Star Wars - The Next Generation: The Space Based Laser

Dave Webb on this key military technology and the background to its development.

Article from SGR Newsletter 23, July 2001

On Tuesday April 24 at 7pm Global Network (GN, Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space) members and supporters gathered at the Continuing Education Building of the University of New Mexico to protest. Just a few days previously the campus paper had announced the award of a 'defence' grant to its Electrical and Computer Engineering department for work on a super laser weapon project. Also, just a few blocks away at UNM's Institute for Space and Nuclear Studies, work is being carried out on nuclear power supplies for space vehicles and platforms. What have these two projects in common? The answer lies in the Space-Based Laser Integrated Flight Experiment, which forms what George Bush calls the "next generation weaponry"[1] and is at the heart of our campaign against "weapons and nuclear power in space". Part of the 'experiment' is to build a Space-Based Laser Readiness Demonstrator - this is a scaled down version (at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion) of the proposed weapon system which would eventually be deployed for theater ballistic missile defense and as an anti-satellite weapon[2].

If the SBL IFX is successful, the US Department of Defense will decide whether to deploy a fully operational network of 20-30 laser battle stations giving global coverage. The first launch of an operational system could occur in 2020 and it could take several years to launch the full constellation of spacecraft around Earth. The Pentagon estimates that the total SBL program will cost $30 billion.

Why the nuclear connection? Any pace-based laser will require tremendous amounts of power and, as a study commissioned by the US Congress[3] notes "nuclear reactors thus remain the only known long-lived, compact source able to supply military space forces with electric power" ... nuclear reactors "could meet multimegawatt needs of space-based lasers, neutral particle beams, mass drivers, and railguns."

Also - New World Vistas: Air And Space Power For The 2lst Century[4], states: "In the next two decades, new technologies will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness ... These advances will enable lasers with reasonable mass and cost to effect very many kills." But "power limitations ... currently make large space-based radars and space-based weapons relatively unfeasible ... A natural technology to enable high power is nuclear power in space." This is the reason why nuclear power is being developed for use in outer space.

So - the development of a SBL is already well underway - and forms a major part of the US Space Command plans to "dominate" and "master" space[5]. As international weapons expert John Pike has said:

"Whoever controls space has control of Earth ... the United States is unable to resist it. If the U.S. is in a position to control Earth from outer space, there's nothing to stop us. Of course we're going to do it."

In January this year US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of a "space Pearl Harbor" and a commission he formerly headed unveiled a report calling for tighter security for American space systems. "The US ... needs to take seriously the possibility of an attack on US space systems," said the report "... The US is more dependent on space than any other nation" and the report called for a 'technological push' to foil threats from foreign nations or terrorists[6].

However, as reported in the Spring 2001 GN Newsletter, the environmental assessment for the SBL refers to the possibility of a catastrophic explosion that could result in a sudden release of a large quantity of toxic materials and/or destruction of surrounding structures with additional environmental consequences - although no reason for such an assessment of risk is given. Just another reason why the SBL is nicknamed "Death Star". It is a frighteningly ambitious component of Star Wars to be used as a boost-phase missile interceptor and satellite destroyer

Boost-Phase Missile Interception[7]

Lasers are very attractive to the military because they travel so fast - at the speed of light. Therefore they are being seriously considered for intercepting missiles during their boost-phase. Apart from the SBL, two other methods of achieving this with lasers are currently being funded - airborne and ground based High Energy Laser systems.

Of course, one major difficulty with this approach (apart from the fact that it might be technically difficult - if not impossible - and extremely expensive) is that boost-phase defences would break the ABM Treaty (if it still exists at the time of this presentation!). However - as we know - a number of influential US generals and politicians believe that the laser weapon provides such a valuable defense that it is worth abrogating the treaty[9].

The stated advantages of a boost-phase system for Ballistic Missile Defence Systems are that it would:

  • provide another tier of missile defence;
  • remove the problem of debris falling over the target area (as occurs with "terminal intercept");
  • prevent the deployment of multiple warheads;
  • does not require the ability to differentiate between war-heads and decoys;
  • would deter the use of payloads through threat of "country of origin impact of debris".

