A chagrined Air Force postponed the controversial first test of an antisatellite weapon against a target in space yesterday in order to avoid violating a congressional notification requirement, Defense Department and congressional sources said yesterday.
"They just goofed," said Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), a critic of the antisatellite weapon and one of the authors of the notification language.
Brown and other legislators were notified Tuesday that the long-delayed test, aimed at destroying a defunct Air Force scientific and technical satellite, was to take place late yesterday. Later, however, they were told the Pentagon legal staff had determined that the requisite 15-day waiting period between presidential notification of the forthcoming test, sent to Capitol Hill Aug. 20, and the test itself did not expire until midnight last night.
"Ambiguities developed and this morning things went herky jerky," one Air Force officer said yesterday.
Officially, the Pentagon would only acknowledge that the waiting period expired at midnight last night and that the test "against an object in space is planned for later this month." Privately, sources said the rescheduled test will take place within the next 10 days.
Brown said he hoped the administration would use "good judgment" and delay the test until after the summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva Nov. 19-20.
In a tough speech on the House floor yesterday, Brown described the proposed antisatellite system as "an overpriced and overrated military system of marginal value."
The two-stage antisatellite rocket is carried aloft by an F15 fighter. Directed by ground controllers, the pilot fires the rocket, which sends an infrared homing device toward the oncoming satellite. The device maneuvers into the path of the satellite and destroys it on impact.
Brown charged that the original "timing of the test could not have been better calculated to minimize congressional awareness and discussion of the president's action."
The United States had a missile-launched, antisatellite system in the 1960s, but discontinued it in 1975.
The Soviets developed a rudimentary system, launched by an intercontinental ballistic missile and consisting of a multi-ton bomb that homes in by radar on its target satellite and then explodes. It has been considered operational for 10 years but has not been tested since 1982, when then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov declared a moratorium on such tests.
The U.S. F15 system was initially proposed in 1978 by the Carter administration as a bargaining chip for its negotiations with the Soviet Union on banning such weapons. Those talks ended after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in late 1979.
As development of the weapon continued, technical problems emerged, causing a series of delays.
Congressional opponents, saying the weapon will spark a new form of arms race with the Soviets, legislatively limited the administration to three tests.