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Lift the ban on ASAT testing

IN coming days the United States Congress will again decide whether to help or harm prospects for real arms control in Geneva. That is a key issue as Congress chooses whether to continue its year-long unilateral ban on US testing of antisatellite systems (ASAT). Continuing the ban would contribute nothing to US arms control efforts or its security. Rather, it would simply perpetuate a Soviet monopoly in operational ASAT capability while the Soviets pressed forward with other systems and technologies that could further threaten US space assets.

Congressional proponents of the ban reason:

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1. That the current Soviet co-orbital ASAT is primitive and ineffective.

2. That continued testing of the American ASAT system will only spur the Soviets to develop more-advanced and effective ASAT weapons.

Test ban proponents sometimes add that the US will benefit disproportionately from a negotiated ASAT treaty, on grounds the US is more dependent than the Soviets on satellites. All this leads to the incongruous argument that a Soviet monopoly in operational ASAT capability is somehow preferable to a US effort to develop a deterrent against it.

What's wrong with this line of reasoning?

There is no basis whatever to believe that the Soviet ASAT system is ineffective. It's not a ``dog of a system,'' as some in Congress contend. On the contrary, the observed reliability and probability of success of the operational Soviet ASAT show it to be quite effective. Claims that the Soviet system is unreliable are based on juggled statistics that lump together flight tests of the currently operational Soviet system with developmental tests of a newer version.

The Soviets are already pursuing more-advanced weapons with ASAT capabilities -- principally high-energy lasers. They do so with scant regard to unilateral US actions on ASAT or to the current state of arms negotiations. In other words, developments that critics argue will follow from US resumption of ASAT testing are already taking place.

A broad ASAT agreement would almost certainly prove unverifiable and dangerously porous. The Soviet co-orbital system is smaller than a Volkswagen; the Soviet booster used to launch the co-orbital system is the same booster used by the Soviets for other space missions. It's small and easily concealable.

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The US does not know how many Soviet interceptors have been manufactured and stored. The US would not know whether existing systems had actually been destroyed or were still being produced secretly. The Soviets could easily maintain a covert ASAT capability within the terms of a comprehensive ban on testing or deployment. In addition, with minimal development and testing, almost any intercontinental ballistic missile or sea-launched missile could attack satellites with nuclear warheads. So could antiballistic missile interceptors like the Galosh missiles that comprise the Moscow ABM system. Upgraded Galosh launchers may be reloadable; this only intensifies their potential utility as ASAT weapons.

Directed-energy weapons and other advanced technologies could be used in ASAT applications, although the US may not detect such tests.

Effective verification is critical here, since the satellites that serve US and allied security are so few. Cheating even on a very small scale could pose a disproportionate risk.

In short, to ensure the safety of US satellites, we must be able in the last resort to deter attack by threatening retaliation in kind. We relied on deterrence to prevent use of chemical weapons by each side in World War II; the US relies on deterrence to prevent use of nuclear weapons today. An ASAT capability can deter Soviet attack on US satellites in the same way.

Should deterrence fail, a US ASAT capability is essential to counter the targeting satellites that would allow the Soviets to pinpoint US and allied forces.

Differences between US and Soviet dependence on satellites are often exaggerated. The Soviet Union, too, is heavily and increasingly dependent on them.

Satellites are not only vital in the event of nuclear war. They could be still more important in conventional conflict. It is critical that the US be able to deter an ASAT attack without crossing the nuclear threshold. This requires that the US have a conventional ASAT system at the earliest possible time.

A final point: Unilateral concessions do not yield progress in arms control. Indeed, the overall impact of the congressionally mandated ban on ASAT testing has been to weaken the US bargaining position in the Geneva talks. And whatever one may think of the prospects for an adequate regime to control ASAT systems, US national security is hardly served by a law that freely cedes to the Soviets a monopoly in the capacity to destroy satellites in space. It is time for Congress to take a more considered look at the ASAT issue's complexities.

Kenneth L. Adelman is director of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

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