The Pentagon is expected to approve a program next month that military leaders feel certain will revolutionize warfare.
The advance will affect the foot soldier, the warship skipper, the fighter pilot and the tank driver.
They will know, for the first time, exactly where they are - within 30 feet - anyplace on earth. They also will know, again within 30 feet, where the village, island, enemy air field or bridge they are looking for is located.
The same revolutionary assist a constellation of 24 manmade navigating stars in the form of satellites - could give unprecedented accuracy to any U.S. missile that flies.
Although military leaders downplay that aspect because of the political problems it raises, they concede the potential is there.
U.S. misssiles that could hit within 30 feet of Soviet ones could crack their protective silos and prevent the Soviet missiles from being fired. This is called "first-strike" capability.
Such a potential is bound to make some Soviet war planners nervous. Their nervousness would help make the case for developing better weapons for knocking American military satellites out of the sky.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown has said several times lately that he hopes a U.S.-Soviet race for space weapons can be avoided. But as recently as April 27 Brown said the Soviets are conducting research "that could pose a threat to all satellites" used by the U.S. military.
While diplomats from the United States and the Soviet Union try to find ways to damp down antisatellite efforts, military leaders in both countries are striving to gain the high groung of space for their respective forces.
The U.S. military appears comfortably ahead. Military specialists have tested this newest navigation system - called Navstar Global Positioning System - and are enthusiastic about it.
On June 5, Air Force Col. Donald W. Henderson is scheduled to go before a sympathetic Pentagon review panel to make the case for pushing Navstar from the experimental stage to full-scale development. It would take $2 billion, he estimates, to put the 24 Navstar satellites into orbit between now and the mid-1980s, and to build the necessary ground stations to communicate with them.
No opposition to Navstar is in sight. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all see the system as solving one of the biggest problems of warfare - no knowing exactly where you or the objective is located.
"The implications" of Navstar, said Lt. Gen. Richard C. Henry, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Organization, which is supervising the project, "are so staggering that the strategic and tactical doctrine of our fighting forces will be rewritten.
"We are becoming dependent on the high ground of space for future military operations," Henry continued, and must rewrite the military manuals to exploit the advance that is suddenly upon the services.
Four Navstar test satellites are flying in space at an altitude of 10,900 miles. Like the 24 operational satellites to follow them into orbit the test satellites carry atomic clocks so accurate that the Air Force states they would lose only one second in 30,000 years. Each clock cost about $200,000, each Navstar satellite about $12 million.
Assuming the Pentagon gives Navstar the go-ahead on June 5, the 24 satellites would be launced successively over the next few years and would be on duty in the mid-1980s.
For the soldier lost in the jungle, Navstar would mean that he could punch a "locate" button on his 20-pound radio back pack. Navstar would send send down the information from space in a matter of seconds in the form of number that would appear on his radio set.
By pushing that button, the GI would have sent a radio request to four of the 24 satellites whirling in space above him. Lightning-fast computers, along with the highly accurate clocks, would go far beyond the standard triangulation in computing where he was located. Navstar would give the GI his location by longitude and latitude or by a number printed on his terrain map.
Also, if the GI asked where the village he was searching for was located, Navstar would tell what compass heading he should take and how many miles away the village was.
Similarly, four satellites would do the navigational arithmetic for the captain on the bridge of a ship, a fighter pilot flying at 600 miles an hour, or a tank commander bumping across strange terrain.
Henderson, the project chief for Navstar, told The Washington Post that Navstar "offers a revolution in navigation. It puts a big surveying instrument in the sky."
One danger is that the Soviets may develop radio backpacks to intercept the navigation data sent by Navstar. Henderson said Navstar's radio messages would be scrambled, like a top-secret telephone call, in hopes of foiling such intercept attempts. American and allied soldiers would have descrambles in their receiving sets.
Henderson said that oil companies that want to station offshore drilling rigs at a precise spot, commercial airlines, civilian ships and even pleasure sailboats would get help from Navstar under current plans.
However, Navstar would not send civilians as precise fixes as military forces would receive.
Navstar information, said Henderson of the navigational fixes to be given to the American military in the near future, "will be the truth." A3