The current chill in U.S.-Soviet relations will accelerate the development of weapons to wage war in outer space, the Air Force chief of staff predicted yesterday.
Gen. Lew Allen Jr., in making that prediction in an interview, said "there will be pressure on us to move out more quickly" on weapons designed to knock down Soviet satellites used for spying, navigation and communication.
Allen sounded regretful as he predicted that the Air Force will yield to that pressure, declaring:
"I would still hope for a reasonably strong agreement on continued noninterference" with the satellites both the United States and Soviet Union have in space to check up on each other's compliance with the strategic arms limitation treaty.
SALT I as well as the SALT II pact stalled in the Senate provide that neither superpower will interfer with the other's "national technical means of detection." That is diplomatic jargon for picture-taking satellites staring down from space on missile and bomber fields.
President Carter has been negotiating a "we-won't-if-you-won't" treaty with the Soviets in hopes of banning the deployment of antisatellite weapons. Allen said "the expectation of little progress" on that effort, together with "more concern about the fragility" of the noninterference pledges, are sources of the "pressure to proceed faster" on antisatellite weapons.
"We have the capability to do that," Allen said, adding that the Air Force would excercise it in response to the changed relationship with the Soviet Union.
The four-star general indicated that extra money would go for antisatellite weapons already well along in development rather than more distant possibilities such as laser. the "flying tomato can" satellite killer is a prime candidate for acceleration.
Under that concept, a small rocket blasts off a pad with several canisters aboard and drops them near the enemy satellite in space. The cans then home in on the heat of the satellite and collide with it, destroying the satellite without having to set off an explosion.
The Boeing Co. and the Vought Corp. are among the aerospace contractors working on such antisatellite weapons.
Before the current chill, the administration's rationale for developing, but not deploying, such weapons was to deter the Soviet Union from moving the arms race to outer space. Accelerating development most likely will be justified under that same rationale.
If either the United States or the Soviet Union concludes that the other intends to deploy antisatellite weapons, each superpower will step up its efforts to protect its eyes in the sky.
Allen was hopeful that "we will not have to get into the business of intensive defense" of satellites.
Turning to SALT II which he and the other Joint Chiefs of Staff have endorsed, Allen said he still believes that its ratification is in the national interest.
Conceding that the treaty "isn't very healthy" at the moment, Allen predicted that it will make a comeback because putting a cap on strategic weapons is in the interest of both superpowers.
Party because his endorsement of SALT "did not include any trust of the Soviets," Allen said, Soviet actions in Afghanistan do "not change fundamentally my view toward SALT II. The logic of it," Allen said of the treaty, "is such that the American people will return to it."
Allen was an early champion of deploying the MX blockbuster missile in vertical shelters, which he said would be cheaper than horizontal ones spread in a racetrack pattern. However, horizontal deployment would make it easier for the Soviets to verify how many missiles were deployed, as provided in SALT II.
Allen said he will be pressed hard by Congress on whether, given Salt II's uncertain prospects, the Air Force should go back to vertical deployment. He said he would not recommend switching back at the moment, adding that the Air Force is under congressional orders to study alternative basing schemes for the MX.
Asked about the military significance of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Allen said it demonstrates "the great determination and great assignment of priority" the Soviets have in the area of the world.
Allen said the Soviet interest extends beyond Afghanistan to encompass the Middle East and Persian Gulf, strategically vital to the United States.
Although he declined to be specific about obtaining bases in that region for U.S. military forces, Allen said recent events there dictated the need for "a clearly improved force projection capability over what we have now."
"Tactical airpower [short-ranged fighter bombers, as distinguished from ocean-spanning bombers] requires supporting bases," it is hoped within 300 miles of the area being defended, he said.