The Pentagon, trying to rebuild a network that one official said was "stripped bare" 20 years ago, is planning to boost the nation's protection against Soviet bombers and low-flying cruise missiles to complement President Reagan's space defense program, Reagan Administration officials said Thursday.
But the reconstruction program is likely to face opposition in Congress, which has balked in the past at additional funding for continental air defense. One congressional source predicted that an effective air-defense screen against the Soviet weapons could cost $50 billion--a figure disputed by the Pentagon.
Space Defense System In the Administration's view, successful deployment of a space defense system intended to intercept Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles could make those weapons ineffective in a "first strike" against the United States. But, at the same time, this would increase the attractiveness to the Soviets of bombers or cruise missiles for use in an attack.
Pentagon officials, saying that the threat posed by such an attack is not new, noted that they have been trying for years to obtain approval for improvements in the network once anchored by the Distant Early Warning line of radar stations strung across northern Canada to watch for signs of a Soviet strike. The network has been largely ignored for nearly two decades.
"We have no good ability to track and shoot down a cruise missile once it is in flight," Pentagon spokesman Michael I. Burch said. The number of aircraft assigned to intercept a Soviet attack has dwindled in the last 20 years from about 2,600 to fewer than 300, Air Force officials said.
Burch noted, however, that "you can deal with the carrier of that missile. You can deal with the bomber that might launch it, or with the submarine" from which such missiles could be fired.
Nonetheless, he said, "I don't believe you will see a crash program or a bolt out of the blue to suddenly increase our continental air defense capabilities."
The plan was discussed by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger in an interview published Thursday in the New York Times. The newspaper reported also that former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger estimated that the program would cost $50 billion.
Identical Cost Estimates A congressional source, unaware of Schlesinger's estimate, came up with the same figure.
"You're not talking $5 billion to $10 billion," he said. "It does no good to put fighter planes in Oregon and California and New Jersey. They must be in five places" in each state to help build an effective screen.
He said that the Soviets have about 10,000 surface-to-air missiles and 5,000 aircraft assigned to air defense, a network that a White House official described as "an enormous investment."
"You can't put 5,000 planes on existing bases," the congressional source said.
But Burch, when told of Schlesinger's cost estimate, said that it was "far too high" and that it "came from someone who apparently hasn't thought this thing through."
Linked to 'Star Wars' At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Robert Sims referred to the Administration's $26-billion space defense program--popularly known as the "Star Wars" plan--and said that "it is appropriate for us to begin to think about how we might complement it with other types of defense."
But Sims placed top priority on the defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of reaching the United States from the Soviet Union in about 30 minutes. A continental air defense is "certainly not as pressing an issue, as salient an issue, as research on SDI," he said, using an acronym for the "Star Wars" program's official name: Strategic Defense Initiative.
The defense against bombers and cruise missiles has been given lower priority because "these threats are not of the type that lend themselves to a first strike," Sims said.
The space defense system, if achieved, would not be developed and deployed for some time. Under current military strategy, the nation depends on the threat of a counterstrike with offensive weapons to deter a Soviet attack.
Long-Standing Concern But the Pentagon's concern about the state of air defenses has been clear for some time. A year ago, Weinberger said in his annual statement on the nation's military capabilities that "over the past two decades, as Soviet ballistic missiles became the predominant strategic threat to North America, we reduced our defenses against Soviet bombers."
"As a result," he continued, "our surveillance systems would have difficulty detecting bombers penetrating at low altitudes or through gaps in radar coverage. Our interceptor forces consist largely of obsolete fighter aircraft with only limited capability to defend against low-flying bombers."
Initial rebuilding steps were taken by the Jimmy Carter Administration after the Soviet Union deployed its swing-wing Backfire bomber. But a costly Air Force plan was rejected.
Since then, the Air Force has continued work on the plan, focusing on an expanded force of new F-15 fighter jets dedicated to continental air defense; replacement of 25-year-old ground radar stations with modern, unattended systems, and assignment of airborne warning and control system airplanes to the bomber and missile defense network.
Pentagon Budget Reviewed Meanwhile, Weinberger met Thursday with House Republican leaders for nearly two hours, reviewing the fiscal 1986 Pentagon budget that Reagan will send to Congress on Feb. 4.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) told reporters after the session that the defense chief almost certainly will receive less than the approximately 6% real increase in spending authorization that he seeks.
"You're never going to find a secretary of defense telling you anything can be cut after he's taken a position," Michel said. "There is a view on our side that we can make some reductions from Cap's request."
Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the second-ranking House Republican, agreed. "It's obvious that we are looking for any avenue to reduce the deficit, and this (defense) is obviously one of them," he said.
But Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge) said that Weinberger "was being relatively straight and frankly much more practical than he has the last few times around."