Each September in the ballroom of the Sheraton Washington Hotel, the Air Force Association celebrates the marvels of military technology as the nation's aerospace giants bedazzle the Air Force with the latest offspring of their ingenuity. This fall, the annual weapons fair had a new, other-worldly theme:

"Defense at the speed of light," offered Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. "Protect U.S. assets in space and at home," vowed Aeroject General. "Turning strategic defense dreams into realities," boasted GA Technologies of San Diego.

Since March 23, 1983, when President Reagan unveiled his dream of a defense against nuclear missiles, his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) has been embraced by the nation's defense contractors with public hosannas, some private skepticism and, inevitably, open palms. Inside the arms industry, strategic defense -- "Star Wars" -- is now tacitly viewed as the greatest prospect for profit ever.

The military-industrial complex, as President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the peculiar marriage of public and private defense interests, has in the past 30 months cobbled together a miniature replica of itself -- a kind of Star Complex -- complete with Star Wars lobbyists, Star Wars newsletters and Star Wars division vice presidents.

As Star Wars is intended to shield the United States from enemy warheads, so the Star Complex hopes to defend this new business opportunity against any threat, including political potshots, technical naysayers and irksome arms-control agreements.

That campaign -- less scientifically rigorous than building an actual strategic defense -- gathers momentum as each new tide of cash brings jobs, underwrites graduate studies, builds a constituency.

"Once they get a couple of hundred million dollars under their belt, this is what turns an operation of 10 people into one with 500, it turns division chiefs into vice presidents," said John E. Pike, an SDI opponent with the Federation of American Scientists.

"The ultimate question is whether this develops such a constituency that it leaves the realm of sensible discourse so that by the time we have a new president, it's too late," he said.

Many industry executives share Pike's vision, though not his trepidation. A recent conference sponsored by the Electronic Industries Association on "Exploring the Opportunities" predicted steadily rising revenues from strategic defense, totaling $69 billion between 1985 and 1994. "By 1988," James L. Lee of Hughes Aircraft Co. said, "it may be institutionalized."

For now, SDI remains strictly research. Next year, Congress is likely to approve about $2.5 billion for the cause. That is more than the administration requested for all basic research financed by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy combined, but still little more than a blip on the defense giants' earnings reports.

Before long, however, industry will begin pushing to graduate from research to real weapons, many experts think. Studies and analyses are the fodder of "think tank" contractors in McLean and San Diego; but for the aerospace giants, it is deployment of hardware -- "bending tin," in industry's argot -- that provides truly big bucks.

And Star Wars could call for bending tin on a scale never before imagined, just at a time when industry is hungriest.

"Were we to proceed with deployment, it would be the biggest thing this industry has ever had happen to it, by far," said financial analyst Alan Benasuli. "It would be the greatest thing on Earth. "Hunt for New Salvations

Long before Reagan surprised most of the nation with his ode to Star Wars, the marketing wizards of the arms industry were scanning the heavens for new frontiers of profit.

Persuaded that the Defense Department's voracious appetite for warplanes, tanks and frigates had to peak by the end of this decade, companies unleashed their engineers in a hunt for new weapons, new technologies, new salvations.

Rockwell International was one firm that found an answer in the stars. "Space defense systems will be developed in the near future," a company brochure predicted in 1981, two years before Reagan launched the SDI.

Aerojet reached for the stars even sooner, beginning the pursuit of ballistic missile defenses in 1980 because "we concluded there was going to be a long-term future in defense," James R. Rowe, a company vice president, said at the Air Force Association show last month.

"We do our marketing homework," Rowe added, "and we were looking at the escalating cost of offensive weapons. We felt it was more possible to have a defense."

Reagan's speech in March 1983, introducing the idea of a defensive system "rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete," tantalized industry with an awesome technical challenge and the prospect of an incomparable honey pot.

That led to such phenomena as an American Society of Mechanical Engineers seminar for "engineering professionals to learn how to get in on the ground floor" of the "state-of-the-art cornucopia."

