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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 20, November 1997

US Conducts Laser Test

On 20 October, the US announced that it had conducted a controversial test-firing of a laser - the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) - at an orbiting satellite. The laser was fired from the White Sands missile range in New Mexico on 17 October. Announcing plans for the test on 2 October (see last issue), the Department of Defense (DoD) stressed that the firing would not involve any explosion, was not part of any new anti-satellite weapons-development programme, and was not in breach of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty or any other agreement entered into by the United States. However, both before and after the test Russia expressed its deep concern. On 21 October, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Gennady Tarasov remarked:

"We must state very definitely that such activities cause growing concern in Moscow. Objectively, the development of laser programmes could become a step to the creation of an anti-satellite potential... The creation of anti-satellite weapons could sharply change the strategic situation. ... Considering the fact that the technologies to be tested were formerly developed for the purposes of anti-missile defence, the question also arises of how compatible such work is with progress achieved on joint measures to ensure compliance with the ABM Treaty... We would like to hope that the United States would...take into account all the consequences [of their action]..."

On 23 October, DoD spokesperson Kenneth Bacon gave the first official, if preliminary, assessment of the test: "we don't believe that it [the laser] disabled the sensors" on the satellite, he said, adding: "We didn't learn as much as we had hoped. It will take us several more weeks to complete analyzing the data. It is premature to talk about all the lessons we have learned from this test."

Reports: US military hits satellite with light beams, Reuters, 20 October; US fires laser at satellite, Associated Press, 20 October; Russia concerned by US military laser tests, Reuters, 21 October; Defense Department briefing, 23 October; Military laser failed to damage satellite sensors, Reuters, 23 October.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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