the goals of the research effort unclear, the need for accelerated funding for a long-range program such as SDI has not been demonstrated," they said. "We are concerned that the . . . program is being rushed to a premature development decision in the early 1990s in order to meet an unrealistic schedule."
By its size and makeup, the Senate coalition represents one of the biggest moves against the Strategic Defense Initiative since Reagan, on March 23, 1983, proclaimed it as an attempt to make nuclear offensive missiles obsolete.
The senators' letter to committee Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and the panel's ranking Democrat, Sam Nunn of Georgia, was clearly designed to influence committee decisions on the defense authorization bill when drafting sessions begin June 2.
Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, hailed the Senate drive Thursday as a "fine effort" and said he is putting together a similar coalition in the House in hopes of freezing "Star Wars" at this year's budget level without allowing for inflation.
Fighting on Two Fronts
If such a push develops, Reagan will soon be fighting for the centerpiece of his strategic program on two fronts at a time when both the House and Senate have set goals for his total military budget that are far below the amounts he requested.
Under the senators' proposal, the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative appropriation would rise from $2.76 billion in fiscal 1986 to just under $3 billion in fiscal 1987. Reagan is requesting $4.8 billion. The senators' $3 billion represents a growth of 3% plus a 4% allowance for inflation. If Reagan prevails, the funding, with Energy Department money for nuclear research added in, would jump from $3 billion to about $5.4 billion between fiscal 1986 and 1987, a 77% increase.
"It is difficult to conceive of a sound rationale for increasing the combined Department of Defense and Department of Energy (Strategic Defense Initiative) budget by 77% while the entire Department of Defense budget will be frozen at zero real growth and other vital military research programs are facing budget cuts," the senators said in their letter.
The senators said also that they were in favor of pressing for a slowdown in the Strategic Defense Initiative because of concerns that the program was wasting money by going too fast, the fear that its flight tests would break the 1972 anti-ballistic-missile treaty and the conviction that, if the program were not cut, conventional military forces would be slashed inordinately to meet House and Senate budget goals.
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), one of the senators who put together the coalition, said: "Challenger and Chernobyl have stripped some of the mystique away from technology."
Joining Proxmire in forming the coalition were Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.) and Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.).