The developers of the nation's most powerful military laser are seeking permission to fire the laser's beam into space at a $60 million Air Force satellite in what military officials say would be the first test of its kind.
The test, planned for September, would be a major step toward perfecting a weapon that could demolish satellites and other spacecraft, an ability that the Pentagon regards as crucial in time of war.
But advocates of arms control say the test is likely to set off a race for new space weapons that will ultimately endanger the nation's own satellites. And the maker of the satellite, which is owned by the Air Force, says that the craft still has years of useful life and that its destruction would be a foolish waste.
The military wants an anti-satellite weapon mainly to stop enemies with orbital cameras from spying on American weapons and troops during combat. For years, the United States dominated space-based reconnaissance, but recently other countries and even private companies have begun efforts to loft their own spy satellites, with the companies seeking to market high-quality satellite photos.
The United States has no demonstrated way of shooting down satellites, though experts speculate that it may have secret ways that could work in an emergency. In theory, a laser weapon would allow the United States to dominate the world of orbital reconnaissance at least for a while.
The laser, installed at a sprawling base in the New Mexico desert, is run by the Army. The planned test would have it strike the Air Force satellite, an experimental craft designed to improve ways to track missiles, to see what it takes to destroy it. The Air Force says it no longer needs the satellite and plans to switch it off, despite the maker's protests.
On Thursday, military officials met at the Pentagon to review the laser plan but came to no decision on whether to approve it. A final go-ahead would probably have to come from the secretary of defense, probably in concert with the White House.
Some military officials say permission is likely, but others say the test may be canceled on political grounds. And though experts say the laser test would break no domestic laws or international treaties, the effort is still highly controversial.
Congressional critics and arms-control groups have long campaigned against firing the powerful laser at space targets, an idea much talked about since it flashed to life over a decade ago. Around 1990, congressional Democrats won a legal prohibition on test firings of the big laser against satellites. But in 1995, the Republican-led Congress let the ban expire.
The powerful laser, known as Miracl, for Mid-infrared Advanced Chemical Laser, is based at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. In the past, the Army has fired its beam of concentrated light at missiles on the ground and at speeding drones and rockets in flight, blowing them up.
The $800 million test site employs about 220 people and has an annual budget of around $30 million.
Like all chemical lasers, Miracl gets its energy by burning fuels similar to those in rocket engines. Much energy is lost as heat, but large amounts are extracted by mirrors and resonant chambers and emerge as a concentrated beam of light.
The beam is about six feet wide. Although its exact strength is a classified secret, the military says the laser is "megawatt class," meaning its beam has a million watts of energy or more. The laser usually destroys its targets by subjecting them to intense heat.
Miracl is said by the military authorities to be slightly more powerful than Alpha, a space laser under development in California that is rated at 2.2 million watts of energy.
Over the years, Miracl has been improved so that its beam is steady enough to track and hit satellites orbiting hundreds of miles overhead in space. But uncertainties remain, like the degree to which atmospheric turmoil created by the hot beam would weaken its punch.
Space experts say the test objective is to slowly increase the laser's power to gauge the brightness at which the satellite's various systems would fail, rather than trying to ruin the craft in a blinding flash.
The former approach makes more sense experimentally and would lessen the chance that the test would generate a swarm of space debris, which are widely considered a menace to working spacecraft.
The target is the Miniature Sensor Technology Integration satellite, MSTI-3. The Air Force craft is the third in a series of research satellites meant to improve the tracking of missiles from space. The satellite, about the size of a refrigerator and weighing 450 pounds, has telescopes and cameras for observing hot rockets as well as the cool Earth, its imaging systems working much like those of spy satellites.
Launched in May 1996 into an orbit of 260 miles, the satellite has exceeded its planned lifetime of one year and is scheduled to be switched off in the near future.
The test of Miracl against the satellite will be the first of its kind, said military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"It's to demonstrate that it can be done," one official said. "It's to demonstrate the capability and then to measure the effects."
One aim of the test is to better understand the vulnerabilities to laser attack of American satellites, especially ones engaged in spying.
A longtime worry of military planners and arms controllers alike is that firing Miracl at a satellite could open a Pandora's box of global reactions in which other nations developed their laser weapons, in turn threatening American spacecraft.
Military experts say serious damage could be done by lasers less powerful and complex than Miracl.