Throughout industry, "lobbies are being galvanized," Wall Street analyst Laurence W. Lytton said. TRW Inc. and McDonnell Douglas Corp., among others, have named vice presidents in charge of SDI; at the Boeing Co. alone, 600 people are working on ballistic missile defense.

The Pentagon recently reported that 10,000 Soviet scientists and engineers are working on SDI-style laser weapons, but Lt. Col. Leon T. DeLorme Jr. said he has "no way of even estimating how many people are working on it" in this country.

The Council on Economic Priorities, however, reported that about 5,000 scientists, engineers and other technical workers pursued SDI-related projects in 1984, a cadre the council predicts will swell to 18,600 by 1987.

During fiscal 1985 alone, DeLorme said, the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization awarded about 1,000 contracts worth a total of more than $1 billion. According to Defense Department documents, more than 260 companies and laboratories shared in that bounty.

Pasha Publications in Rosslyn recently started a biweekly newsletter called "Military Space," which was "our fastest launch ever," according to associate publisher David Gump. The company also markets a practical guide to SDI that promises to "give you a running start. Don't miss it." Gump has peddled several hundred, at $145 a copy.

"Companies are very hungry for the kind of details that these guides contain," he said. "They've had it up to their eyeballs with the political coverage, and they're looking for facts."

These efforts notwithstanding, some SDI devotees fret that industry isn't counterpunching hard enough against Doubting Thomases and arms-control advocates, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Campaign to Save the ABM Treaty.

Aerojet's Philip A. Buckley said he and his colleagues "worry a lot" that Reagan might trade away SDI during his Geneva summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev next month; they say that they wish there were other large programs on the horizon.

But with the president playing chief cheerleader for SDI, many bigger companies prefer to leave the SDI lobbying to him, while they defend their own endangered projects, such as Northrop's F20 fighter or McDonnell Douglas's C17 cargo plane.

"Given a couple of billion dollars or more funding, there'll be a fairly good constituency built up and there'll be a lot of pressure placed on the various congressmen to vote for higher funding in this area," Carl T. Bayer, a House Armed Services Committee staff member who oversees SDI spending, told an industry conference last year.

"But up until this point, it's kind of hanging out there by itself," he said. In a remarkable example of lobbying from Capitol Hill, Bayer urged the engineers: "Let's get letters in to your congressmen." Bayer also urged Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, the SDI czar, to sell, sell, sell. "Hopefully, Abrahamson will surround himself with some Madison Avenue-type folks," Bayer said, "because that's what it's going to take."

Abrahamson has, in fact, campaigned relentlessly before groups ranging from Wall Street analysts to a Pentagon-sponsored convention of the American Astronautical Society last July, entitled "Peace and Security Through Space-Strategic Defense Initiative."

He also has wooed foreign partners. A memo prepared for High Frontier, a private organization that has enthusiastically lobbied for SDI, urges creation of "an offshore constituency" as part of a strategy to ensure that Star Wars "could not be turned off" by the next occupant of the White House. Apparently recognizing that the plug will be harder to pull if Star Wars becomes entangled in Allied diplomacy, the Defense Department has hosted delegations from Italy, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Britain and West Germany.

Finally, Abrahamson and his deputies have devoted considerable energy to building support through research grants, much as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration did during the space program's early days. The general recently announced creation of the Office of Educational and Civil Applications within the SDI office.

When the Coalition for the Strategic Defense Initiative announced its formation last month with a news release opposing a "summit sell-out," it warned that SDI is "under severe attack" from "antidefense organizations and left-wing political elements."

"At least $31 million from two foundations alone has been earmarked for use by the 'freeze' movement the anti-SDI effort to conduct 'peace studies,' " the coalition warned. "This money will entice much of academia to oppose SDI as well."

But many experts, noting that $31 million pales beside the Pentagon's SDI budget, predict the opposite effect.

