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If Congress manages to dismantle the Strategic Defense Initiative, the effects will be disastrous.

In the absence of a deployed space-based defense, attack missiles will continue to proliferate dangerously around the world.The remarkable progress made in SDI is shown by a spinoff from its "Brilliant Pebbles" program that can help mankind solve two major problems in the next five years.

One is the prevention of military surprises; the other is the monitoring of pollution.

The key is the use of 1,000 small highly instrumented satellites weighing about 100 pounds each. These satellites would carry computers that could help gather, evaluate, select and transmit data instantly to other satellites and to computers on the ground.

This system would be far more sophisticated than present spy satellites. The satellites would work best in low orbit, not more than about 300 miles off the ground.

They could provide weather information, day and night, and predict natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and tidal waves. They could provide prompt damage assessments after disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. And they could instantly report manmade disasters such as the Chernobyl accident.

The satellites, which should not be considered a replacement for SDI, would be crucial to strategic defense in several ways. They could locate mobile targets, such as missile launchers, armed with nuclear warheads. During the Persian Gulf war they would have tracked and immediately identified the locations of Scud missile launchers.

Also, low-flying satellites can illuminate objects near the Earth's surface by using light from lasers and radar.

Lasers are particularly important in measuring the quantity of pollution and locating it.

Radar can provide excellent information on the weather. It can also detect and help quantify information about manmade modifications of weather, such as the release and consumption of carbon dioxide and the resulting effects, including general warming of the atmosphere.

An outlay of $1 billion a year would put this satellite system in place in about five years. A similar annual budget would keep the program in operation.

Worries about the fate of SDI aside, perhaps the age of "open skies" has finally arrived.