"Star Wars," the Pentagon's largest weapons program, will be seriously damaged by large congressional budget cuts enacted two weeks ago, Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, director of the program, said in an interview.
Congress appropriated $3.5 billion for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the official Pentagon name for the proposed space-based missile-defense system, a sharp cutback from the $5.3 billion requested by the Reagan Admininistration for fiscal 1987.
Abrahamson said in the interview Wednesday that such large cutbacks in the preliminary design stage of the weapons system will ultimately drive up the cost of the system. That is because funding shortages now will force the Pentagon to narrow the range of its technological efforts and force it to make earlier decisions on the system design.
In focusing on a narrower range of options and in locking in technology to save money, the Pentagon is likely to make more mistakes, Abrahamson said.
"We will now have to pick the best technology (available at the time) and, in some cases, the wrong technology," Abrahamson said. "We will have to make our choices earlier."
Although Congress cut the request for "Star Wars" spending, it still appropriated a 15% increase in funding over fiscal 1986. But the program will need substantial funding growth if it is to maintain its momentum, Abrahamson said, and the $3.5 billion is not "anywhere near what we expected."
An evaluation of where to make the cuts is still going on but they will fall in three general areas, he said.
First, almost all 2,000 "Star Wars" contracts will be curtailed somewhat and some may be eliminated.
Second, he said, investment in an industrial infrastructure to prepare for production will have to be curtailed. "This (defense system) is completely new. We have never had any kind of operating ballistic missile intercept capability. Therefore, in many cases we have to build a whole infrastructure. That's one reason it is so expensive," he said.
Finally, the "Star Wars" organization will be forced to make its choices earlier. For example, the so-called free electron laser is thought to be the leading candidate for a beam-type weapon. But the Pentagon had been continuing funding of a competing technology, known as the excimer laser, as a fallback position. The excimer is now being eliminated.
Another peripheral effect of the cutbacks will be on defense contractor enthusiasm, Abrahamson predicted.
"Contractors who have been investing their own money, assigning their best people, are going to say, 'Well, this isn't going to pay off so well.' "
The top five contractors involved in the program are located in California. They are Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, Lockheed, California Institute of Technology, Rockwell International and Hughes Aircraft.