4 December 1998. Thanks to Daniel Dupont, editor, Inside the Army and Inside the Pentagon.
Inside the Army, November 30, 1998, Vol. 10, No. 47.
November 30, 1998
In the 13 months since it test-fired the nation's most powerful laser at a dying Air Force satellite, the Army has quietly continued refining the system's ability to track and defeat satellites while the debate over "space control" weapons continues.
During the same time, according to an Inside the Army investigation, the military has moved to keep secret more of what it does, and plans to do, with its lasers, and will no longer release any information on the laser's potential as an anti-satellite weapon -- a mission that was unclassified only a year ago.
"The Army wants to make sure there is little attention paid to it," says a staff member for a leading congressional opponent of anti-satellite weapons development. "Nobody knows what's going on out there."
The Army acknowledges that work over the past year on its high-powered laser system, which has involved experiments to improve tracking procedures, contributes to better "overall system performance," but the service refuses to link those activities with last year's test or with anti-satellite (ASAT) experimentation.
Army officials and other sources, however, confirm the laser's ability to track and destroy satellites continues to improve with those experiments, while documents obtained by Inside the Army indicate they relate directly to the October 1997 test.
"They certainly improve ASAT," says a former high-ranking Army official with knowledge of the service's recent work on its laser systems. "In an emergency, it's the only thing we've got right now."
John Pike, a space analyst with the Federation of American Scientists who is familiar with fiscal year 1998 laser activities, concurs. "The only reason you'd do that is for ASAT," he says of the tests.
According to several dozen documents detailing a series of laser experiments in fiscal year 1998, the work in question primarily involves improvements made to a beam directing system that operates in tandem with the Mid-Infrared Chemical Laser, the most potent of all Defense Department lasers and one of the largest in the world.
MIRACL's test-firing at an Air Force satellite last October became the fulcrum of debate on the issue of space control. While the military has officially claimed the test was designed to measure the vulnerability of U.S. satellites to laser attack, sources and documents clearly show the exercise was also designed to gauge MIRACL's potential use as an emergency anti-satellite weapon.
In fact, MIRACL has had an ASAT mission since the mid-1980s -- a mission that was never advertised, but wasn't secret, either. Last year Inside the Army obtained internal documents stating that MIRACL and its accompanying beam director have had, since their installation, a "contingency mission to negate satellites harmful to U.S. forces." In response to questions about those documents posed in August 1997, the Space and Missile Defense Command confirmed that the Army has "taken the position that the MIRACL laser . . . possesses a limited, or contingency, anti- satellite capability."
But the controversy surrounding last year's test has changed everything. The official Army position on MIRACL's anti-satellite mission now is silence -- a position backed by the Defense Department, which has directed that all questions on the subject be cleared first with the Pentagon.
"Any information on contingency missions is not releasable," an Army spokesman stated in response to several questions posed recently by Inside the Army.
But current and former Army officials confirm that MIRACL remains the United States' only viable anti-satellite weapon, and the service continues to refine its overall capabilities while declining public comment on its ASAT role.
A Busy Year
Fiscal year 1998 has been a busy one at the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility (HELSTF) in New Mexico, which is home to the MIRACL, other lasers and related equipment. While recent tests have not involved the firing of the MIRACL laser at objects in space, the Army confirms that testing conducted in 1998 was oriented toward "improving overall system performance and operability," a spokesman said.
The testing has largely centered on the SeaLite Beam Director, which is designed to track targets and help "destroy them with the MIRACL laser beam," according to the Army's description. Originally, the SLBD was able to track only tactical targets such as aircraft and missiles. Improvements over the years have increased the beam director's accuracy to where it can now "enable the tracking of space objects," as it did in last year's MIRACL test against an Air Force satellite that was nearing the end of its useful life.
But pointing a laser at a target in low-earth orbit is tricky, as last year's test showed. Accordingly, over the past year the service has conducted a series of experiments designed to improve the SLBD's ability to track satellites.
Satellite tracking is useful for many purposes, not all of them related to offensive measures. But Army sources and laser experts, including a former high-ranking service official, confirm that the improvements made to SLBD over the last year have made the combination of it and the MIRACL laser a stronger ASAT weapon.
Documents obtained by Inside the Army and explained by government sources show that recent testing has been focused on the difficult task of keeping a laser focused on a target in space, or even on a particular part of a target.
