Another Step Taken in Space Warfare
Last week, India became the fourth nation to display their anti-satellite capabilities. This week, satellite imagery of China’s anti-satellite laser center became public (although undoubtedly the major nations had already acquired imagery of the center).
Ironically, India was involved in both incidents.
On 27 March 2019, India announced the successful launch of the India’s first anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). The interceptor was able to strike and destroy an aging Indian military imaging satellite in a 300-kilometer (186 mi) orbit. The interceptor was launched at the Integrated Test Range (ITR) in Chandipur, Odisha and hit its target, the Microsat-R after 168 seconds. The operation was named Mission Shakti. The missile system was developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and is a modification of its ballistic missile interceptor.
With this test, India became the fourth nation with proven anti-satellite missile capabilities. However, India stated that this capability is a deterrent and is not directed against any nation.
Although the US condemned the test for exacerbating the problem of space debris, the debris from the test should burn up in the atmosphere in three weeks.
The test was more than a technological achievement. It sent political messages to both China and Pakistan; both enemies of India.
The ASAT missile was a modification of the Indian Missile Defense System interceptor, which was developed as a protection against Chinese and Pakistani ballistic missiles. This test showed that the Indian Missile Defense program was operational and could conduct successful intercepts – a powerful demonstration to Pakistan, since tensions between both nations have escalated in recent weeks.
It also demonstrated that India could intercept and destroy Chinese and Pakistani satellites if necessary.
The second anti-satellite event of the last two weeks was the release of satellite imagery of China’s anti-satellite laser weapons center in western China.
The story came out days after the Indian ASAT test and was written by a retired Indian Army Colonel Bhat. This raises the question if Col. Bhat timed the article to defend India’s decision to test its ASAT weapon.
The satellite imagery shows how advanced the Chinese laser ASAT program is. The Monitor consulted with an independent satellite imagery expert (who wishes to be anonymous) conducted its own analysis and discovered some mistakes made by Col. Bhat and additional information that he did not see. We will summarize below some of the important finding.
Col. Bhat noted, “In terms of satellite tracking, Chinese technology has grown in leaps and bounds. There are now many space tracking stations dotted all over the country – like Ngari, Tibet – which provide accurate data about satellites to be targeted.”
“Once the accurate satellite path and other data is known, directed energy weapons located at 5 different places can take over the task. One such facility is in Xinjiang.”
Satellite image of the Chinese directed Energy Weapon (DEW) site. Arrows point to buildings with sliding roofs.
Previous reports have inaccuracies like the laser using neodymium, which is only used in less powerful lasers. In this case, the Chinese use the most powerful laser known, the chemical laser.
The Chinese weapon system appears to be technologically like the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) that was developed by the US and Israel. In fact, a review of Chinese scientific papers shows considerable research on chemical lasers and their fuels.
Originally, the design aim of the THEL system was to provide a point defense weapon which was capable of engaging and destroying short range rockets like Katyushas, artillery shells, mortar rounds and low flying aircraft. However, it can reach out much further and damage satellites in low orbit.
These chemical lasers – frequently called “Cowboy Lasers,” by American military testers are powerful, but have major technical problems that the Chinese have chosen to ignore. The Chinese chemical laser system was probably built around a deuterium fluoride chemical laser operating at a wavelength of 3.6 to 4.2 micrometers (Mid-Wavelength Infrared, also called thermal infrared). The weapons system burns ethylene in Nitrogen Trifluoride gas, which is then mixed with deuterium and helium, to produce the excited deuterium fluoride lasing medium. This gas is then fed into expansion nozzles like that of other chemical lasers.
This system uses the most energetic chemical formula and produces laser energy in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is transparent to laser energy.
However, there are problems. Since the exhaust of this laser is hazardous to humans, a complex exhaust system must be used to absorb and neutralize the highly corrosive and toxic deuterium fluoride exhaust gas.
Traditional lasers did not have the potential of chemical lasers because they generate too much heat during operation.
The sign that the Chinese are using chemical lasers with toxic fuels can be seen on the left-hand side of the satellite image, where one can see a round storage tank surrounded by a security fence. This is where the toxic fuel is stored before being transferred to the building via pipeline.
On the other side of the building, one sees an air duct coming out of the building and going into a smaller structure that probably contains a fan to extract the spent, toxic gases. An air duct then goes into another building, where the toxic fumes are probably scrubbed.
Some of the same facilities are also seen between the two other buildings just to the right of the one in the graphic above.
Given the technological advances of the Americans in the field of chemical lasers, we can assume that the Chinese have developed and fielded chemical lasers with megawatt power levels. At close range, they can burn through armor and are capable of damaging satellite sensors at a long distance.
Given the large radius roads that allow movement by large articulated trucks, and the roads coming out of both sides of the buildings, these lasers are probably on a mobile trailer that can be towed by a large truck. Although the sliding roof means they could be fired from the building, it appears that they are designed to be deployed to remote sites – probably via the dirt road heading out of the lower edge of the image.
These lasers are not designed to “kill” a low orbit satellite. Rather, they are designed to damage sensors and blind them.
The satellite image also indicates that the Chinese are not ignoring electric powered lasers. One can see electrical power lines appearing in the upper, center part of the image and going to an apparent transformer set between two of the buildings.
Although China, India, Russia, and the US have a proven ASAT capability, it is likely that other nations have the same potential. Israel, which has a high-level ballistic missile defense system like India could modify some of its missiles to shoot down low orbiting satellites. And, there are several European nations that possess the capability.
Although India spoke of a treaty to limit such weapons in space, there is every likelihood that the number of nations fielding ASATS will only grow soon.