Although the risk of escalation is high, what other choice does Russia have, given the political West’s continuous belligerence? Writes Drago Bosnic
Space has been a war-fighting domain for over half a century now. Although largely non-kinetic, space warfare is slowly transitioning to a more traditional one, with competitors now fielding capabilities to directly target hostile space-based systems. Russia, one of the world leaders in this field, is building a new ground-based laser weapon for disrupting enemy satellites orbiting overhead. A report by The Space Review states that the Russian military’s intention is to dazzle sensors on ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) satellites belonging to NATO and other hostile nations.
The Russian military will soon be able to protect much of the Eurasian giant’s landmass from the prying eyes of the political West and its numerous vassals. There is still scant information on the new directed energy weapon, but military experts believe it will be able to permanently disable electro-optical sensors used by satellites to track ground-based units and facilities. If true, this would render the satellite completely useless, which is of particular importance for the Russian military, which has been facing NATO ISR capabilities for over 5 months now.
Gas lasers pump large amounts of energy into specific molecules such as carbon dioxide. Chemical lasers are powered by specific chemical reactions that release energy. Solid-state lasers use customized crystalline materials to convert electrical energy into photons. In all lasers, the photons are subsequently amplified by passing them through a special type of material called the gain medium and then focused into a coherent beam by a beam director.
Depending on the photon intensity and wavelength, the directed beam of energy formed by a laser can create a range of effects at its target. For example, if the photons are in the visible part of the spectrum, a laser can deliver light at its target. For a sufficiently high flow of high-energy photons, a laser can heat, vaporize, melt and even burn through the material of its target. The ability to deliver these effects is determined by the power level of the laser, the distance between the laser and its target, and the ability to focus the beam on the target.
The new Russian laser weapon is known as Kalina. It’s purpose is to dazzle, or in simpler words, blind the electro-optical sensors of ISR satellites. The process involves saturating the sensors with enough light to prevent them from functioning properly or at all. Achieving this requires high-precision delivery of sufficient amount of amplified light beams to the targeted satellite sensor. This is no easy feat given the extreme distances and the fact that the laser beam must first pass through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Kalina operates in a pulsed mode and produces about 1,000 joules per square centimeter. By comparison, a pulsed laser used for retinal surgery is about 10,000 times less powerful. The system delivers an enormous amount of photons it generates across large distances and then hits satellites orbiting overhead. It is able to do this because lasers form highly collimated beams, meaning the photons travel in parallel, preventing the beam from spreading out and diverging damage output. Kalina focuses its beam using a telescope with a diameter of several meters.
ISR satellites using electro-optical sensors tend to operate in LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) with an altitude of several hundred kilometers. It usually takes these satellites a few minutes to pass over any specific point on Earth, requiring Kalina to be able to operate continuously for that long while maintaining permanent track on the electro-optical sensors. These functions are carried out by the telescope system. Based on the reported details of the telescope, Kalina would be able to target an overhead satellite for hundreds of kilometers of its path. This makes it possible to protect a very large area of over 100,000 square kilometers from ISR satellites.
Russia already fields a number of laser and other directed energy weapons. Laser power levels are likely to continue to increase, making it possible to go beyond the temporary effect of dazzling to permanently damaging the electro-optical sensors used by ISR satellites. While laser technology development is heading in that direction, there are important policy considerations associated with using both lasers and ISR satellites. Permanent destruction of space-based sensors by any nation could be considered an act of war, leading to a rapid escalation of tensions, but the same goes for the use of ISR space-based assets to help target hostile military units and facilities. Resolving these issues requires long-term international treaties.
Of even greater importance is the deployment of laser and other offensive weapons in space. Such systems could be highly effective because the distances to targets are likely to be significantly reduced, in addition to the absence of atmosphere to weaken directed energy weapons beams. The power levels needed for space-based lasers to cause significant damage to spacecraft would be significantly reduced in comparison to ground-based systems. In addition, space-based lasers could be used to target any satellite by aiming lasers at propellant tanks and power systems, which, if damaged, would completely disable the spacecraft. Although the risk of escalation is high, what other choice does Russia have, given the political West’s continuous belligerence?
Drago Bosnic, independent geopolitical and military analyst.