While U.S. and Soviet politicians debate the dangers and merits of militarizing space, the U.S. Air Force is operating under a policy that calls for "gaining and maintaining space superiority," according to internal documents.

The Air Force basic combat manual, rewritten and reissued last year as basic "aerospace doctrine," argues that the military should no longer draw distinctions between the atmosphere where planes operate and outer space.

"Space is the outer reaches of the aerospace operational medium," the new manual says. "Space, as a part of that medium, provides an unlimited potential and opportunity for military operations and a place where the Air Force can perform or support all of its missions and tasks."

The booklet, signed by Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, Air Force chief of staff, incorporates an Air Force text on space warfare that Gabriel signed in 1982. That document, "Military Space Doctrine," spells out what the service sees as the need to develop space-based weapons and train "space forces."

"The Air Force will maintain U.S. technological superiority in the aerospace and ensure a prolonged warfighting capability by developing the potential for combat operations in the space medium," that manual stated.

In a foreword, Gabriel wrote, "The nation's highest defense priority -- deterrence -- requires a credible warfighting capability across the spectrum of conflict. From the battlefield to the highest orbit, airpower will provide that capability."

Two separate but related U.S. military space programs have drawn criticism from some members of Congress and sharp attacks from Soviet officials. The Air Force is developing a satellite-killing rocket that has been tested twice, although not against an object in space.

In addition, the Pentagon launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as "Star Wars," in response to a call from President Reagan to develop weapons that could shoot down nuclear missiles. Although the research program remains ill-defined, the Pentagon has said that some of the new systems likely would be based in space.

In response to criticism of both programs, the Reagan administration has argued that space has been "militarized" for years, with surveillance satellites, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that fly through space and an existing Soviet antisatellite weapon.

The Air Force manual makes clear that the military is prepared to move well beyond satellites and ICBMs, however. "Space-based weapon systems could contribute to deterrence in peacetime and to more rapid conflict termination or increased survivability in war," it says.

Such systems could "provide target damage" against "targets on earth or in space," the manual says. They could be used "to establish space control and superiority," including against "enemy space lines of communication."

The 15-page manual cautions that U.S. activities in space are restricted by international law, which prohibits testing nuclear weapons in space or stationing any weapons of mass destruction there. In one paragraph, it deals with arms limitations, saying that the Air Force "will continue to study arms-control options."

But the bulk of the manual makes clear the Air Force view that arms control should not be allowed to interfere with military development.

"We must first develop a doctrinal foundation for military space missions and understand the inherent risks if we delay or do not take such action," it says. "The medium of space provides an unlimited potential and opportunity for military operations on which the Air Force must capitalize."

As a step toward installing its policy, the Air Force recently won presidential approval for a Unified Space Command.