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Space Weapon Stirs Debate Over Possible Offensive Use [On Earth] (NYT 22/2/1987)

February 22, 1987

A debate has developed over whether the space weapon envisioned by the Reagan Administration for the first phase of its plan for a defense against missiles could strike offensively at targets in orbit and on earth.

Scientists and space experts who are critical of the ”Star Wars” plan say the weapon’s potential for offensive use could upset the balance of power and promote war rather than deter it.

Advocates of the antimissile system strongly disagree, saying any offensive roles for the weapon are either limited or nonexistent.

A Homing Rocket

The weapon at issue is a homing rocket meant to destroy targets by smashing into them. Administration officials see it as the first line of defense in a rudimentary antimissile system being considered for possible early deployment in the 1990’s. Constellations of such arms would orbit over the Soviet Union to knock out rising Soviet missiles.

But scientists, many of them critics of the antimissile program, say such weapons could also attack Soviet satellites and battle stations in space.

Moreover, they add, such weapons could be modified so their warheads could enter the earth’s atmosphere to knock out Soviet planes, radars and possibly even missiles in underground silos.

For many attacks, critics say, the weapon is far superior to the lasers, particle beams and other futuristic arms being studied for eventual deployment in what President Reagan calls his Strategic Defense Initiative.

”For certain ground targets, it’s the best offensive weapon” in a panoply of technologies, said Dr. Peter D. Zimmerman, a physicist and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Dr. Harvey L. Lynch, a physicist at the Center for International Security and Arms Control of Stanford University, said, ”If the Soviets decided to deploy such a thing, people like Caspar Weinberger would be having fits.” Defense Secretary Weinberger is one of the strongest supporters of ”Star Wars.”

The Soviet Union has consistently said that the proposed antimissile weapons had an offensive purpose and that the United States was seeking strategic superiority and the ability to conduct a nuclear surprise attack.

Advocates of the system disagree, saying that most offensive applications of the proposed space weapons are illusory and that the critics are raising farfetched notions that ignore the laws of physics.

”They’re trying to throw a political scare into people,” Lieut. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, retired, of the Army, said of the charges that the system would have offensive potential. General Graham directs High Frontier, a Washington lobbying group that favors the plan.

Lieut. Gen. James A. Abrahamson of the Air Force, director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, said that attacks on ground targets were physically impossible with the envisioned space weapon and that his program would never make the technical changes needed to give it an offensive potential. ‘It’s a Red Herring’

”Why we would want to do that is absolutely beyond me,” he said, stressing that the whole point of the program was defense. ”It’s a red herring.”

Despite such assurances, a growing number of groups and individuals are studying whether space arms have possible offensive roles. Secret reports have been completed by the National Academy of Sciences and by the Rand Corporation, a California research organization that studies military issues for the Pentagon. Last week the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a public symposium on the topic at its annual meeting.

So, too, Pentagon officials are said to be quietly assessing the question, if only to consider potential enemy threats. ”They would be remiss if they didn’t look at this stuff,” said Robert English, a senior analyst with the Committee for National Security in Washington, who was a Pentagon policy analyst from 1982 to 1985.

Scientists who study the offense issue say space lasers, whose concentrated beams of light were once viewed as powerful enough to set cities on fire, have lost some of their luster. Dr. Lynch, the Stanford physicist, has calculated that clouds, pollutants and atmospheric distortions could sap most of a laser beam’s power. Although lasers are potentially capable of striking airplanes in flight, they are essentially useless against cities and military targets on earth, Dr. Lynch said.

Doubling of Weapon Funds

In contrast, the space weapon now at the forefront of the Administration’s antimissile quest has considerable potential for earth strikes, according to some scientists.

The power of the weapon’s warhead comes from the energy of its motion when it hits a target – its kinetic energy – rather than chemical or nuclear explosives. According to Defense Week, an industry publication, funds for research on the weapon are to more than double next year, going to $303 million from $126 million.

For defense, the rocket would be fired from an orbiting weapon platform and its small warhead, equipped with heat-seeking sensors, would track rising missiles, destroying them on impact. Several hundred and perhaps even thousands of platforms would have to continuously orbit the earth, a small fraction of them over Soviet missile fields at any given time.

Both advocates and opponents of the weapon say that at least some offensive potentials are inescapable. For instance, the kinetic warhead, speeding through the void of space, could be directed to knock out enemy satellites. ”You’re going to have that capability whether you want it or not,” said General Graham of High Frontier.

