The newest weapon in the cable industry's war on video pirates would fit right in with the American military's smart bombs and cruise missiles.

It's an electronic "bullet," a signal fired through the cable system from company headquarters right into the addressable cable converter box on top of the TV.If the box is legitimate, nothing happens. But if illegal chips were installed in a basic converter to descramble premium services such as HBO without payment of the monthly fee, the bullet uses the chips' own programs to shut down the converter and halt service.

Thanks to the bullet, American Cablevision of Queens in New York City filed suit in federal court Wednesday against 317 alleged cable thieves. It was the first time so many alleged pirates have been taken to court at once.

Such cable piracy and other methods like illegal hookups and black market decoders cost the industry $3 billion annually. But many people don't take it seriously.

"It can be what they call a cocktail party crime . . . kind of a fun thing," said Jodi Hooper of the National Cable Television Association. "They don't really think of it as a crime."

But the cable industry considers it a major problem. Most pay services began scrambling their satellite signals in 1986, so the focus now is on catching people with illegal descramblers.

The electronic bullet, developed by Jerrold Communications of Hatboro, Pa., was first fired last year by Greater Media Cable of Philadelphia.

In three separate campaigns, Greater Media discovered 368 illegal converters and collected almost $20,000 in lost revenue and damage fees, said general manager Mark Shuster.

Time Warner, the second largest cable operator in the country with 6.5 million homes in 36 states, plans eventually to use the bullets nationwide.

"We're gradually upgrading our systems in order to nail these thieves," Aurelio said.

In 1989, Utah's TCI Cablevision signed up 7,000 new subscribers during a three-week amnesty period saturated with television ads featuring jailed, guilt-ridden signal pirates. At the time, TCI said cable thieves were costing the company $15 million a year.