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ASAT weapons' shadow over peace

THE current controversy over antisatellite weapons (ASATs) affects politics within the Pentagon as much as the contest between the superpowers. This is because the Navy is becoming more and more satellite dependent, just as the Air Force presses ahead with antisatellite systems.

The NAVSTAR satellite navigation system, because it allows the weapon to reorient itself in space after it is launched, will give the Navy's Trident II missile accuracy comparable to MX. But a meaningful prohibition of antisatellite weaponry is a necessary condition to make credible the Navy's claim to a strategic mission the Air Force has heretofore monopolized. With NAVSTAR, the Trident D-5's reentry vehicle will have the ''hard target kill'' accuracy now lodged exclusively with the land-based missile force - yet without an ICB's vulnerability to an enemy first strike.

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So the fact that the Air Force is reluctant to restrict ASAT development through an agreement with the Soviet Union should come as no surprise. Such an agreement would benefit the United States Navy quite as much as anyone else.

Bear in mind that in 1948 the Air Force was created by bomber pilots for bomber pilots. The new service's primary purpose was long-range (strategic) bombing. It was only an accident of technological history (coupled with intense, effective lobbying by Adm. Hyman Rickover) that produced the missile-launching nuclear-powered submarine.

Another problem with submarine-based missiles has been that methods for communicating with submerged submarines are rather cumbersome. But the Navy is working on a satellite communication system that would use message-carrying blue-green lasers to penetrate sea water to great depths. If it works, this would give the submarine force the rapid command capability necessary for fighting a nuclear war.

The combination of navigation and communication satellites promises, then, to give the Navy every strategic capability currently possessed by the Air Force, while maintaining its inestimable advantage of invulnerability.

When these systems are fully developed, policymakers will for the first time have the clear option of closing the ''window of vulnerability'' by the simple expedient of scrapping the Air Force's land-based missile fleet.

But if events unfold so that antisatellite weapons become as commonplace, say , as MIRVed warheads, then strategic planners will never be able to count on submarine-based missiles for ''time-urgent'' silo-busting during thermonuclear combat. So ASAT proliferation gives the Air Force a means to defend its niche in strategic policy.

Now the Soviet Union has successfully tested a primitive ''space mine,'' that under the right circumstances could destroy a low-orbit satellite (the kind used in reconnaissance). Accordingly, the administration refuses to consider a freeze until we have successfully tested a dedicated ASAT of our own. Under development today is a Miniature Homing Vehicle that is launched from an F-15 fighter and flies out to crash into the targeted satellite (a ''kinetic energy kill'' in Pentagonese). This weapon has been test-launched a few times but has yet to be aimed at an actual satellite.

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But we have two other antisatellite systems in development that, although they are not ''dedicated,'' that is, exclusively directed to that mission, are formidable threats. The one, obviously, is the Space Shuttle. With it we can not only destroy satellites, but, as TV viewers saw dramatically a few weeks ago, we can capture them. (Of course we need here to be careful lest future enemies learn to booby trap their satellites.)

A second system was successfully tested last June in the ''Homing Overlay Experiment,'' where a Minuteman missile successfully intercepted an inert ballistic missile warhead. Ostensibly, this system is designed to be part of a ballistic missile defense system, but Lockheed officials point out that it could just as easily be used against satellites.

There is, in fact, a great deal of overlap between ASAT and Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). For example, one idea promoted by BMD, the right-wing High Frontier organization, would base Miniature Homing Vehicles on satellites or ''space trucks'' to shoot down Soviet ballistic missiles.

Yet, despite the intensity of the internecine rivalry between the Air Force and Navy, the threat that ASAT poses to peace should be our first concern. In the absence of an anti-ASAT treaty, any satellite blackout, even if it were to occur by accident, might make it likely, even probable, that the side that perceived itself weaker and therefore more threatened, could preemptively strike first. Thus, the probability that a thermonuclear war could start by accident would be markedly increased.

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