Mothballed Star Wars laser could test China space supremacy
To protect its networks of military satellites, America may look to the past and revive a proven element of its defense strategy
As China draws ever closer to launching into space a prototype laser intended to destroy enemy satellites, defense planners in the United States are worried. They do not have, and are not planning to build, a weapon that would give them parity. Nor could the US defend itself against such a space-based laser weapon.
Once upon a time, it was America’s choice to simply assert its domination of space; the choice today is whether or not to contest China’s impending seizure of it.
The military and scientists are at a loss and yet, in fact, the US has had the capacity to build comparable weapons for more than 25 years. At a military facility in White Sands, New Mexico, sits a laser that has shot down Katyusha artillery rockets. The Theater High Energy Laser, otherwise known as THEL, or Nautilus, was engineered from the leftover hardware of a laser called Alpha that was designed to dominate orbital space.
It is difficult to overstate the US military’s reliance on satellites. During the past three decades, US military personnel have become accustomed to knowing their precise location on land, at sea and in the air; of their destination; and to know the actions of their allies and enemies. This powerful advantage means military personnel no longer learn the navigational skills that humans have relied on for millennia.
The US has the world’s most accurate “smart” weapons, almost to the exclusion of all other arms. But these weapons rely to some extent on satellite information. If America’s network of satellites was crippled, the US military would be put out of business.
While the military know their satellites are vulnerable, few realize just how fragile they are – particularly those in geostationary orbit that typically feature antennas made of gossamer-thin wires. Even a trivial amount of energy would put them out of action.
Destroying satellites by rocket has been child’s play since 1960, when the first orbital rendezvous was performed. The former Soviet Union, then Russia, and later China have fleets of a rockets dedicated to this purpose. The US developed a lesser capability of attacking low-orbit satellites – ranging between 160km and 2,000km from the Earth’s surface – by launching short-range rockets from its F-15 Eagle fighters.
Taking down important satellite networks with rockets is time-consuming and would invite a swift reprisal. One or more laser weapons stationed in orbit, however, could disable or destroy large numbers of satellites in a few minutes by shining the equivalent energy of a light bulb towards them from thousands of kilometers away.
America created its space laser program in 1979, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency combined the chemical laser it had developed for the US Navy (lasers don’t work well in humid environments) with the optical, tracking and targeting systems developed by Lockheed for the KH-11 spy satellite. This “Star Wars” program sought to create weapons with a power output of up to 10 megawatts that were highly accurate and could destroy Soviet ballistic missiles during boost phase, in the early stages of flight. By the mid-1980s, the only technical difficulty was in keeping up with rapid advances in technology. What doomed the program was that its technical success ran headlong into a policy that the US should not create obstacles to disarmament efforts.
Still, the work continued. By 1994, the program had advanced to the point that the New York Times ran a full-page report “Space-based laser nearly ready to fly.” The program to develop the Alpha laser, as it was called, was canceled soon after by the Clinton administration.
Israel took up the Alpha research as a way to defend itself against Katyusha rockets launched from Lebanon. It encountered a series of technical issues, since laser weapons deployed on land or at sea are affected by the Earth’s atmosphere. The need to create a vacuum for each firing meant new equipment had to be built. Nevertheless, the US and Israel downsized and reconfigured the weaponry into the THEL. In 2001 and 2002, THEL shot down 28 Katyusha rockets at a cost of about US$600 for each shot fired.
As history shows, Israel chose the Iron Dome air-defense system. It was 10 times more costly for each firing but had the advantage that it operated in all weather conditions. Lasers are rendered useless by cloud cover and rain.
Today, THEL remains at White Sands. Repurposing it for use in space would not mean reinventing the wheel, although incorporating some of today’s technology would take some doing. If successful, the result would be a light (less than 6,800 kilograms), fuel-efficient, one-megawatt weapon that would prevent China from dominating orbital space. While not powerful enough to knock missiles from orbit, it would be a miniature version of a true anti-missile weapon.
Angelo M Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and a member of the Hoover Institution’s working group on military history. He worked on the Senate Intelligence Committee that helped kick-start the Alpha project.