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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Saturday, November 28, 1998

China May Seek Satellite Laser, Pentagon Warns
By PAUL RICHTER, Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON--The Chinese government may be building a powerful anti-satellite laser that could deprive the U.S. military of a key advantage in any future conflict in Asia by disabling the American fleet of "spies in the sky," the Pentagon has warned.
     In a report released in declassified form earlier this month, defense officials said the Chinese military may be developing--possibly with the help of scientists from the former Soviet Union--equipment that would enable it to fire a high-powered beam hundreds of miles into space to cripple orbiting U.S. craft.
     Pentagon officials said they do not have conclusive proof of this effort. The report, prepared at the direction of Congress, provides an "educated prediction" of the Chinese military's future course, said Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman.
     Nonetheless, outside experts espousing various ideological perspectives said they consider the report significant, noting that it could heighten concern about an arms race in space.
     In Congress, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) said the issue of anti-satellite weapons "is real. It is substantive."
     Weldon, the chairman of the House National Security Committee's research and development subcommittee, pledged that the new Congress will push for more spending on space weaponry.
     The hundreds of military satellites now orbiting Earth provide U.S. and allied forces with key tactical information about adversaries' troops and equipment. The satellites play a critical role in military targeting, communications, navigation and intelligence-gathering.
     According to Pentagon analysts, Chinese officials were impressed by the advantage those satellites gave U.S. forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War by disclosing locations of Iraqi troops and equipment. The Chinese have acknowledged concern that this high-tech edge might be used against them if hostilities broke out between China and its neighbors in Asia.
     Such conflicts could take place in disputes over Taiwan, for example, or the many islands near China's coast in the South China Sea, military planners say.
     As more intelligence-gathering satellites are sent aloft, the United States, Russia and other nations have vowed to try to avoid a militarization of space.
     Yet the major nations have been warily watching one another's research and development programs, worried that competitors might be preparing to deploy systems later. Any Chinese move to build anti-satellite lasers would heighten pressure for others to pour more money into this area.
     Experts say that if the Chinese are receiving outside help in building anti-satellite lasers, it would almost certainly be coming from scientists associated with the old Soviet laser program, which lasted for many years and made significant advances.
     The United States, although diligent in trying to stop the spread of Soviet nuclear weapons, has not been as attentive to containing anti-satellite technology.
     Any anti-satellite laser that the Chinese built would presumably be along the lines of the so-called Miracl laser, the United States' largest, which the U.S. Army has been testing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
     The Army has spent more than $1 billion to develop the laser, which is housed in a complex the size of a small utility plant. It burns chemicals and uses mirrors to focus a million-watt energy stream into a 6-foot-wide beam that, acting like a blowtorch, can potentially disable satellites hundreds of miles away within seconds.
     In the fall of 1997, after one unsuccessful try, the Army succeeded in striking an orbiting satellite, the MISTI-3, with Miracl's beam. The Pentagon portrayed the 1997 test as a defensive step intended to gather data on the vulnerability of the U.S. satellite fleet.
     The Pentagon's warning on China is contained in a 15-page report provided to Congress under a year-old law that requires the Defense Department to keep lawmakers up to date on the progress of the Chinese military.
     The full report was sent to Congress this summer, and a shorter, declassified version was released earlier this month. The document says its purpose is to address "the probable course of military-technological development" in China.
     One defense official noted that deploying a laser is a complex and time-consuming task and would involve a variety of technical problems--including several that U.S. researchers have not surmounted.
     However, the Pentagon's report "is a pretty strong statement, even with all the modifiers," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a group that has often pushed for stronger arms control.
     John Tkacik, a consultant to firms on Chinese affairs and a former U.S. foreign service officer, said that the Chinese have been seeking ways to offset U.S. technological superiority and that six years ago they identified satellites as a "strategic center" for doing so.
     Tkacik said any Chinese anti-satellite effort would almost certainly be aimed at the U.S. satellite fleet.
     "I can't think of any other reason they'd be doing this," he said.
     Maj. Mike Birmingham, a spokesman for the U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., said that the military is "fully aware that others recognize our reliance on space" and that it must take steps "to guard against turning our dependence into a vulnerability."
     At the same time, he said, officials have taken "prudent steps" to safeguard the fleet. He noted that the U.S. has many satellites with redundant capabilities, so an adversary would have to disable many craft to shut down the armed forces' communications and surveillance operations.

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved

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