"Our most valuable satellites tend to be our most vulnerable," said an expert on anti-satellite arms at a federal weapons laboratory, who approves of the Miracl test and who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But the recent proliferation of spy satellites, he said, has created "a lot more pressure to deny people the use of space for gathering information."
He added, "We're building up to do that, other people are building up to do that, and over the next few decades it's going to be a big issue."
At the same time, he said, the United States is increasingly reliant on spy satellites vulnerable to laser attack, so "there's a conundrum."
New Mexico's delegation in Congress has lobbied over the years to keep Miracl alive and busy with such projects as the anti-satellite test, despite some military ambivalence about the wisdom of such firings.
Arms controllers say the growing complexity of the situation calls for a global ban on anti-satellite testing.
"Shooting a satellite is shooting ourselves in the foot," said John Pike, the director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington that opposes anti-satellite arms.
"The United States is extremely dependent on intelligence satellites that our adversaries, like Iraq, could shoot down. But Iraq doesn't have any satellites for us to shoot down."
In another twist, the satellite's maker -- Spectrum Astro of Gilbert, Ariz. -- opposes having Miracl fire its beam at the $60 million craft.
"I have a problem with the testing of weapons on working satellites," said Stan Dubyn, the company's chief operating officer. "They shouldn't use a spacecraft that is healthy and has several years of life ahead of it."
Dubyn said MSTI-3's ability to image the Earth with an innovative color camera that sees in 256 distinct bands is attracting potential commercial users who want such images for environmental monitoring, crop forecasting and mineral exploration from space.
The camera can see objects on the ground as small as 30 feet across, rivaling some of the best commercial systems.
"People are clamoring for it," Dubyn said of the camera's imagery.
No East-West treaty prohibits the testing of anti-satellite arms in space, unlike accords that bar many aspects of testing and perfecting weapons meant to shoot down intercontinental missiles and warheads. Experts say that the Russians may have powerful ground lasers that could damage or destroy satellites but that there is no evidence they have ever done so, in tests or war.
The U.S. Army, in addition to developing lasers for anti-satellite warfare, is working on a rocket that would blast into space and fire a small projectile to destroy a spacecraft by force of impact.
Miracl and its cousins are largely spinoffs of the exotic weapons developed by the Pentagon to shoot down enemy missiles in its Star Wars program, which the Reagan administration began in 1983 and has cost $40 billion. Experts agree that the anti-satellite job is technically easier.
In late 1988, during its final days, the Reagan administration decided to improve Miracl so the laser could fire at satellites. That work was mainly done in 1989 and 1990. Congress subsequently banned any such test of the improved laser.
The new push, headed by the Army Space and Strategic Defense Command, based in Arlington, Va., has been reported in trade newsletters like Inside the Army, which is produced by Inside Washington Publishers, also in Arlington.
An Army document, obtained by Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, says Miracl has long had "a contingency mission to negate satellites harmful to U.S. Forces" that could never be exercised until Congress dropped the prohibition. After that, the document says, "a test plan was developed."
The work included an experiment in March in which the New Mexico laser center tracked MSTI-3 as the spacecraft orbited hundreds of miles overhead, the document says.
The Pentagon meeting Thursday on the test plan was held by Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Space Gil Klinger.
A main factor making anti-satellite weapons attractive to the military is an approaching wave of commercial spy satellites that can pry into all kinds of secrets on the ground, including military ones.
The wave started building in 1994 when the Clinton administration, eager to aid aerospace companies facing huge layoffs after the Cold War, allowed the technology of spy satellites enter the commercial sphere, starting a rush of global emulation.
The first satellite with cameras rivaling military ones is to be launched this year, with perhaps a dozen in the next decade, creating a civilian adjunct to military fleets. Many experts say the biggest market for the satellites will be foreign governments that cannot afford their own reconnaissance systems.
In wartime, spying from space is seen as weighing heavily in determining who wins, as it did for the United States in 1991 during the Persian Gulf war. But arms-control experts say the threat posed by the new interlopers could be dealt with in ways more peaceable than blasting them out of the sky, including simply making firm arrangements with ground controllers for what is essentially shutter control.
Other experts see anti-satellite weapons as a big stick that could put teeth into diplomacy aimed at shutting down orbital spies in wartime.
In any event, the U.S. government, having authorized the wave of
commercial spies, is increasingly serious about exploring ways to
destroy such orbital eyes in time of war.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company