The Air Force is reassessing whether its seven-year-old, fighter-launched, antisatellite weapon development program, which has had a continuing series of technical problems, is now obsolete in the face of new space technology.
One administration source said the study could provide a "graceful way of ending" the controversial $4 billion, F15 rocket-launched system and replacing it with more futuristic laser weapon technology.
The present system has the backing of top Defense Department civilians, one administration official said, but "has never had the full support of the Air Force."
The study, ordered in May by Air Force Undersecretary Edward C. Aldridge, Jr., will "update the threat" and "look for ways to improve the program," the Air Force spokesman said. If the current program is retained, the study will also look at the possibility of setting a new operational date because of the delays in development, according to the spokesman.
It comes just before the House-Senate conference on next year's defense authorization bill with the two bodies split over the antisatellite (ASAT) program, which to date has had only two of 12 planned development tests.
The House wants to ban further tests of the system as long as the Soviet Union refrains from testing a similar weapon. The Senate voted to permit tests as long as the president certifies that he is seeking to negotiate an antisatellite treaty with the Soviets.
Critics of the present program say the planned system, which involves an infrared homing device launched by a rocket carried aloft by an F15 fighter, will not be able to attack the next generation of maneuverable Soviet satellites.
"It takes hours to reprogram, rather than minutes needed in the future," one nongovernment expert said yesterday of the existing ASAT weapon.
Meanwhile, Capitol Hill opponents said the homing vehicle, which was scheduled to be tested for the first time against a target in space this month, has been returned to its manufacturer, the Dallas-based LTV Corp., for repairs. An Air Force spokesman said the service would have "no comment" on that report.
Last week, the Air Force confirmed that the target vehicle for the scheduled July test had been returned to its manufacturer, the Avco Corp., after a check in June showed its communications system was not working.
An LTV official said yesterday, "I don't think the program is in trouble. We had a homing device problem and another with thrusters," he said, but added that those were being worked on.
He said he did not know about the broad Air Force reassessment, however.
Administration officials who support the program have argued that it is needed because the Soviets have had an antisatellite weapon for 10 years. Some have also contended that in the event of conventional war the United States should be equipped to destroy Soviet satellites that would be used for targeting U.S. warships and other weapons systems.
Others, however, have argued that the Soviet system is rudimentary. During the House debate on prohibiting tests of the U.S. antisatellite weapon, Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) argued that "no critical U.S. satellite can be threatened by the Soviet present antisatellite capability."
Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), another critic of the current antisatellite program, said the Soviet system was guided by "a primitive radar sensor that is extremely vulnerable to countermeasures."
Last month, the General Accounting Office reported to Congress that the Air Force now considered last year's Nov. 13 test of the system against a point in space only a "partial success." At the time the test was announced, the Pentagon refused to comment on its results.
One source said the homing vehicle, which for that test was aimed at a star, did not function properly so that its infrared telescope could search out the target.
The GAO report also disclosed that an independent Air Force technical review group reported there were 30 "technical concerns that needed to be resolved before conducting" the July test against a target in space. Sixteen of those problems involved the antisatellite vehicle itself, including two that were described as "high risk" concerns. The other 14 problems involved the target vehicle.
The ASAT system was originally proposed by the Defense Department under President Jimmy Carter at a time when the administration was seeking to negotiate with Moscow on an overall ban of such weapons. The Air Force system was to be a bargaining chip for those talks.
The negotiations deadlocked when the Soviets wanted to include restrictions on the U.S. space shuttle and ended altogether after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
In 1983, the then-Soviet President, Yuri Andropov, said his country would not test an antisatellite weapon as long as the United States refrained from doing so.
The Reagan administration has steadfastly refused to accept that proposal, arguing that the Soviets already have an operational, low-altitude, orbital antisatellite weapon while the United States has none. Administration spokesmen also have said that there is no way to verify compliance with such a ban since many space vehicles could be used as antisatellite weapons.