U.S. Test-Fires 'MIRACL' at Satellite Reigniting ASAT Weapons Debate

ON OCTOBER 17, the U.S. Army tested its ground based Mid Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) against an orbiting U.S. satellite, yielding data which could have applications for antisatellite (ASAT) warfare. The designated emergency ASAT weapon, used in conjunction with the smaller Navy Sea Lite tracking beam, "illuminated" an Air Force satellite, raising concerns that such activity could encourage an international race to develop anti satellite systems and undercut 35 years of U.S. efforts to establish space as a sanctuary for most scientific, commercial and military activities.

To investigate the effects on the imaging satellite's sensors, the laser fired beams of varying durations (1 second and 10 seconds), simulating both an inadvertent lasing and a hostile attack on a satellite. On the third attempt at the White Sands Missile Range in two weeks, the Army called the effort only "a partial success" because the satellite "failed to download data during the lase," according to an October 21 Army information paper obtained by Inside Missile Defense.

Critics question whether any information on satellite vulnerability could be determined in a space test that could not be obtained from ground testing.

The test prompted Russia to issue an October 21 Foreign Ministry press release that said laser programs "may become a step toward creating an anti satellite potential." Though no treaty limits ASAT—U.S. Russian attempts to draw up an ASAT treaty in the late 1970s failed—space nations have exercised restraint in development and deployment of systems that could threaten satellite functions that are considered vital to intelligence collection and high tech warfare as well as commercial communications.

Critics suspect that the test sought to demonstrate an offensive capability, as opposed to just testing satellite vulnerability. Aside from a Russian ground launched coorbital ASAT—dormant since 1982—no countries possess ASAT systems and, according to John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, "No other country, with the possible exception of Russia, has a laser that could conceivably damage our satellites."

It has been long standing U.S. policy to keep space an open realm, with the exceptions of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty ban on weapons of mass destruction in orbit and the 1972 ABM Treaty prohibition on space based ballistic missile interceptors, including lasers. These ABM limits were extended to theater missile defense systems as well in clarifying amendments signed this year. (See ACT, September 1997.) Current U.S. policy, which reflects U.S. space command's operational requirements for an ASAT, clearly contradicts the goal of maintaining space as a sanctuary.


Congressional Involvement

A Democratic Congress, concerned about the costly and provocative nature of ASAT activities, passed an amendment to the fiscal year 1990 defense authorization bill which specifically prohibited test firing MIRACL at a satellite in space. In 1995, a Republican dominated Congress, interested in sustaining the laser project and exploring its ASAT and ABM potential, failed to renew the five year prohibition.

Prior to Secretary of Defense William Cohen's October 2 approval of the MIRACL test, some Congressional leaders, including Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (MS), the ranking Democrat on the House National Security Committee, Ron Dellums (CA) and John Spratt, (SC) ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee called for its postponement. In a September 26 letter to President Bill Clinton they said, "We are deeply troubled that a test of a ground based laser system with such obvious ASAT warfare capabilities would proceed ahead of any debate or deliberate policy development." Senator Tom Harkin (D IA) also expressed his opposition to the MIRACL test in a September 25 letter to Clinton and said, "Demonstration of a developing ASAT capability would seriously harm our nation's international arms control interests by potentially encouraging such development by other countries. The United States should not start an unnecessary and expensive ASAT arms race."

The Defense Department has scaled back the MIRACL project since the 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative, ("Star Wars") and has spent only about $25 million per year for the last three years toward developing the MIRACL laser at the $800 million high energy laser facility. Though the scope of the MIRACL program is classified, the Army says it supports a variety of research and development programs, including subsonic and supersonic missile engagements and tests of the effects of turbulence on high energy laser beams. Additional MIRACL tests against satellites are not scheduled.