How much of a gamechanger is Russia’s new potential space laser for US, Israel? – analysis

Written by on July 13, 2022

US satellites have been under attack by Russia and China since at least 2021 and are now potentially going to be under even more severe attacks as Moscow develops a new satellite disrupting weapon.

An open-source investigation published last week by The Space Review found that Russia is developing a new laser system in the Greater Caucasus mountain range that will disable foreign satellites passing over Russian territory.

Tipping the scales

Will the latest development tip the scales against the US, and indirectly Israel, in a way that could alter the playing field in space wars – with significant impacts also regarding military power and surveillance capabilities on Earth itself?

In November 2021, NASA  put an International Space Station spacewalk on hold that had been planned, citing a “debris notification” that could put crew members at risk.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian attend a joint news conference in Moscow, Russia March 15, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV/POOL)

Though the specific source of the potential hazard was not disclosed, the decision came down within weeks of a Russian anti-satellite weapon test which created a cloud of shrapnel in Earth’s lower orbit. 

Unlike that anti-satellite weapon, the latest Russian weapon is being presented as more of a blinding and disabling weapon, suppressing electro-optical systems of satellites using solid-state lasers.

In some ways, this is a relief, as weapons that disable and blind do not leave shrapnel in their wake which can create substantial future risks to anything and anyone in Earth’s orbit for an indefinite period of time.

However, the latest weapon may also be cheaper and easier to activate, and may especially allow Moscow to blind American intelligence, and possibly even Israeli intelligence, in crucial arenas.

For decades, US superiority with satellite intelligence has facilitated Washington projecting power across the globe and giving it distinct advantages.

These advantages have often accrued also to Israel, whether it was tracing the Karine A mega weapons boat in 2001 which was beyond Jerusalem’s surveillance capabilities, or more recent tracking, early warning and sharing of intelligence by the US to Israel to assist with national defense.

If Russia blinds the US, Israel also becomes a little bit more blind.

Of course, the Jewish state has far more of its own satellite surveillance today than it did in 2001, but it still does not come anywhere near what the US can do.

Moreover, relations between Israel and Russia are tenser now than they have been in more than a decade over the situation in Ukraine.

Russia and China vs the world

What if Moscow assists Iran by blinding Israeli satellites in exchange for Tehran’s recently announced help to Russia with drones in Ukraine?

And Russia is not the only issue.

In multiple recent briefings and in the US’s annual National Intelligence Assessment report, top American national security officials have said that China was making sizable, long-term investments in weapons designed to jam or destroy satellites as it seeks to rapidly narrow the US’s lead in space technology.

According to the report and the briefings, Beijing wants to develop anti-satellite weapons with capabilities from dazzling to jamming, to kinetic kill-from-the-ground as well as from space.

If the US lost its space satellite advantage versus both Russia and China, this could impact not just major advantages in American intelligence collection, but also impair global wireless networking capabilities of US military air, land and sea-based units.

Part of Israel’s answer, in that case, could be its own drones. Meaning, since Israeli surveillance is more focused within the region, it can sometimes get away with using drones for surveillance in place of satellites, which completely outstrip drones if the target is further away or outside of the neighboring region.

Still, this would be a temporary band-aid type solution.

The fact is that according to former CIA space analyst Tim Chrisman in a late 2021 interview with the Jerusalem Post, if the US is not careful, China will overtake it in the race for dominating space-related issues, with a range of consequences for any future conflicts.

The same could be true with Russia – at least in the battle over the satellite issue (Moscow is not investing as heavily as China in deeper space missions.)

Referring to the impending potential space satellite wars issue, Chrisman said, “It’s definitely been the concern, very similar to how China is treating the South China Sea or Russia has used Kaliningrad to create these products of area denial. Either of these countries can use these asymmetric weapons to, if not destroy, then sideline the US capabilities,” in space.

He warned that at the same time that officials convey they are “overly worried this will damage everything about the US ability to fight,” there is also a “lack of a long-term focus on how to counter that and stay ahead.”

What can be done?

There are debates about what to do.

If the US and Israel take the issue seriously they could deter Russia, China and allies of those countries like Iran, from going after satellites because the price could be taking out the adversary’s satellites.

An alternative approach is body-guard satellites and other defensive measures being loaded into satellites designed to offset the different tactics being developed by Russia and China.

A hybrid approach of both developing offensive deterrence and new defensive capabilities is also possible.

But the bottom line is that the US, the West and Israel to date have fallen behind in some aspects of the space war race, and failure to start taking the issue seriously – as opposed to viewing it as a distant future funky sci-fi issue – may have significant costs much sooner than expected.

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