Despite Cold War's end, U.S. to launch space-based brain for nuclear war

January 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- An elaborate satellite system created to help fight a long nuclear war with the Soviet Union is being prepared for launching next month, even as questions mount in Congress about its cost and need, given the diminished prospects for such a conflict.

Built to act as a space-based brain for nuclear war, the Milstar system would be a global switchboard -- a network of satellites to relay military commands long after Washington and the Pentagon were destroyed in battle. It would also be one of the most expensive projects in the Pentagon's history.

Designed to help all U.S. forces to endure a six-month nuclear war, it has already survived attempts by the Air Force to eliminate it to save money.

The Milstar program was begun in the early 1980s as part of the Reagan administration's $180 billion program to strengthen the nuclear arsenal. With the Cold War over, Milstar is now being put forward in slightly scaled back form and as a system that can be adapted for use in nonnuclear conflicts. But critics argue that this task could be handled by simpler equipment for close to half the cost.

While Milstar's ultimate cost remains unclear because of secrecy, technological uncertainty and its being seven years behind, a variety of government officials say it will approach $30 billion over the 20 years from the early 1980s to the turn of the century, which is nearly as much as has been spent separately on the "Star Wars" missile defense system.

"It's difficult to believe you could have a six-month nuclear war, but that's what our strategists planned," said Lou Rodrigues, a senior official of the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"The Defense Department was committed to the program, and it's very difficult to get them to change gears," said Mr. Rodrigues, who has studied Milstar for three years. "The potential for an all-out nuclear war may be a thing of the past. But it's hard to make people break from the past."

The research and development costs of Milstar remain secret, but an analysis of Pentagon records suggests that this part of the total expense has reached $8 billion.

In addition, the six Milstar spacecraft themselves are the most expensive communications satellites ever designed, costing up to $1.4 billion apiece. Combining the satellites with the rockets to put them in orbit, the space hardware part of the project will cost about $10 billion.

Billions more are being spent on thousands of portable computer terminals and data links to connect commanders, covert special operations units and generals in tractor-trailer trucks that would serve as mobile command centers.

Milstar, which is military shorthand for "military, strategic, tactical and relay system," was conceived as the solution to decades of frustration over the problem of commanding U.S. forces in wartime, according to Pentagon officials and the Lockheed Missile and Space Co., the prime contractor for the project. It was to be an indestructible central nervous system coordinating missiles, bombers and submarines, a seamless web of leaders, weapons controls, communications and battlefield intelligence.

Once highly secret, the program was first exposed to general debate four years ago. In the first public government report on the program, the Senate Armed Services Committee said, "the Department of Defense has not justified the extraordinary expense of this overdesigned system."

In the past two years, the system has been scaled down. With two satellites completed, the final four will be adapted to meet the needs of commanders fighting conflicts the size of the rTC Persian Gulf war, and redesigned to make them less sophisticated and more practical, though no less costly.

The first Milstar launching is scheduled for Feb. 5 at Cape Canaveral. The House Government Operations Committee plans hearings on the satellites that week.

The Pentagon could still cancel or alter the program and save billions of dollars, Mr. Rodrigues said. "The capability that we're seeking via the Milstar program could have been gotten, and still could be gotten, for about $18 billion less if they change their approach," he said.

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