To solve this problem, the service needed a target with the right kind of reflectors in order to gauge the effectiveness of the tests. The only target available with the requisite infrared "retroreflectors" is a U.S. satellite called LACE, or Low-Power Atmospheric Compensation Experiment.
LACE, according to an official description, is designed solely to test lasers' ability to track it. An Army spokesman added that LACE is a "dead" satellite and a "very ideal object to practice tracking operations."
SLBD, meanwhile, was modified to allow it to practice a decades-old targeting technique known as a "2-D conical scan" (CONSCAN). First employed by radar systems during World War II, the technique involves moving the laser beam in a circle until it reflects off the target back to the ground. Once the target is detected, the SLBD's "boresight loop" enables operators to keep a laser pinpointed on a target for as long as needed.
The CONSCAN experiments are designed to "verify" that the SLBD can help with "reliable initial positioning and maintenance of a focused spot on an object," an Army document states.
Asked by Inside the Army if any of the experiments conducted in FY-98 were directly related to last year's test, which was called the Data Collection Experiment (DCE), the Army's response was "none specifically."
However, documents obtained by ITA show that the experiments were, in fact, part of a "DCE '98 task list" put in place following the October 1997 experiment.
"The series was designed to test out improvements to conical scan techniques used during DCE '97," states another Army document -- the closest linkage of the 1998 testing to the DCE.
On March 24, 1998, according to a service report, the Army conducted its first "active control scan boresight correction using a satellite target," a test referred to as an "FY-98 DCE activity" and involving the SLBD and the Low- Power Chemical Laser, a satellite tracking beam.
According to an Army after-action report, the SLBD, "under clear skies," tracked the LACE satellite "at a distance of about 550 [kilometers] and propagated the LPCL beam (about 32 watts). Return energy was detected above 50 degrees in elevation, the lower elevation limit of the return off the LACE corner cube reflectors, and a CONSCAN track loop was closed.
"These activities were a dress rehearsal for satellite passes on the evenings of 30 and 31 March, which are much higher in elevation -- around 70 degrees -- and, therefore, much better passes," the document adds.
Later, toward the end of July, the Army began another series of "SLBD tracking upgrade tests," according to a service document. "This series involves improvements in the daylight tracking area."
"This first series of tests," another document states, "addresses Task 1, Phase 0, of a comprehensive list of five tasks planned for FY-98 and subsequent years that improve the capability at HELSTF to acquire and track satellites and to detect signals under low-power laser illumination."
The first test, held July 28, was delayed and hampered by weather, documents show, but "some data" were obtained.
Additional SLBD tracking tests were undertaken on Aug. 3 and 4. "The test on 3 August was successful," the service reported, but the Aug. 4 experiment was limited by the weather.
On Aug. 10 and 11, more testing was conducted, and this time, the Army got more of what it wanted. "The satellite was acquired on both dates and the tracking routines worked as expected," a report stated.
A week later, the Army achieved its best results: "Both missions went very well," states a document summing up the Aug. 17 and Aug. 18 tests. "Good data [were] obtained even at the boundaries of the tracking parameter space. Stable control loop performance is now complete."
With those tests, the service completed phase zero of the Task one experiment, documents state. "After complete data analysis," one adds, "additional efforts will be started."
Secrets and Lights
So what was the purpose of the experimentation conducted in 1998? As the Army puts it, the "alignment procedures and operational techniques" it has been working on are designed to improve the overall performance of the MIRACL laser.
Current and former service officials stress that the testing has applications beyond anti-satellite weapons. In fact, one former service official characterized the FY-98 testing as "no big deal" because such activity is routine for HELSTF and its components. "It's got a lot of other value to it," he said.
But the official, who once worked at the top levels of the Space and Missile Defense Command, which runs the laser program, also noted the principal benefit of the testing conducted this past year is that MIRACL might now be better poised to fire at space-based threats.
"Officially," the source states, "there is a contingency capability. It's an improvement over that capability." MIRACL, the Army states in a brochure advertising HELSTF's potential for commercial purposes, is the "most powerful continuous wave laser in the Western Hemisphere," and its uses are many; "HELSTF provides the perfect environment for DOD high-energy laser vulnerability and lethality research and development testing," the Army brochure states. "Such research enables U.S. military strategists to determine how to make equipment and weapon systems more survivable against high-energy laser attack and also estimate how susceptible foreign military equipment is to U.S. high-energy laser weapons."
