The United States and the Soviet Union are actively exploring tuturistic laser and particle-beam weapons that, if developed, could endanger current arms control arrangements, according to the Carter administration.
Competition between the two powers in developing these new weapons, particularly lasers, could set off a new phase of the arms race, according to the Carter administration's fiscal 1979 arms control impact statements which were released in declassified form yesterday.
"If laser weapons do begin to make a difference in military calculation," the administration report says, "then their deployment could force adversaries to develop countermeasures . . . and/or to increase the numbers of offensive weapons in order to cope with the improved defensive capability of the laser systems."
As both the U.S. and Soviet laser programs mature, the report goes on to say, they "may raise some significant challenges to our arms control interests."
Assessments of these and dozens of other weapons program are contained in the administration's arms control impact statements that were sent to Congress last March.
The declassified version was released by the committees on International Relations and Foreign Relations of the House and Senate.
Although it has been well known for years that both countries have been pressing ahead with laser weapons, the impact statement report represents the first time the Pentagon has publicly acknowledged it is studying the possibility of particle-beam weapons (PBWs).
In concepts under study, beams of electrons, protons or neutrons at high energies are directed at targets to inflict damage.
The heavily censored section of the report on PBWs says, in part, a primary advantage would be "the instantaneous transfer of energy to a target at essentially 100 percent efficiency. . . ."
The report goes on to say that although there has been discussion of military uses for years, "it is unlikely" that PBWs "have reached a stage beyond feasibility studies or possibly exploratory development in any country."
In the United States, the report says, PBWs have been "under discussion" for use in:
Ballistic missile defense with directed beams used for surfaces-to-air and air-to-air development to hit incoming missiles.
Satellite killers where they would be launched and left in space to attack enemy satellites.
Ship-borne anticruise missile weapons.
Aircraft-borne air-to-air weapons.
The Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to the report, has carried out "theoretical and experimental" programs on PBWs and now has moved to "a feasibility study" in one classified area.
All three services have a PBWs program, with the Navy's, nicknamed "Chair Heritage," the most advanced.
In discussing the potential arms control problems raised by these weapons exploration efforts, the report noted that success of a Navy anticruise missile program may, for example, "lead to concern" that PBW could undertake a strategic mission.
Thus, sources say, they could cause a conflict with strategic arms control agreements that are based on current weapons delivery systems such as bombers, submarines and missiles and defensive antiballistic missile systems that are defined in terms of radars and missile launchers.
Since laser and particle-beam weapons are not included in strategic arms limitation agreements, the treaties would have to be amended to address them if they were to be deployed.
Soviet negotiators in Geneva working with U.S. representatives to come to some common position on radiological weapons "have raised the issue of PBWs," the report says. The Soviets want to ban their development "to affect biological targets," the report says.
While noting that pentagon plans call for using PBWs as defensive weapons, not against people, the report said the U.S. position was to define and deal with each PBW on "a case-by-case basis."
The report notes that both the United States and Soviet Union consider laser weapon development "to be an area of military technology have both high priority and prestige value."
It says the first feasibility demonstration of laser weapons will take place during the 1980s.
Thereafter, the report say, "the pace and intensity of the superpower [laser] weapon competition will increase at a rate which will be determined by individual and collective perceptions of their military utility and possible military threats posed by future laser weapons."
The report says laser weapons have "unique advantages compared to conventional gun and missile systems . . . because energy is delivered to the target at the speed of light."
Along with this instantaneous transmission, the report notes, lasers permit immediate correction of aiming error "without a need to lead a target," and they have a "high firepower potential per weapons" and "the ability to switch rapidly from target to target."
All three U.S. services have active laser programs under the coordination of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, Dr. William Perry.
The Navy in fiscal 1979 expects to "complete fabrication and factory acceptance testing" of a classified laser project.
In citing potential conflict with current U.S. arms control policy, the report speculates that the secret Navy program, if successful, could represent a tactical weapon that may become "inconsistent" with current policy because of its potential for strategic use.
Air Force and Army laser programs could create similar problems, the report says.
While noting that "the goal of hedging against Soviet technological surprise in the [laser] area is certainly a legitimate one," the report notes that U.S. development of technologies and weapons as a result of that activity "may raise Soviet suspicions" and complicate arms negotiations.
In both the laser and PBW field, the report repeatedly notes that applications of these technologies may be difficult and costly and thus, in the end, not feasible in all cases.