In the first publicly announced military test of a super laser against an orbiting satellite, the U.S. Army on October 17, 1997 fired their Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and twice hit the Miniature Sensor Technology Integration (MSTI-3) satellite 260 miles above the earth.
Defense Secretary William Cohen had approved the test on October 2. Cloudy weather had delayed the test several times prior to the successful October 17 shot.
The Pentagon has repeatedly said that the so-called "illumination" of the satellite by potentially destructive beams of light would not violate any treaties and was not an attempt to build a satellite killer weapon. Instead, the department said, it was an attempt to measure whether a laser beam could damage the satellite's ability to operate.
However, Russian officials said on October 18 that they were worried the United States was developing an anti-satellite laser weapon which could upset the strategic arms balance and violate an important arms control treaty.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov told a news briefing that Russia was following developments closely after the U.S. military successfully fired the ground-based laser.
"We must state very definitely that such activities cause growing concern in Moscow," Tarasov said.
In the wake of the successful test, several worrying considerations have been expressed by independent analysts. First, the Pentagon's term "illumination" is meant to convey the fact that the MIRACL instrument was not fired at anywhere near its full strength. Based on expert estimates of MIRACL's full power, the laser is probably capable of disintegrating an object like the target satellite. It can fire a sustained beam of infrared light six feet in diameter, with an estimated full power over 2.3 million watts.
Second, it is a widely accepted rule of thumb that the military never publicly demonstrates its latest, most advanced hardware. In point of fact, the MIRACL is known to have been operational as much as ten years ago. It is therefore hardly likely that MIRACL is the most potent beam weapon now in the U.S. arsenal.
Russian spokesman Tarasov correctly pointed out that the MIRACL was originally built as part of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative. That is, MIRACL was intended as an anti-ballistic missile weapon and is certainly adaptable as an anti-satellite weapon.
"The creation of anti-satellite weapons could sharply change the strategic situation," Tarasov said.
The question then arises: Why would the Pentagon risk upsetting the fragile military balance with the Russians at this time, and why would they publicly announce a test which could easily have been conducted in secret?
Why, too, would the Pentagon say that the test was meant to determine if our own satellites would be vulnerable to such a blast from a ground-based super laser, when the answer to that question is a foregone conclusion?
It seems reasonable to surmise that the MIRACL test had other unstated objectives, one of which may have been to apprise the American public that such weapons are in fact operational. If, however, there is at present no terrestrial enemy of the United States against which such a weapon should be required, it seems reasonable to ask: Who is the real target?
Original file name: CNI - MIRACL Laser.final
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