By Paul B. Stares Brookings. 219 pp. $28.95; paperback, $10.95

WHETHER THE United States should proceed with the development of antisatellite (ASAT) weapons is one of the most pressing and consequential defense issues facing the nation," writes Bruce MacLaury, president of the Brookings Institution, in a foreword to this book. Few defense experts would disagree with this assertion.

Compared with the attention focused on such issues as the zero-zero option in arms control, the deployment of "Star Wars" weapons or the size of the defense budget, ASAT weapons have received very little press coverage.

Within the military, however, the issue is receiving a great deal of attention. In late May of this year, the Air Force Association held a symposium on "The Military Imperatives in Space." At this symposium, Gen. John Piotrowski, commander-in-chief of the newly created space command, argued strenuously for giving the Air Force an air-launched ASAT capability. Two other Air Force generals joined Piotrowski in lambasting Congress for prolonging a moratorium on the testing of an ASAT capability which they feel is needed to counter Soviet efforts in space. Not having an ASAT system is a "grave detriment to our national security," asserted Piotrowski.

Not to be outdone by his colleagues, Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, the garrulous head of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, grimly contended that the United States is ceding control of space to the Russians, asserting, "We must not let the cold dark shadows of being No. 2 gather around our ankles. And they are."

How much of a blow to our national security would it be if the United States does not develop an ASAT capability? Are we really in danger of falling behind in space? According to Paul Stares, author of Space and National Security, there is at present no urgent need for a U.S. antisatellite system. In fact, he says U.S. deployment of an ASAT system, now scheduled for 1990, would actually jeopardize our security by endangering the many benefits the country now derives from its space systems. He further asserts that ASAT deployment would undermine the strategic stability created by existing weapons in periods of heightened tension between the superpowers. Finally, the United States is not in jeopardy of falling behind in space; compared with the Soviets, it is in fact in a relatively strong position.

Stares reaches his conclusions in a five-step process. First, he examines the reasons for deploying ASAT weapons and their long-term consequences for U.S. national security. Second, he looks at the superpowers' use of space for military purposes and analyzes the value of satellites for each side. Third, the threats to U.S. and Soviet space systems and the countermeasures that can be employed to reduce their vulnerability are assessed. Fourth, the potential usefulness of ASAT weapons in a variety of wartime contingencies is examined. Fifth, the feasibility of arms control in space is discussed.

Stares' analysis is scholarly, readable, complete, curent and balanced and his conclusions are compelling and practical. He presents in great detail the arguments against his positions. Moreover, the book is an excellent reference source on the entire subject. Stares offers a detailed glossary, some 30 tables and figures, and two appendices that provide all the information necessary to do research in or to discuss intelligently the issues surrounding the military aspects of space.

STARES' STUDY leads to three insightful conclusions that explode many of the myths surrounding discussion of the military uses of space. First, as mentioned above, the U.S. is not behind in space. Although the Soviets have more satellites aloft, those of the U.S. are more sophisticated and longer lasting. Second, in peacetime satellites perform many stabilizing and benign functions for both superpowers, while in the most likely wartime scenarios between the United States and the U.S.S.R., the United States would benefit most by satellite support. Third, while the current Soviet satellite interceptor poses some threat to U.S. space assets, it suffers from significant operational limitations, and can be neutralized by such comparatively simple devices as attack warning sensors, emergency maneuvering aids and decoys. Moreover, it is vastly inferior to the proposed U.S. ASAT system.

Nonetheless, the United States seems to be drifting into a new and counterproductive arms race in space rather than seeking to limit space weapons. In many ways the situation is similar to that which provided the context for the debate over intermediate nuclear forces. Like the Pershing and Cruise missiles program, the U.S. ASAT was originally developed to provide bargaining leverage in talks with the Soviets on prohibiting space weapons and to hedge against their failure because the Soviets had in fact developed an operational ASAT in the late 1970s. As with the matter of intermediate missiles, the Soviets have now accepted the U.S. "zero option" position. They have adopted a unilateral moratorium on testing and have indicated their willingness to dismantle their own ASAT system if the U.S. does not deploy its F-15 Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle ASAT system.

Why are the Reagan administration and the Air Force so adamantly in favor of ASAT deployment? There are three publicly stated reasons: to redress the current imbalance in U.S. and Soviet ASAT capabilities; to deter the Soviets from using their ASAT; and to counter the threat posed by Soviet space systems. However, as Stares demonstrates, none of these reasons is persuasive. Since the Soviet ASAT has limited capability and U.S. vulnerability can be reduced comparatively easily, there is no real imbalance and nothing meaningful to deter. Moreover, since the United States is so much more dependent on space systems than the Soviets, it stands to lose a great deal more from ASAT exchanges than the Soviets.

One suspects that the real reason the Reagan administration is opposed to ASAT limitations is that such limitations can impede progress on the president's cherished Strategic Defense Initiative program. Testing antimissile systems in the "ASAT mode" is clearly one way around the restrictive portions of the ABM treaty. Moreover, since missile defense is so much more demanding than satellite defense, many of the space-based SDI components become de facto ASAT devices.

What then should the United States do? Since an ASAT treaty does not appear to be a realistic goal in the present climate of U.S.-Soviet relations and since the balance of costs and benefits may change in the future, Stares concludes that the U.S. should steer a middle course between outright prohibition on ASAT development and no constraints on testing and deployment. This would involve maintaining an ASAT research and development base, improving the survivability and redundancy of U.S. space systems, joining the Soviets in their ASAT moratorium, and strictly observing the provisions of the ABM treaty. These steps might lay the groundwork for a future U.S.-Soviet agreement in the area of space weapons, an agreement which would be very much in our interest.

Lawrence J. Korb is dean of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a former assistant secretary of defense.