The first shot in this year's battle in Congress over antisatellite (ASAT) weapons was fired yesterday by Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), who said he will attempt to delete from the budget all the money the Air Force wants to put the controversial weapons into production.
AuCoin, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense which will review the antisatellite budget, also said in an interview that he and his allies on Capitol Hill regard the current congressional ban on testing ASATs against an object in space to be a permanent moratorium unless Congress declares otherwise.
Such an interpretation could set the stage for a battle later this year because an Air Force spokesman said yesterday that the service interprets the ban, which was adopted late last year, as expiring at the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30.
In hopes of buttressing his interpretation, AuCoin asked the General Accounting Office yesterday to send Congress its view on the matter. The United States and Soviet Union have each tested ASATs against objects in space; Moscow has declared a self-imposed moratorium on further testing.
The Oregon liberal said it was "preposterous in this era" of deficit cutting for President Reagan to request Congress to increase the Air Force's ASAT procurement budget from $10 million in fiscal 1986, to $30 million in 1987 to $333 million in 1988 despite the testing ban.
AuCoin and Air Force officials said that the Reagan administration plans to conduct three new ASAT flight tests, two against points in space and the third in a designated patch of sky where starlight would simulate the heat of an enemy satellite and provide a test of infrared homing equipment. This type of testing would skirt the ban by not hitting an object in space.
"That would be a clear waste of money," AuCoin said, "as stupid as trying to conduct batting practice without a baseball. Everyone knows the ASAT can be shot in the general vicinity of a known target. All the testing would do would be to provoke the Soviets. We now have achieved real arms control with the mutual ban on further testing of these ASAT weapons. It is a completely verifiable arms control step."
AuCoin yesterday wrote a letter to Gen. Charles A. Gabriel, Air Force chief of staff, asking, "What precisely is the scientific utility of testing an ASAT without a target?"
Under the ban now in effect, the Air Force cannot spend money "to carry out a test of the Space Defense System (antisatellite weapon) against an object in space until the president certifies to Congress that the Soviet Union has conducted after Oct. 3, 1985, a test against an object in space of a dedicated antisatellite weapon."
In a third letter sent out yesterday signaling the reopening of the ASAT debate, AuCoin asked Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to describe the administration's "negotiating position" on ASAT and how it differs from one designed "to induce the Soviets to abandon all ASAT restraints and to deploy the maximum possible threat against essential U.S. satellites."