President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, despite intense opposition in Congress and elsewhere, is fast becoming a permanent fixture in the military-industrial firmament.
By the time Reagan leaves office in 1989, the space-based system of anti-missile defense may be so firmly ingrained in the Defense Department's budget and so vital to the profit margins of the nation's defense contractors that the new President, whatever his personal inclinations, will have difficulty dislodging it.
"Even if a Democratic Senate is elected in 1986 and a Democratic White House in 1988," said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a private group, "you may have a base built for the program that is essentially unstoppable."
In Research Stage
The Strategic Defense Initiative, as the program is formally known, remains in the research stage, with no decision yet made to attempt to assemble its computers, communications systems, airborne sensors, satellites, mirrors and lasers into a working anti-missile defense. But it is already the single most expensive element of the Defense Department's budget.
Reagan asked Congress for $5.4 billion for SDI in fiscal 1987, which begins Oct. 1. That is nearly double his next biggest request--$2.8 billion to procure F/A-18 jets for the Navy.
Although the Senate Armed Services Committee has recommended reducing his SDI request to $3.9 billion and the House Armed Services Committee has approved only $3.7 billion (the equivalent of $3.577 billion in 1986 dollars), even the lower figure represents an increase of $700 million over the current "Star Wars" budget of $3 billion.
"Reagan will ask for incredible amounts and 'settle' for one-half of infinity," a weapons expert for Congress who has also worked in the Defense Department said.
John Pike, the Federation of American Scientists' associate director for space policy, said the program is climbing toward the $7.5 billion that government documents indicate that Reagan plans to seek for 1989. If it gets there, Pike said, "it would be real hard to turn it off."
"There would be too many jobs in too many congressional districts," Pike said. "Something that big isn't a weapons program. It's a jobs program."
Not Yet Proved Feasible
Research to date has yet to establish whether it is feasible to build a space-based system to protect the United States and its allies from missile attack. But the Defense Department insists that research is proceeding smoothly.
"We're making progress in the fundamental technology that leads to this decision for a strategic defense system some day," said Air Force Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, director of the Defense Department's SDI Office. "And that's coming faster than people realize, even with the cutbacks" voted by Congress in the SDI budget.
"Star Wars" still faces formidable obstacles if it is to become an integral part of the nation's military arsenal. While the military services are dutifully recognizing Reagan's determination to proceed with "Star Wars," they are quietly grumbling that the price tag for the research alone is reducing funds available to buy conventional weapons.
Outside the government, few lobbying groups have embraced the program, and members of Congress are feeling little constituent pressure to support the Administration's budget for it. Nor has "Star Wars" yet reached the stage at which major industries, individual companies and labor unions are relying on it as a major source of income or jobs and are pressing Congress to increase the program's budget.
'A Lot of Momentum'
But Reagan has 2 1/2 years left in office to build more support for "Star Wars." Stephen Daggett, a senior research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a private group that frequently criticizes defense programs, said the new President would propose reducing the SDI budget at his own peril.
"These projects will have created a lot of momentum," he said. "It would mean canceling some high-visibility demonstration projects, such as a space-based sensor system" to track missile launches.
"Even if the new President and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not enthusiastic, it would be pretty difficult to back out if you've already got 10 $300-million projects," Daggett said. "You can do it, but it will be a tough political decision and you'd take it on the chin."
Former President Jimmy Carter bit the bullet in 1977, the first year of his term, and canceled production of the B-1 bomber, which at that point was already producing jobs in 48 states. That was the last major weapons program of his Republican predecessors that he canceled--and Reagan reinstituted the B-1 four years later.
About 6,500 scientists have signed a pledge not to work on "Star Wars." But there are others eager to peer into the world of space weapons.
"When you start talking about ray guns and mirrors in space, you're talking about a wonderful hobby shop," a senior official for a major defense contractor said. "There's nothing better for an engineer. They'd rather work on that than on a new tank."
The Defense Department has carefully orchestrated a new demonstration of "Star Wars" successes every few months: a test missile struck downrange by an interceptor; a flying target rammed at 12,000 feet by a rocket-propelled device homing in on the target's electronic signals; the test firing of a laser in Hawaii against a rocket approximately 350 miles overhead, and the explosion of a nuclear bomb 1,800 feet below the Nevada desert in a $30-million test of the X-ray laser.
"It is important there be some real demonstrations that can't be challenged as stunts," said an aide to several senators who view the program favorably.
Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), a senior member of the House Science and Technology Committee and an SDI skeptic, is aware of the campaign. "Every system, particularly in the aerospace area, is structured to develop a wide constituency," he said. "The same effort is being made in connection with SDI, and it is probably being done more quickly to establish a vocal constituency."
Just as each stage of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs produced ever more ambitious and promising flights leading the United States toward the moon, SDI is built around a series of experiments, tests and demonstrations of ever-increasing complexity, Daggett said.
"I think the program was deliberately structured to build momentum," he said. "It shows concrete results and achievements to the public at large and Congress. It creates contractor teams working on a project with a concrete result. You have a team established and they're going to want to follow on and have something to do. It creates esprit de corps."
Abrahamson does not quarrel with the comparison to the space program. "These are small, low-cost contracts but important bricks in this technological wall that we're building up rapidly," he said.
Most major defense contractors have created divisions, often directed by vice presidents, to seek "Star Wars" contracts. If they have yet to unleash a major lobbying campaign in Congress for a bigger SDI budget, it may be because of Congress' determination to restrain Reagan's overall defense buildup.
"A lot of them are scared to go up to Congress and say: 'Don't cut SDI,' " said Melissa Moore, a lobbyist with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In the current congressional climate, she said, lobbying for the Defense Department's most costly program might merely offend members of Congress.
Small Firms Dependent
Some smaller defense contractors depend heavily on SDI research contracts and might not survive without them, but so far that is not true for major defense contractors. Although they are happy to land SDI contracts, which are typically in the $100-million range, their annual multibillion-dollar gross incomes insulate them from dependence on "Star Wars."
"It's significant to the aerospace industry, but it's not going to make it or break it," said Robert Wahlquist, a vice president and SDI program executive at TRW.
Among the most active private organizations lobbying on SDI's behalf is High Frontier, which promotes military uses of space. High Frontier's director, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham, said SDI absorbs so much of the Defense Department's research and development funding--fully 10%--that it risks losing adherents in the Pentagon who fear that their own programs will be crowded out of the budget.
"I was a bureaucrat in uniform for quite a while and I know how it works," he said. "You've got your own turf to guard. When the pressures came down on the total defense budget, the representatives (from the services) would give lip service to SDI, but then they'd say: 'What we really want is more tanks, ships and planes.' "
But "Star Wars" critics remain worried that President Reagan will have committed the nation to the program before he leaves office.
"Clearly, this thing has got life in it," a congressional weapons expert said. "It's reached the nine-month point. It might even be born."