WASHINGTON — President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, despite intense opposition in Congress and elsewhere, is fast becoming a permanent fixture in the military-industrial firmament.
By the time Reagan leaves office in 1989, the space-based system of anti-missile defense may be so firmly ingrained in the Defense Department's budget and so vital to the profit margins of the nation's defense contractors that the new President, whatever his personal inclinations, will have difficulty dislodging it.
"Even if a Democratic Senate is elected in 1986 and a Democratic White House in 1988," said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a private group, "you may have a base built for the program that is essentially unstoppable."
In Research Stage
The Strategic Defense Initiative, as the program is formally known, remains in the research stage, with no decision yet made to attempt to assemble its computers, communications systems, airborne sensors, satellites, mirrors and lasers into a working anti-missile defense. But it is already the single most expensive element of the Defense Department's budget.
Reagan asked Congress for $5.4 billion for SDI in fiscal 1987, which begins Oct. 1. That is nearly double his next biggest request--$2.8 billion to procure F/A-18 jets for the Navy.
Although the Senate Armed Services Committee has recommended reducing his SDI request to $3.9 billion and the House Armed Services Committee has approved only $3.7 billion (the equivalent of $3.577 billion in 1986 dollars), even the lower figure represents an increase of $700 million over the current "Star Wars" budget of $3 billion.
"Reagan will ask for incredible amounts and 'settle' for one-half of infinity," a weapons expert for Congress who has also worked in the Defense Department said.
John Pike, the Federation of American Scientists' associate director for space policy, said the program is climbing toward the $7.5 billion that government documents indicate that Reagan plans to seek for 1989. If it gets there, Pike said, "it would be real hard to turn it off."
"There would be too many jobs in too many congressional districts," Pike said. "Something that big isn't a weapons program. It's a jobs program."
Not Yet Proved Feasible
Research to date has yet to establish whether it is feasible to build a space-based system to protect the United States and its allies from missile attack. But the Defense Department insists that research is proceeding smoothly.
"We're making progress in the fundamental technology that leads to this decision for a strategic defense system some day," said Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, director of the Defense Department's SDI Office. "And that's coming faster than people realize, even with the cutbacks" voted by Congress in the SDI budget.
"Star Wars" still faces formidable obstacles if it is to become an integral part of the nation's military arsenal. While the military services are dutifully recognizing Reagan's determination to proceed with "Star Wars," they are quietly grumbling that the price tag for the research alone is reducing funds available to buy conventional weapons.
Outside the government, few lobbying groups have embraced the program, and members of Congress are feeling little constituent pressure to support the Administration's budget for it. Nor has "Star Wars" yet reached the stage at which major industries, individual companies and labor unions are relying on it as a major source of income or jobs and are pressing Congress to increase the program's budget.
'A Lot of Momentum'
But Reagan has 2 1/2 years left in office to build more support for "Star Wars." Stephen Daggett, a senior research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a private group that frequently criticizes defense programs, said the new President would propose reducing the SDI budget at his own peril.
"These projects will have created a lot of momentum," he said. "It would mean canceling some high-visibility demonstration projects, such as a space-based sensor system" to track missile launches.
"Even if the new President and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not enthusiastic, it would be pretty difficult to back out if you've already got 10 $300-million projects," Daggett said. "You can do it, but it will be a tough political decision and you'd take it on the chin."
Former President Jimmy Carter bit the bullet in 1977, the first year of his term, and canceled production of the B-1 bomber, which at that point was already producing jobs in 48 states. That was the last major weapons program of his Republican predecessors that he canceled--and Reagan reinstituted the B-1 four years later.
About 6,500 scientists have signed a pledge not to work on "Star Wars." But there are others eager to peer into the world of space weapons.