The multibillion-dollar U.S. space shuttle program will be used to test, among other military and intelligence systems, an infrared device designed to more effectively track Soviet military space satellites, according to Pentagon sources.
Under current Defense Department thinking, the actual destruction of Soviet satellites would be handled by land-based F15 fighter planes, which could fly to 100,000 feet and launch heat-seeking rockets. The space shuttle systems might also inspect but would not destroy Soviet space weapons.
Destroying satellites, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lew Allen said in recently released congressional testimony, "requires the kind of mobility that an (F15) air -launched platform would give in order to match with the orbit of the Soviets . . ."
Last January and February, when U.S. and Soviet negotiators sat down in Bern, Switzerland, to start serious talks on an agreement to limit satellite-destroying systems, the space shuttle became a major stumbling block.
The Soviet stated they regarded each of the $600 million orbiting vehicles as antisatellite-capable weapons. The Bern talks ended with little progress toward any common understanding on what systems would be limited.
The shuttle's role came up again as talks resumed in Vienna aimed at developing a one-year prohibition in testing antisatellite weapons. The White House hoped such a freeze could be signed as part of the U.S.-Soviet summit scheduled to start June 15.
The first shuttle test was scheduled for Nov. 9-during the proposal one-year freeze period. Yesterday Pentagon and National Aeronautical and Space Adminstration officials told a Senate subcommittee the shuttle test would be postponed until early in 1980.
One source said the launch might be pushed back to June, thus permitting a year's antisatellite test freeze to include the shuttle. Each month's delay, however, costs millions of dollars, according to another source.
The shuttle's primary military and intelligence roles are focused on putting into orbit "navigation, communications, ballistic missile early warning surveillance and weather forecasting" satellites, Dr. William J. Perry, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told a Senate Commerce subcommittee yesterday.
He added astronauts aboard the shuttle would also be able to recover and tinker with satellites while in space and return them to orbit. It also could help assemble space structures.
Along with the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency have roles in the shuttle project.
The shuttle has been recognized officially as having the capability to be an antisatellite weapon, though officials say it isn't intended to be used that way.
The fiscal 1980 arms control impact statements, which were drafted by the president's National Security Council, approved by the Defense and State departments along with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and released last March, pointed out the shuttles could "inspect . . . satellites in orbit" and "retrieve" systems.
In addition, the statement noted the shuttle "could provide a vehicle for deploying, monitoring, supporting and retrieving antisatellite systems."
The statement concluded that "the U.S. position is that the space shuttle has no part in the U.S. space defense effort."
At yesterday's Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, chairman Adlai E. Stevenson (D-I11.) said "it is true" that the space shuttle could be used in an antisatellite role, but that it "would be crazy to do it since it is big and vulnerable."
Because only five of the space vehicles are now authorized, they would be an irrationally expensive way to go after hundreds of Soviet military satellites, he said.
Stevenson said yesterday that Soviet officials had raised questions about the space shuttle during his last trip to that country, but that he suspected they were doing it for "debating points."
He added, however, that U.S. military and intelligence dependence on the shuttle system "raises profound conceptual questions about the convergence of the military and civilian space programs."
Pentagon officials yesterday refused to comment on either the shuttle defense programs or the ongoing antisatellite negotiations.
Lastweek, officials said the United Stated would not delay the shuttle program to meet the Soviet demand it be included within the antisatellite weapons limitation agreement.
Yesterday, one Pentagon source said the negotiations with the Soviet "were fluid."
From the State Department, however, it was learned that little more than a statement of progress on an antisatellite agreement is expected by the time President Carter and President Leonid Brezhnev get together at Vienna to sign the strategic arms limitation agreement.
"An antisatellite treaty," one arms control expert said yesterday, "is a long, long way from agreement."