It also, of course, enhances the US first strike capability and its ability to knock out other nation's space hardware. The SBL can also be used for NMD as well as TMD - in fact strategic missiles would be more vulnerable to laser attack in boost phase than theatre missiles because of their longer boost times. They also have higher burn-out altitudes which reduces the atmospheric effects that would interfere with laser beam propagation from space.

An alternative space based system would incorporate fewer SBL platforms (perhaps 3) with a number of orbiting relay mirrors (perhaps 24) to direct the beams. A number of configurations are possible [8] and this type of configuration is favoured by many military[9].

Military Lasers

The Air Force, Army and Navy all started working on lasers in the mid-1960s, and the idea of a SBL has been around since 1977. Initial tests involve a megawatt-class chemical laser with a large, multi-segmented mirror that unfurls and locks into place to create a 13-foot (4-meter) diameter reflecting surface. The entire spacecraft would weigh between 45,000 and 50,000 pounds (20,455 and 22,700 kilograms). The competing lasers are hydrogen fluoride (HF), deuterium fluoride (DF), and chemical oxygen iodine (COIL)[10].

The HF laser uses atomic fluorine and molecular hydrogen to produce excited hydrogen fluorine molecules producing several simultaneous wavelengths in the range of 2.7 - 2.9 microns. At these wavelengths the beam is mostly absorbed by the earth's atmosphere and can only be used above the earth's atmosphere e.g. for the SBL. A HF laser has been test fired at the TRW San Juan Capistrano test facility in California[11].

The DF laser uses deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) and atomic fluorine. Longer wavelength laser light than for HF lasers is produced (3.5 - 4 microns), giving better transmission through the atmosphere but requiring larger optical surfaces to shape and focus the beam.

The Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) was developed at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque in 1977. It is the basis of the $1.2 billion Air Force Airborne Laser Attack Aircraft - scheduled for anti-missile tests in 2003.

n October 1997 the Pentagon conducted a "laser dazzler" test against one of its satellites using the Army's MIRACL DF laser (Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser) based at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. In 1996 a MIRACL laser shot down a rocket at the same site[12].

A new, lightweight, "all gas" Iodine Laser, or AGIL has also been developed by the Air Force Research Lab. This laser uses nitrogen chloride and iodine which are mixed in a vacuum chamber. AGIL has a better atmospheric transmission, which is important for a laser weapon required to reach targets in the atmosphere or even near the surface of the Earth. A basic weapon-size AGIL laser will take at least until 2003 to develop, demonstrate and test.

The Army's Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) system is designed by a team led by TRW Corp. After the war in Lebanon in April 1996, Israel was promised by the Clinton administration that the U.S. would help develop a laser-based anti-missile system capable of destroying incoming Katyusha rockets. The US Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense paid weapons contractor TRW $200 million to build a HF laser to generate a powerful infrared beam that can pass through the atmosphere.

On 6 June 2000 the THEL intercepted and destroyed an armed Russian made Katyusha rocket at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. and on Aug. 28 and Sept 14 the demonstrator shot down two rockets launched in succession. The system detected the 10 foot long, 5 inch diameter rocket with its radar before shooting it down. THEL has a range of about 12 miles and costs about $3,000 per destroyed rocket to use.

The U.S. military's first high energy weapon is likely to be the Airborne Laser mounted on a Boeing 747, it is being designed to acquire, track, and destroy theatre ballistic missiles[13]. The system is expected to be deployed in 10 years. The Air Force has proposed spending $11 billion to develop a fleet of seven airborne lasers that could be used for battlefield anti-missile defense at a cost of about $10,000 per shot, based on the price of the laser fuel.

Last month Raytheon Electronic Systems, a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin Space Systems, carried out a 'first light' test of the Track Illuminator Laser (TILL) at the High Energy Laser Centre in El Segundo in California. The TILL is part of the Beam Control/Fire Control system for the US Air Force's Airborne Laser (ABL) programme, which will aim and fire a high-energy laser at a target missile in its boost phase.

However, also last month Nathan Kopeika of Ben-Gurion University told a conference in Florida that he believes engineers working on the Airborne Laser (ABL) project have overlooked the effect of tiny dust particles in the atmosphere, called aerosols. These could scatter and weaken the laser beam, making it incapable of destroying incoming missiles. "We found that, after a propagation of 100 kilometres, aerosols can widen a laser beam up to a cross section one kilometre wide--several orders of magnitude worse than optical turbulence," he said[14].