Dr. Ashton B. Carter, a Harvard physicist and consultant to the Defense Department, said the weapon also posed a threat to space-based battle stations. ”People interested in defense should be worried about such developments,” he said. ”Every technical advance is not necessarily good news.”

If modified, the kinetic warhead could also enter the earth’s atmosphere to attack planes, military facilities and possibly even ”hardened” missile silos, according to critics of the program. They add that kinetic weapons designed for offense might look no different from defensive ones.

”The kinds of kinetic kill vehicles that have been proposed for use in a first generation S.D.I. system can be redesigned and rejiggered for offensive” strikes against ground targets, Dr. Zimmerman of the Carnegie Endowment told the the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The main modifications, he said, would be to increase the weight of the warhead and to improve the system to guide it. He added that it would reach earth targets in two or three minutes.

After the space-based warhead was launched, he said, the platform would track it and send guidance data with laser beams so the warhead was well-aimed prior to re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. On average these warheads would miss their targets by about 80 yards, he noted, ”which is obviously too big for most uses.”

To increase accuracy, Dr. Zimmerman said, the warhead could be equipped with its own internal guidance system for the final phase of the flight, which would ”bring the miss distance down” to a few yards. He noted that the huge kinetic energy of the inert warhead would cause it to flash ”into a fireball” when it slammed into an earth target. He said such a weapon would have ”real capabilites against soft and soft-ish ground targets” such as radar installations, and it could also knock out planes.

Other experts say kinetic weapons could be used to launch space-based strikes against ”hardened” military targets, including the concrete-and-steel silos that house nuclear missiles.

Gary Hudson, president of Pacific American Launch Systems in Redwood City, Calif., a private company that develops rocket launchers for commercial payloads, said he once conducted a private study of space-based kinetic arms made of long rods of dense material such as uranium and tungsten.

”There’s no question about silo busting,” he said. ”You’re talking about penetrations of 150 to 200 feet in solid granite.” He added that in the 1970’s the Air Force, in a secret program code-named Trim, also considered the use of dense rods to destroy missile silos.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Pentagon consultant who studies offensive roles of space arms for the Pentagon said plans for using kinetic weapons were feasible, but he questioned whether they made economic sense.

”Whether they can be used profitably for ground attack, against silos and other targets, in a cost-effective way is very problematic,” he said. ”Putting heavy things is space is extraordinarily expensive.”

Scientists critical of the antimissile plan say the easiest way to get around the weight problem is simply to equip space-based rockets with nuclear warheads, which long ago were adapted to the rigors of atmospheric re-entry. Such a move is banned by treaty, Dr. Caroline Herzenberg, a physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Ill., told the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But she added that it could ”unfortunately be accomplished surreptitiously.”

General Abrahamson of the Pentagon’s antimissile office said that all potential plans for attacking targets on earth required extensive modifications to kinetic space weapons and that the arms, as now conceived, would burn up if fired into the atmosphere. Even with weapon changes, he said, successful attacks on missile silos would be unlikely, although he conceded that strikes on airplanes were possible.

He emphasized, however, that the whole trend of the kinetic weapon program was to make warheads smaller and smaller, thus making the possibility of ground strikes ever more remote.

Moreover, he said, no weapon modifications could ever be made surreptitiously because the open nature of American society meant that all such plans would eventually fall into the hands of the Soviet military.

In response, critics say the Russians could never be sure of the benign intent. There would always be doubts. Moreover, critics stress, all military officials must assume the worst to avoid surprise. In this case, the Soviet Union would have to assume that space-based kinetic weapons could be used offensively. And that perception, even if wrong, could lead to a vicious cycle of fears in a crisis that would increase the risk of war.

Moreover, critics of the antimissile plan say space weapons with no ability to strike earth targets could nonetheless play a pivotal role in fighting an offensive nuclear war.

”The most obvious one is to use them in conjunction with a first strike, use them to mop up the weakened response of you adversary,” Dr. Lynch of Stanford told the American Association for the of Science last week.

Photo of Lieut. Gen. James A Abrahamson (UPI) (page 20; photo of Dr. Peter D. Zimmerman (NYT/Paul Hosefros) (page 20); photo of Dr. Harvey Lynch (NYT/terence McCarthy) (page 20)

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