WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger on Friday approved the acceleration of research on six "Star Wars" programs that would be the key to any defensive system against long-range Soviet nuclear weapons.
The action would not violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Pentagon officials said. Although long anticipated, it came as President Reagan disclosed that the United States and Soviet Union had reached an agreement in principle to ban medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles.
Efforts to negotiate a similar agreement reducing the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the two arsenals have faltered because of Soviet insistence the United States abandon its research program on "Star Wars," known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Pentagon spokesman Robert Sims denied Friday that Weinberger had delayed his decision to avoid offending Soviet sensibilities. Nor, said Sims, was Weinberger attempting to dampen enthusiasm for the new arms accord.
"There may have been people in Washington who would have preferred that it not be announced while the Soviets were in meetings here," Sims said. "But as you know, (Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A.) Shevardnadze is still here and we are announcing it."
The secretary's decision is the first to push "Star Wars" technologies from pure research toward development. The six projects now will enter what is known as a "demonstration and validation" phase, in which various components needed for a working system will be tested.
That effort will take "several years," said Col. Jim Graham, the director of systems engineering for the Strategic Defense Initiative organization. Assuming the work proceeds as expected, the Pentagon would then authorize full-scale development and set a timetable for actually deploying the first phase of a defensive system.
No decision has been made to deploy any part of a "Star Wars' system as yet, Graham added.
The Pentagon has requested $5.23 billion for "Star Wars" research in fiscal year 1988, although both the House and Senate have vowed to substantially reduce that figure. While refusing to release precise figures, the Pentagon said Friday that about half of its "Star Wars" budget request had been earmarked for the new, accelerated work.
Scientists involved in "Star Wars" research are developing lasers and other exotic weapons that could be used to automatically shoot down nuclear missiles fired at the United States or its allies.
The Defense Acquisition Board, the Pentagon's highest review panel, concluded more than a month ago that six of the "Star Wars" programs showed enough promise to merit immediate acceleration.
The six programs that will now be accelerated include:
--The ground-based surveillance and tracking system, utilizing missiles that could be fired into space to obtain tracking information on missiles approaching the United States.
--The space-based surveillance and tracking system, a satellite system that would be deployed in space to identify and track enemy missiles.
--A second orbiting surveillance and tracking system that would provide an alert if enemy missiles were launched.
--A ground-based interception system, utilizing small missiles that could be fired from the ground to intercept and destroy enemy missiles during the middle and latter stages of their flight.
--The space-based interception system, small "kinetic kill" rockets on an orbiting platform in space. The rockets could be fired at enemy missiles shortly after launch and would destroy them through a direct collision.
--And the battle management-command, control and communications system, the "brains" of any "Star Wars" defense. This would consist of a series of high-powered computers that would be programmed to select targets and direct weapons against them.
Graham, who appeared with Sims to announce Weinberger's decision, said the accelerated research would not be affected by the Senate's recent adoption of "Star Wars" test restrictions. The Senate has amended the Pentagon's fiscal 1988 budget to specify that no "Star Wars" tests can be conducted if they would violate a long-standing interpretation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
"We will remain within bounds of the treaty," Pentagon spokesman Sims said.