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Scaled-Down 'Star Wars' on Path to Reality

March 14, 1988|JOHN M. BRODER and MELISSA HEALY | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Something remarkable has occurred during the five years since President Reagan announced his vision of an America protected from nuclear attack by a futuristic space-based missile defense.

Reagan's dream, widely ridiculed then as Hollywood-inspired "Star Wars," a Technicolor fantasy, has become an undeniable and at least temporarily irreversible part of American reality.

It was in a March 23, 1983, speech that Reagan called on the nation's scientists to devise a defensive system that would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." They have not yet met that challenge, and they generally agree that Reagan's dream of a leak-proof "Astrodome" against nuclear missiles is impossible.

Offers Some Protection

Yet the Defense Department, under authority from a Democratic-controlled Congress, is planning and testing a scaled-down system that offers to protect at least some places in the United States from some Soviet missiles.

The Strategic Defense Initiative, as the system is formally known, has been enshrined in a $4.6-billion-a-year Pentagon bureaucracy and has gathered enough political momentum that even this year's Democratic presidential candidates are threatening to do no more than scale it back.

"Politically, the issue is here to stay," conceded House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), a frequent SDI critic. "The Astrodome idea is hopeless . . . but, given the political reality, you have to have something."

Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, who heads the SDI program, predicted that the next President, no matter who he is, "would not choose--no matter what their personal inclination would be--to just stop. The important thing is, the program is established as a national debate about what is the right thing to do, and we are making technical progress."

But the defense that Pentagon planners and dozens of outside contractors have already spent $14 billion working on is vastly smaller and less ambitious than the impermeable space shield based on far-out new weapons that Reagan envisioned.

Gone for the foreseeable future are the exotic electromagnetic rail guns firing rocket-smashing projectiles, the space-based neutral particle beam weapons, the ultra-high-power free-electron lasers. Research on these advanced technologies will continue, but development of workable systems is impossible in this century, perhaps ever, planners say.

Instead, the Pentagon is now devoting almost half its yearly SDI budget to working on a limited "Phase 1" defense that would, at best, be able to intercept one-fourth of incoming Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Not even counting Soviet weapons on submarines and bombers, that would leave the Soviets enough ICBMs to destroy the United States several times over.

Given political support and adequate funding, defense officials say, they could put such a system in place as soon as 1996.

Limited System Defended

Pentagon officials defend the limited system as a tool to complicate the Soviet military planner's job by taking away his confidence that his missiles will reach their intended targets.

"A strategic defense need not be 'leak-proof' to achieve this objective," Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci told Congress earlier this year in presenting the rationale for a porous space umbrella.

Opponents charge that even the less ambitious version of SDI would turn space into a battleground. More than that, they say, it is likely to spur a new arms race as the Soviets build more missiles to overwhelm American defenses and the United States answers with new weapons to offset the Soviets'.

Reagan responds by calling nuclear defense a moral necessity. A defensive system that saves lives, he insists, is superior to offensive weapons that threaten annihilation.

It is an idea that appeals to many Americans. Some 55% of registered voters polled by the Daniel Yankelovich group in January said they approved of continued SDI research, and only 33% said they objected.

Perhaps the biggest challenge now facing the Defense Department is to field a workable system at an affordable price. Although Abrahamson and his SDI managers say they can build the pieces of a rudimentary Phase 1 system that could shoot down some Soviet missiles, they are not as confident that they can do it at a price Americans are willing to pay.

"Can you build a rocket that goes fast?" Abrahamson asked. "That's no problem. Can you build it at the right cost? That is."

With a budget of $4.6 billion this fiscal year and about the same likely next year, "Star Wars" is already the single biggest item in the Pentagon budget. If the United States decides to build the Phase 1 system starting in 1993 or 1994, SDI spending will have to rise dramatically.

Phase 1 envisions a network of 200 to 350 space-based interceptor satellites, each capable of firing about 10 "kinetic kill vehicles" or "smart rocks"--non-explosive projectiles that would destroy incoming missiles by force of impact.

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