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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 19, October 1997

US Announces Controversial Space Test

On 2 October, the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced (see Documents and Sources) that it intended to conduct a test of the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser - MIRACL - by firing it at a satellite. The laser would be fired from the White Sands missile range in New Mexico at a US Air Force satellite nearing the end of its servicelife. According to the DoD, the test would not involve the destruction of the satellite or any explosion, and would thus not contravene the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. It would instead involve two bursts of energy - one one-second burst to locate the satellite and a second, ten-second, burst. The damage caused by this second burst would then be assessed as part of a wider DoD assessment of the vulnerability of US satellites to attack. When it was reported by The New York Times on 1 September that the DoD was considering such a test, there was a chorus of disapproval, suggesting that the real motivation for the test was the development of a US capability to destroy other nations' satellites.

On 4 October, the State Department expressed its support for the test. According to spokesperson James Rubin:

"We don't have trouble with this test... It's not a test of an anti-satellite system. It's an experiment that will not destroy the satellite; will not result in any debris; will not pose any risk... we see no reason why it should be a problem, especially in an environment where things are moving forward with the Russians on subjects like the ABM Treaty..."

On 7 October, the DoD announced that an attempt to conduct the test on 6 October had been thwarted by bad weather. DoD spokesperson Captain Mike Doubleday cast doubt on the possibility of being able to schedule another attempt before the satellite's "remaining lifetime" expired on 23 October: "there is some question that there will be any further opportunities." On 9 October, however, another DoD spokesperson, Kenneth Bacon, said it was expected that there would be a number of opportunities to conduct the test in the next two weeks.

Editor's note: the test was successfully conducted on 20 October. See next issue for details and reaction.

Reports: US to test satellite defenses with laser, Reuters, 2 October; State Department backs laser-satellite test, Reuters, 4 October; Department of Defense Briefing, 7 October; Bad weather grounds laser test, Defense Daily, 9 October; US will still try to test laser, United Press International, 9 October.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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