October 3, 1997 in Nation/World

U.S. To Fire Laser At Satellite In Orbit Test Will Break Long U.S. Taboo On Space Attacks

Richard Parker Knight-Ridder
 

The United States for the first time will fire a laser at an orbiting satellite, breaking a longstanding tradition in the military’s effort to take control of space.

The Defense Department, in announcing the decision on Thursday by Defense Secretary William Cohen, described the test as merely defensive, designed to collect data to protect U.S. satellites from a laser attack by other countries. But Pentagon documents describing the test, obtained by Knight-Ridder, detail a much broader effort to experiment in satellite warfare.

The test has elicited concerns that the United States is rapidly gaining the ability to attack, as well as defend, the satellites that are the eyes of modern militaries and the ears of civilian communications. Some members of Congress complain that ending a self-imposed ban on firing weapons at satellites could prompt Russia to flex its own muscles in space.

The 11 seconds of laser bursts expected in the next few days from a remote site in the New Mexico desert are the second round in a three-stage experiment, according to the Pentagon documents.

In the first stage, technicians learned to track satellite targets more precisely than they have in the past. In the second stage, they will fire a chemical laser, known as MIRACL, at the Air Force’s MSTI-3 satellite. They must do so before the satellite, which has surveyed the earth, disappears over the horizon.

A one-second burst will attempt to trigger sensors that detect an attack. A second 10-second burst will attempt to overload the sensors.

While the laser is not expected to damage the satellite, there are some risks. The laser beam, glinting off MSTI-3, could pose “potential damage to spacecraft ‘in the vicinity,’ ” the documents said. And there is still a small chance of damage to the satellite and debris from it, according to the documents.

The third stage of the project is even more ambitious. Instead of testing the defensive sensors of an active U.S. satellite, a laser would be fired at “noncooperative targets,” such as an inactive satellite. Planners are currently trying to locate such a target.

The test is merely the tip of a large spear now aimed at space. Defense planners are working on ways to protect military and civilian satellites from foreign countries that might want to jam or disable them. As communications and information become more central to armies and civilian economies, countries launch more satellites. And they are increasingly valuable as territory - in orbit - to protect, defend and destroy. The Air Force projects as many as 1,800 satellites going into orbit in the next decade - valued at least at $1 trillion.

Satellites are so central, and so vulnerable, that already, a minor skirmish has broken out in Asia. The Indonesian government is jamming a satellite launched by Hong Kong. The Indonesian government reportedly believes that the satellite is in an orbit reserved for Indonesian satellites.

But the test in the New Mexico desert has prompted concerns that there is no coherent strategy guiding the U.S. military’s move into space.

“I haven’t seen a good, comprehensive plan by the Defense Department as to what it’s going to do on the whole issue of space control,” said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., a long-time sponsor of the MIRACL laser and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. “I would feel more comfortable if I knew where this did fit into the larger strategy and where it fits into the future. Testing isn’t useful if it’s ad hoc.”

Some Democrats in Congress have objected to the tests, arguing that it might provoke Russia to heighten its own ability to destroy satellites. In the 1970s and 1980s, Russia launched ballistic missiles at satellites. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, recently asked the administration to scrap the test.

But Bingaman defends the test as “legitimate.”

“As far as I know there’s nothing about this test that goes beyond” measuring how a satellite responds to attack, he said.

Yet the test does break a long-standing U.S. practice of not testing weapons against satellites. Since the United States has had the most satellites in orbit, it has shied away from tests that might provoke other nations to learn how to shoot them down.

“It is a real shift in the status quo,” said Steve Aftergood, senior researcher for the Federation of American Scientists. “It undermines a longstanding taboo against attacks on satellites. That taboo has served our interests over time.”

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