In other words, MIRACL is designed at least in part to test the theory of using lasers to disable or destroy enemy satellites.
But last year, after Inside the Army first reported on Aug. 7 that the Army had requested permission from the defense secretary to fire MIRACL at the Air Force's MSTI 3 satellite, the test became a rallying cry for opponents of laser and anti-satellite weaponry.
These opponents, including several key members of Congress, protested the potential test to Defense Secretary William Cohen, to the president, and in public, raising the specter of an arms race with foreign countries eager to match the United States' ability to control space.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) led the fight in Congress against the MIRACL test, telling Inside the Army last year that such testing is "both unnecessary and provocative."
Harkin and others were also concerned that the testing would amount to a Defense Department admission that it had decided to proceed with the development of space control weapons without a national or congressional debate on whether and how such policy should be enacted.
"The Congress, the White House and the Pentagon have to have a serious discussion of our nation's anti-satellite weapons plans before we go down the road of testing these weapons," Harkin charged. "Although the Pentagon is spinning the tests as a way to measure U.S. satellite survivability, most arms control analysts would describe the test as a major step forward in developing an ASAT weapon. These are the same types of tests that I and others in Congress objected to years ago."
A source close to Harkin says nothing has changed since those comments were made. Lately, the official added, the senator has directed the General Accounting Office to answer questions about the funding devoted to HELSTF over the years. "Where did all the money go?" he asks.
On the other side, conservatives in Congress and outside government have pressed the case that ASAT weapons are urgently needed to ensure the United States can, in times of crisis, destroy an enemy's satellites before they could be used to detect U.S. troop movements and glean other sensitive information.
Their campaign continues. The Center for Security Policy, headed by former Reagan administration official and top missile defense supporter Frank Gaffney, recently released an "issue brief" urging the Clinton administration to reverse course and begin to robustly fund development of ASAT weapons.
Citing a recent Defense Department report to Congress on China's military modernization, which states that the Chinese government "may possess the capability to damage, under specific conditions, optical sensors on satellites that are very vulnerable to lasers," Gaffney's center argues that "it is not only disingenuous but irresponsible and outrageous that the administration continues to oppose efforts to acquire the means to defeat hostile efforts against U.S. access to and use of space."
The White House's recently released National Security Strategy states it is U.S. policy to "deter threats to our interests in space" -- and, if necessary, to defeat them. While this goal of space control has long been part of the National Military Strategy, the Pentagon under President Clinton has not made anti-satellite weapons development a top priority. The nearest-term ASAT solution, the Army's Kinetic Energy ASAT missile, was killed several times under Clinton only to be revived, again and again, by Congress.
Faced last year with the unsavory prospect of sanctioning the first-ever test of a high-power laser against a satellite, then, the Clinton administration took several months to deliberate the Army's request for permission to proceed. Originally, the test was billed as a "Contingency Capability Exercise," and laser experts predicted MIRACL would do significant damage to the Air Force satellite -- or even destroy it altogether.
The New York Times picked up the issue on its front page in September, however, and the Pentagon changed the name and nature of the test before approving the Army's request in early October. With the benign-sounding moniker of "Data Collection Experiment," the exercise was oriented toward defensive purposes -- determining how laser weapons would affect U.S. satellites was the stated goal.
Critics charged the administration had caved to political pressure, noting that Russian President Boris Yeltsin, as Inside the Air Force first reported in early October, wrote to the president urging him to skip the MIRACL test.
The data collection experiment was finally conducted on Oct. 17, 1997, and the results were mixed. While the Army and the Pentagon originally claimed success without disclosing many details, Inside Missile Defense reported soon after that not only did MIRACL fail to achieve key objectives, the laser itself sustained minor damage during the experiment.
The most useful data gained by the Army from the testing came from a second laser -- the LPCL, which the service said had always been part of the DCE test plan.
Both the Army and the Pentagon took heavy criticism for the test, and the criticism continued once details on the actual results began to emerge. However, because it deals with the vulnerability of U.S. satellites, the official after-action report from the DCE remains classified.
-- Daniel G. Dupont