January 2, 1998
U.S. weighes sharing
satellite laser test data
By Bill Gertz
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The Clinton administration is working on a new arms control plan that would create an international clearinghouse for laser tests in space, according to White House and Pentagon officials.
The purpose of the clearinghouse would be to prevent damage to sensitive American communications and spy satellites.
But Pentagon critics say the proposed clearinghouse could give Russia and other nations with anti-satellite programs critical data on the vulnerabilities of U.S. communications and intelligence satellites. Knowing those weaknesses would make it easy for any nation to blind military sensors before or during conflicts, they contend.
Satellites are a key element of the U.S. military's war-fighting concept of "information dominance" over a battlefield, and disrupting space sensors would seriously weaken U.S. military power.
"The Russians have yet to prove they are our friends," said a high-ranking U.S. government official opposed to the arms control plan. "What the administration is proposing is the kind of cooperative arrangement you have with close allies like Britain. It is but one more example of their delusional policies toward Russia."
The official said Moscow's nuclear trade and missile cooperation with Iran is an example of Russia's
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continuing adversarial stance toward the United States.
Robert Bell, National Security Council arms control specialist, said the clearinghouse would be modeled after a similar forum now run by the U.S. Space Command in Colorado. The forum coordinates all U.S. military or civilian scientific tests involving lasers aimed above the horizon that could reach satellites.
"What we're saying is that we are prepared to look into expanding that so that countries that have ground-based lasers could use that information ... so that their use of lasers would not cause damage," Mr. Bell said in an interview. "This is at a very preliminary stage."
Pentagon officials said they believe the arms proposal on lasers is linked to a letter sent to President Clinton in September by Russian President Boris Yeltsin opposing U.S. anti-satellite efforts.
"This is the typical arms control response [to the Yeltsin letter]," said one U.S. government defense official. "The Russians complain, and we scramble to come up with some cooperative program or agreement to satisfy Russian concerns, without thinking of U.S. security interests."
Pentagon sources said the Space Command has studied the laser clearinghouse plan and does not favor exchanging satellite and laser data with the Russians because of the risks of providing satellite vulnerabilities.
The idea of what the Pentagon calls "deconflicting" laser tests with orbiting satellites will require giving up information about the satellites that may be damaged and the characteristics of the laser being fired into space.
"For us to use this with the Russians, they've got to tell us the capabilities of their satellites, which they're not going to do," said a defense official.
"For an exchange of information to be useful, you've also got to provide information about the satellite that might be affected. ... Even if you just say 'there might be a problem' for a certain satellite to be affected by a laser is an indication it is vulnerable."
Mr. Bell said between 20 and 30 nations have ground-based lasers capable of putting directed energy into space.
The problem of laser energy damaging satellites was highlighted by the military's test of two lasers against an Air Force satellite on Oct. 17, when the 1-million-megawatt Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser, or MIRCL, was fired into space from the Army's White Sands, N.M., missile range.
"We learned a lot about the effects of low-powered lasers on sensors," Mr. Bell said of the MIRCL test. "From the test, we now know that our concerns were well founded: We could be blinded by lasers."
Even a few seconds of exposure from a low-powered laser can disrupt space-based sensors. "What we learned validated what we thought all along ... even a momentary or inadvertent exposure can cause damage."
The United States has "a lot of assets in space, a lot of sensors," Mr. Bell said, and budget decisions need to be made now about the next generation of space sensors and whether they should be "hardened."
Pentagon officials said the high-powered beam from the MIRCL illuminated the satellite but then malfunctioned. As a result, a 30-watt laser was then used as part of the experiment.
The damage caused by the small laser alarmed many Pentagon and military officials because it showed that low-powered lasers can damage space sensors after only a short exposure. "There was a lot of panic over that," one official said.
Mr. Bell declined to say why the plan is being drawn up, or whether it has any connection to the Yeltsin letter.
Arms control proponents have criticized the Pentagon for the MIRCL laser, which they claim is opening the way for space warfare.
Mr. Yeltsin stated in a "Dear Bill" letter last September that he was "alarmed" by U.S. efforts to "develop a whole gamut of anti-satellite weapons."
The Pentagon has denied it plans to build any anti-satellite weapons, and Mr. Bell insisted that the October laser test was conducted solely to determine satellite vulnerabilities to ground-based lasers.