WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials Tuesday disclosed plans to resume testing the U.S. developmental anti-satellite rocket against targets in space and to push toward a capability of destroying hostile satellites at twice the altitude now achievable.
The announcement by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger appeared likely to touch off another fight between the Administration and congressional critics, who last year succeeded in sharply limiting funds for work on the system and imposing a moratorium on flight tests against targets in orbit.
Three Flight Tests
In announcing the intention to press ahead with three flight tests in the last quarter of 1988, Weinberger contended: "The United States must continue to develop an ASAT system that can deter threats to U.S. and allied space systems and deny any adversary the advantages arising from the offensive use of space-based systems."
Funds for the broadened research and development program were requested in President Reagan's fiscal 1988 federal budget, sent to Congress two months ago. The defense secretary's announcement of the test plan envisioned for the program said that, "by conducting tests against targets in 1988, the U.S. would be able to achieve an initial operational capability . . . by very early in the 1990s."
Before lawmakers concerned about the spread of arms into space imposed the test ban, the Air Force had conducted several successful tests with its small anti-satellite weapon launched from an F-15 fighter streaking to the fringe of space from Vandenberg Air Force Base. One destroyed an old scientific satellite, reportedly at an altitude of nearly 350 miles, with a direct hit.
May Use Pershing
Plans to double the altitude range in which hostile satellites can be intercepted were discussed with reporters Tuesday by Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert R. Rankine Jr. He refused to discuss the altitude capability of the present "miniature vehicle" but said that plans are to about double the U.S. capability by giving it a more powerful first stage or by using a ground-based weapon, such as the Army's Pershing 2 missile, to launch it.
The budget being requested for the program in the coming year also includes funds to begin a $100-million cooperative effort with the Administration's "Star Wars" space defense program.
Rankine told reporters that the program has reached the point where it is "not meaningful" to proceed unless tests can be conducted against space targets. Unless the program can go ahead with flight tests, he said, the U.S. system will have no deterrent value.
Soviet Orbiting Weapon
The Soviet Union, which Weinberger says has had an operational anti-satellite system "for more than a dozen years," has destroyed objects in space with an orbiting weapon that maneuvers into the same orbit with its target rather than zooming up to intercept it, as does the U.S. missile interceptor.
By essentially doubling the range of its anti-satellite weapon, Rankine said, the United States will be matching the kind of altitude capability already demonstrated by the Soviets.