The chief of "Star Wars" development said Thursday that his program can stay within a narrow interpretation of the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty for the rest of the Reagan Administration but that delays in broadening it later will cost money.
Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, testifying before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense, said the already approved 1987 program and the requested 1988 program fall within the restrictive interpretation of what anti-missile defense work may be conducted under the treaty.
The interpretation of what the ABM treaty allows has become controversial in Washington. Two years ago, President Reagan decided that the "legally correct interpretation" of the pact permitted a more expansive research program. But, because his Strategic Defense Initiative program, popularly known as "Star Wars," was not too far along, he decided to keep it within the narrower reading.
Opposition to Shift
There now is a push within the Administration to shift to the broader interpretation, a move that has run into opposition on Capitol Hill from Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). The influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has concluded that the Administration has no grounds for such a shift.
In a related development Thursday, a defense appropriations panel member, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S. C.), sided with the Administration and urged Reagan not to stay with the restrictive reading "to accommodate critics" of the program. He said he also was troubled by reports that the Administration might consider negotiating the issue with the Soviet Union.
Hollings called Nunn's contention of a possible position shift without consulting Congress "hooey" and said Nunn was "being used by those who want to kill SDI."
Abrahamson was asked if there was a point at which he had to have a decision from the Administration about the treaty's interpretation so that SDI is not jeopardized as far as national security is concerned.
'Recover by Spending More'
"There is not a time . . . you can't recover by spending more money," he said.
"Within the balance of this presidential term, can you live with the narrow interpretation?" Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) asked.
"Yes, sir," Abrahamson replied.
For 1987 and 1988, he said: "We have assembled the program now in accordance with the President's direction with the narrow interpretation of the treaty."
Abrahamson noted that contracts were let Wednesday on an experimental satellite to see if launch detection capabilities can be improved. That satellite, not due for launching until the early 1990s, is being deliberately designed to be less capable than it could be so it cannot be interpreted as being barred by the ABM treaty.
To build a second, more capable satellite, Abrahamson said, could cost as much as an additional $1 billion.