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Planned test of antisatellite device stirs arms control debate

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Arms control advocates are dismayed by the Reagan administration's plan to conduct the first American test of an antisatellite weapon against a target in space. The White House has notified Congress that the test is needed because the Soviet Union is ``well ahead'' of the United States in this field and the US must ``restore the military balance.''

But many arms control experts challenge the administration's position. The Soviets' operational system is an extremely crude one, they argue, and going ahead with testing of an American antisatellite system will simply spur an arms race in space.

``The Soviets have no effective antisatellite capability,'' says Paul Warnke, who negotiated the unratified SALT II treaty. ``Their system is a low-orbiting one with no rapid-firing capability and it does not work well. We have more capability with our space shuttle than they have with their system.''

``This demonstrates that arms control policy in the the Reagan administration is dominated by those who are opposed to arms control,'' Mr. Warnke adds.

Administration critics in Congress also worry about the implications of the test for the upcoming summit meeting between the President and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, for instance, believes it would be better to delay such testing until after the summit, and let the summit tackle this problem, according to an aide.

But administration officials say the test should have no impact on the summit meeting and will provide an ``incentive'' for Moscow to negotiate limits on such weapons -- a view shared by antisatellite backers in Congress.

Antisatellite weapons, known as ASATs, are aimed at destroying military satellites. The Soviets have had a system since 1968, but one judged by scientists as relatively unsophisticated and of very limited threat to the US. It involves launching a heavy satellite into orbit with its intended target until it draws close and explodes like a grenade. Many Soviet tests of the system have been reported to be failures.


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