"I've simply observed that people at places like MIT and Stanford and other places that have a history of thinking about defense, there's now a core of people who are growing up on SDI money," said Joseph Campbell, a defense analyst. "You pay their way for a while, and you're going to develop a constituency."

The Defense Department's SDI office has begun doling out research funds not only for military projects but for studies unrelated to strategic defense, such as the medical use of lasers. Speaking to graduating seniors last spring, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Paul E. Gray decried the "manipulative effort to garner implicit institutional endorsement for SDI."

Surveying the campaign to lock Star Wars into the budget, Pike said, "It hasn't yet become a jobs program. It will become a jobs program, but you have a couple of years to debate it on the merits."

But many of the wizards who have dreamed Buck Rogers' dreams since before Reagan's speech remain serenely confident. With history as a guide, they assume that what can be built in the world of weaponry is likely to be built eventually.

Although few scientists or industrialists seem to think that nuclear weapons can be rendered "impotent and obsolete," they are convinced that Star Wars research will lead to hardware -- and big, big profits.

TRW Inc. exemplified that sunny confidence in a recent recruiting brochure. "We're standing on the first rung of a defense development," TRW said, "that will dominate the industry for the next 20 years."

Jasper Welch, a retired Air Force general turned defense consultant, said that it's not the prospect of a bonanza that is propelling the arms industry scramble for SDI work.

"The people I deal with just don't think in those terms," he said. "People have taken the president's goal as a serious life-or-death-of-civilization question." Bidding for the Blueprint

But many experts are skeptical. "I don't know a single scientist in the country who agrees with the president's definition of the program," Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said recently.

Many industrialists acknowledge doubts that even the technological genius of the United States will achieve the "thoroughly reliable" shield over this nation and its allies that is Reagan's stated goal.

"As excited as we are about SDI, I don't think any of us expects it to be implemented as it was articulated by the Fletcher committee," said Aerojet's Buckley, referring to the Pentagon panel that envisioned a space-based, layered defense. "It's far too expensive."

Despite the doubts, more than 200 companies expressed interest in bidding for the Defense Department's grand "system architecture" studies, a rough blueprint for Star Wars. The heavy turnout was no surprise on Wall Street.

"There's no reason for any chairman of any company to stand up and say, 'Well, personally I think it's a little loony, but we'll take the dollars,' " said Paine Webber's Campbell.

True believers or not, most executives expect rich and unpredictable technological bonuses from SDI research. Even if a space shield is never constructed, for example, the sophisticated radars and antimissile weapons likely to be developed could wind up defending ships.

"This is one of the most important technology areas in the country," Morry Thorson, Martin Marietta's vice president for space systems, said. "We believe it will have a lot of spinoffs, and we want to be on the leading edge."

In addition, many contractors hope and expect that something less than Reagan's comprehensive Astrodome shield -- perhaps a defense of missile silos -- will be built in the 1990s. Such an intermediate project, or even major demonstrations of hardware, would mean bigger profits to some contractors than the current flow of research dollars can provide.

"Industry isn't going to change," analyst Lytton said. "Industry is going to push for more money as soon as that is possible."

Even if deployment is years away, contractors feel they can't afford to wait.

"If you don't get in at the beginning," Richard D. DeLauer, former under secretary of defense and now a defense consultant, said, "you're not going to be there in the middle or the end."

Most industrialists feel compelled to compete for SDI work because it is one of the few major projects still up for grabs. During the next five years, they predicted, the Reagan buildup will taper off. Payments for the B1 bomber, the MX missile and other aerospace projects will peak and then dwindle. The scramble for cash flow and jobs will intensify.

Aerojet vice president Thomas H. Sprague said, "We're looking at SDI being a big part of our business for years to come."

Added Lytton: "I think a lot of companies look at it as the last great hope."

Staff researcher James Schwartz contributed to this report.

NEXT: The "systems integrators"