The Soviet Union may score a propaganda victory by putting an anti-satellite laser in space during this decade but the laser would not pose much of a threat militarily, the Air Force research director said yesterday.
Lt. Gen. Kelly H. Burke, taking a calm view of Soviet progress in turning a beam of light into a weapon, told a breakfast meeting of reporters that the United States is well along on a better and cheaper way of destroying Soviet satellites, if war should ever move up to the high ground of outer space.
The system under development by the Air Force and the Vought Corp. calls for arranging a collision in space rather than depending on a concentrated light beam or explosives to knock out the satellites, which are used for surveillance and communications.
Under one scheme soon to be demonstrated, an F15 fighter would carry a high-speed rocket to the edge of space. Launched from the F15, the rocket would carry the satellite destroyer, shaped like a tomato can, to the vicinity of the target, where a heat-seeking guidance system would take over for the high-speed ramming of the enemy satellite flying 17,500 miles an hour.
After saying the Soviets might get a laser into space within five years that could attack low-flying picture-taking satellites, but not the higher-flying communications satellites, Burke predicted it would be "the next century" before laser weapons would be effective enough to compete with less exotic ones at hand.
The problems with turning lasers into weapons, Burke said, are getting the giant package, consisting of a power generator and a mirror about 30 feet across, into space; aiming the mirror precisely at the right instant so the light beam hits the fast-moving satellite, and making the beam powerful enough to penetrate satellite circuits which can be armored against just such an attack.
A little jiggle of the mirror and the light beam misses because of what the Air Force calls "jitter. Focusing the mirror requires mind-boggling accuracy," Burke said.
If the Soviets do pull off the space laser trick, Burke said, it might indeed have political impact comparable to Moscow's trail-blazing sputnik launch on Oct. 4, 1957. However, the lasers the Soviets could put into space in this decade would pose no danger to U.S. land- and sea-based missiles, the Air Force research chief said.
The United States is working on space lasers, too, said Burke, but has only about half as many people as the Soviet Union assigned to the effort. If the United States thought lasers weapons were more promising than they now appear, it "could do at least as well" as the Soviets in getting one into space. Burke is not advocating such a course, however.
In discussing other weaponry, Burke said the latest Soviet warheads either already deployed on the SS18 and SS19 land missiles or on the way appear more accurate than the best on U.S. Minuteman rockets. However, the MX warheads will be more accurate than any Soviet ones, he added.
Because of the current impasse between the Pentagon and Congress on where the MX should be based, Burke said the advisory Defense Science Board is taking a fresh look at the possibility of putting the missile aloft in aircraft, an option rejected by the Air Force in the past.