The Space Based Laser represents the ultimate in current military thinking about space weaponry and demonstrates the extent to which the US Space Command is prepared to go to realize their vision of domination. We must continue to bring these issues to the attention of the citizens of the world - this is no way to spend our limited resources, no way to increase global security, no way to take our first steps outside our own planet. We must strive to keep space for peace.

On 21 December, 2000, the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, was selected as the site of the SBL performance test facility. Local people will be holding a vigil at the site on 12 May and on 13 October there will be an action at Stennis as part of the GN International Day of Action.

More information and links on the SBL can be obtained from the Federation of American Scientists' web-site -

More details about the continuing campaign against weapons in space from the Global Network web-site -


In February 1999, a joint $4 billion venture between the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin (Sunnyvale, California), Boeing (Canoga Park, California) and TRW (El Segundo, California) formed the SBL IFX. The program is funded by the U.S. Air Force and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and managed by the U.S. Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles California.

The program's objective is to conduct a research effort to advance and assess the feasibility of the Space Based Laser (SBL) concept and its technologies, culminating in an SBL ballistic missile defense (BMD) demonstration in space, as well as an assessment of non-BMD mission utility.

- SBL IFX Fact Sheet(emphasis added)

It is supposed to intercept enemy ballistic missiles and kill hostile satellites from space. It is due to go into orbit in 2012 and carry out tests for about three years However, if Congress votes to accelerate funding it could be space-based and ready to test by 2010.

SBL IFX has included programs such as Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), High Energy Laser System Test Facility (HELSTF), Alpha, Large Optics Demonstration Experiment (LODE), Large Advanced Mirror Program (LAMP), Alpha-LAMP Integration (ALI), Talon Gold, Zenith Star and Airborne Laser (ABL).

The Contractors
Boeing - leader of the Team Airborne Laser (ABL) (with Lockheed and TRW). Responsible for the weapon system integration and supplying the 747-400F aircraft and battle management, command, control, communications, computers and intelligence.
Lockheed Martin - supply the Beam Control/Fire Control system that points and fires the weapon with sufficient energy to destroy the target. Provides the acquisition, tracking and beam control expertise, as well as significant spacecraft integration skills for the Space-Based Laser (SBL) program.
TRW - design and development of the system's COIL laser and providing ground support. (Lynne Cheney recently resigned from the board of Lockheed Martin, Dick Cheney has been a member of the board of TRW.)


1.Missile defense to include laser weapons - Bush Pentagon envisions 'space force' as new branch of military" by Jon Dougherty, World Net Daily, 29 March 2001

2. Joseph C. Anselmo, "New Funding Spurs Space Laser Efforts," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 14 October 1996, 67

3. "Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years", by John Collins

4. A 15 volume U.S. Air Force board report commissioned in 1996.

5. As set out in the US Space Command's "Vision 2020" and "Long Range Plan"

6. Rumsfeld Commission Warns Against "Space Pearl Harbor" by Jean-Michel Stoullig, Associated Press, 11 Jan 2001

7. See Vincent T. Kiernan, "What is the Future of Space-Based Laser Weapons?" Laser Focus World, June 1997, 75.

8. "Laser Options for National Missile Defense" by Steven G. Leonard, Major, USAF, Air Command and Staff College, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, April 1998

9. "Lasers and Missile Defense: New Concepts for Space-based and Ground-based Laser Weapons" by William H. Possel, Lt Col, USAF, July 1998, Occasional Paper No. 5, Center for Strategy and Technology, Air War College, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama

10. Ibid

11. Joseph C. Anselmo, "New Funding Spurs Space Laser Efforts," Aviation Week and Space Technology, 14 October 1996, 67.

12. Geoffrey E. Forden, "The Airborne Laser," IEEE Spectrum, September 1997, 46.

13. Suzann Chapman, "The Airborne Laser," Air Force Magazine, January 1996, 54-55.

14. See: "Firing blanks? Airborne Laser Could Have Serious Flaws" by David Cohen, New Scientist, April 19, 2001 and "Blind spot? A little dust could make flying laser cannons worse than useless", by David Cohen, New Scientist, April 24, 2001

Dave Webb is a Reader in the School of Engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University, a member of SGR, Yorkshire CND and a Director of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

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