HIGH-POWER LASERS: Antisatellite laser weapons deleted from defense bill

In early May, the House Armed Services Committee deleted funding for an ongoing Air Force effort to develop antisatellite laser weapons from the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill.

Jun 1st, 2006
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In early May, the House Armed Services Committee deleted funding for an ongoing Air Force effort to develop antisatellite laser weapons from the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill. With publicly identified funding of $6.5 million a year, that effort accounted for only a small fraction of all Pentagon spending on laser weapons; however, it was the only program in the unclassified Air Force budget proposal identified as aimed at antisatellite-weapon applications.

The Starfire Optical Range has developed and tested a sodium-laser guide-star system, used in combination with adaptive optics to compensate for wavefront-degrading atmospheric turbulence.
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The committee specifically noted its concern about “the potential applicability of this technology development for antisatellite and advanced weapons capabilities.” Its mark-up of the authorization bill directed that “none of the funds authorized for this program element shall be used for development or demonstration of laser space technologies with antisatellite-weapons purposes.” The panel urged the full house to approve a $6.5 million cut in spending. The final bill also requires Senate approval.

The cuts come from the Air Force’s “advanced optics and laser space technology” project, described in the budget as “the demonstration and detailed assessment of space-unique technologies needed for advanced optical systems and high-energy laser weapons.” The project has been funded since at least 2004, according to budget documents. The Pentagon proposed spending $21.4 million in fiscal 2007 to measure, test, and compensate for atmospheric perturbations and turbulence that affect beam propagation into space. The House committee zeroed spending for two of the three “major thrusts”: one to develop long-range relay mirrors, and a second to “perform atmospheric-compensation/beam-control experiments for application [sic] including antisatellite weapons, relay-mirror systems, satellite tests and diagnostics, and high-resolution satellite imaging.” It’s the only place in the entire Air Force research and development budget where the words “antisatellite weapons” appear.

Other advanced optics

The committee approved spending $14.9 million for the rest of the advanced optics project, which aims to develop adaptive-optics technology for illuminating and tracking objects in space and for high-resolution satellite imaging.

The project sailed through Congress last year with the same description, but this year the Pentagon shifted it from a technology-development program element to one titled “advanced weapons development.” Pentagon critics spotted it, and a March study of space weapons by the Center for Defense Information (CDI) and the Henry L. Stimson Center (both in Washington, D.C.) listed the laser project among “major concerns” in the fiscal 2007 budget.

Pentagon planners regard space as the ultimate high ground, and have pushed for antisatellite weapons since the Cold War era. A U.S. antisatellite missile destroyed an aging military research satellite in a 1985 test, and in 1997 the 2.2 MW Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) in New Mexico illuminated-but did not damage-a U.S. satellite. The Air Force Transformation Flight Plan, dated November 2003, makes “space superiority” an explicit goal, to be implemented by “protection of vital space assets” and “denial of an adversary’s access to space services.”

But critics warn that antisatellite weapons would be counterproductive. “We depend so much on space assets that we have the most to lose,” says Victoria Samson of CDI. A key concern is that blowing up satellites could produce space debris that destroys other satellites, creating a cascade of debris endangering everything in low-Earth orbit. Antisatellite lasers would not produce debris if they blinded optical sensors or heated targets to damage sensitive electronics, but they could trigger retaliation against U.S. satellites. Analysts have warned that even dumping gravel into orbit could destroy satellites.

The unclassified description says the deleted antisatellite program is testing a sodium guide-star system earlier installed on a 3.5 m telescope at the Air Force’s Starfire Optical Range (Kirtland AFB, AZ; see figure). This year’s goal is to compensate for atmospheric-propagation effects to improve laser-beam control and imaging resolution of orbiting spacecraft. Plans for next year would include demonstrating “fully compensated” propagation of laser beams to satellites in low-Earth orbit, and measuring beam profile and intensity on orbit. That test could indicate how much laser power would be needed to damage a satellite, but unclassified documents say nothing about actually trying to destroy one.

Jeff Hecht

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