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Testing in space

The Pentagon would rather test than talk - test its latest antisatellite weapons (ASAT) rather than talk to the Soviets about possibly not testing. Congress, or at least the majority of Democrats in the House, wants talk first and testing afterward and then only if the talks get nowhere.

This is a complicated business. Both the United States and the Soviet Union already have weapons that can shoot down the lower flying satellites, of which hundreds now clutter the various layers of the earth's atmosphere.

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Is it already too late to try to head off this particular item in the spread of the arms race from earth out into space? Some say it is too late. Once a weapon can be launched from a high-flying aircraft and reach a low-flying satellite, who is to know how many more such weapons are being stockpiled down below?

It has been axiomatic in Washington for some time that there is no point in any arms limitation agreement that cannot be monitored from outside. We can monitor the big Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles because our overflying satellites can see and photograph the silos from which those missiles would be launched.

But if the Soviets test some sort of long-range rocket that can be fired from an ordinary airplane, there is no outside way of knowing how many have been produced and stockpiled.

Besides, right now the Soviets are in no mood for talking to Washington about anything. They have rolled themselves up into the defensive posture of the porcupine - all bristles on the outside, no ears open for listening to anything someone might want to say.

Apparently they have not tested their antisatellite weapons for about two years. So what's the hurry about testing American antisatellite weapons? The testers want to get on in the hope of gaining an advantage. The anti-testers want to wait and see whether we might work out some way of fending off this new step toward space wars. In Congress the House has voted 238 to 181 for a one-year delay in US testing.

Would the delay of a year do much harm? No one can be sure of the answer. On the other hand, it would provide a chance to have another look at the problem after the American elections are out of the way and after possible other changes in the world pattern. Right now the Soviets don't want to talk to anyone about anything. They don't even want to talk to the Chinese. But all that could change during a year.

The main pressure for going ahead with testing comes from the aerospace industry with its heartland in southern California. The concept of space wars represents a long and profitable future for the industry. It provides opportunities for employment for graduates of the great technical universities almost ad infinitum - assuming of course that it does not all end in a real space war.

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But it is also an expensive business. And what assurance is there that the US will necessarily acquire a lasting advantage from racing the Soviets in this department?

Looking back over the record since World War II, we can notice several places where a decision was taken to go ahead with a new weapon on the familiar assumption that the US had such a lead over the Soviets in technology that it could get a decisive advantage and keep it.

The classic case of action based on this kind of thinking was the decision to go ahead with MIRVs - multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. The US had an advantage - for some four years. Then the Soviets caught up and went straight in for the one weapon in their arsenal which Washington now most wishes was not there - the big intercontinental SS-18 and SS-19 missiles, each with six to 10 big warheads.

Most experts in the arms business concede that the West would be better off today if the US had avoided the MIRVs.

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