Laser Grinding of SpaceX: Why the US Is Alarmed by the Abrupt Failure of Military Satellites Over Ukraine

NEW – May 20, 2022

Commercial systems remain the only channel for obtaining data for the Pentagon and the UAF, but they may soon “go out”.

Combat lasers

On May 18, Deputy Prime Minister of the government and curator of the Russian defence industry, Yury Borisov, said that the “Peresvet” combat laser system has already been serially supplied to the Russian troops. According to the Deputy Prime Minister, the laser can disable satellites in orbits up to 1,500 kilometres high. Such technologies were previously considered impossible. A significant number of experiments in this area were conducted by two superpowers of the world.

Several similar programs have been active in the US for some time. One of the most promising was considered to be the development work on the topic of the YAL-1 “flying laser” based on the Boeing 747 aircraft. As a result, $12 billion was spent on a high-energy weapons program to intercept ballistic missile warheads, but the work was completed to no avail.

In the USSR, they went the other way. Few people know, but it was the mock-up of the “Skif-DM” combat laser complex, or “Index 17F19DM”, better known as “Polyus”, that was the first “passenger” of the superheavy “Energiya” rocket back in 1987. As with modern anti-satellite weapons, its principle was based on the defeat of the optical elements of enemy satellites – visors and lenses. The second, cheaper and simpler project in this direction is the A-60 chemical laser based on the Il-76 transport aircraft.

“Peresvet” laser and secret “Zadira”

Work on the “Peresvet” combat laser complex was first announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The exact composition of the equipment inside the complex is not disclosed, however, it is known that “Peresvet” is a high-energy laser in a mobile version: a generator and a combat readiness maintenance system, a radiator and a surveillance system are located in several sections. According to some reports, the complex is effective against all surveillance means, including RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned vehicles, as well as most spacecraft of the American IMINT species reconnaissance system. According to some reports, commercial structures are also periodically connected to it. The most famous example is MAXAR, which provides high-resolution intelligence to the US military. The other two participants in this program are slightly less well known, but Planet Labs and SkyBox have the most high-tech devices.

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Back in 2014, with the help of a complex optical circuit, ultra-sensitive matrices and software processing, Skybox was able to achieve outstanding performance. From a height of 600 km, their devices can film the surface of the planet with a detail of about 1 meter, while it’s not only about photos, but also about video. The project turned out to be so impressive that the entire company was bought out by the IT giant Google, and the satellites formed the basis of the Terra Bella surveillance system. Another company, Planet Labs, received the first “spy grant” back in 2016, and since then it has been commercial structures that have been spying on the most important objects of a likely enemy, including in Russia.

The capabilities of the “Peresvet” laser are designed just for such means of reconnaissance. The principle of operation of the weapon is not disclosed, however, it is known that the previous complexes, designed in the USSR and Russia, could operate in several modes. The two most important ones are the “local impact” mode on a specific vehicle flying over a restricted zone, as well as the “continuous defeat” mode, when over a certain zone (a square of several hundred kilometres) a so-called laser curtain is being put up.

There is no detailed data on the combat deployment of the “Peresvet” complexes during the special military operation in Ukraine, however, in early March, Wired reported that American satellites were “experiencing difficulties” in working when flying over the border areas of Russia and Ukraine. According to Wired, the intelligence department of the US Department of Defence could not get any pictures of the desired area at all before the start of hostilities, and the advanced units of Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine were noticed from space only a few hours after the start of “Operation Z”. Neither civilian analysts nor representatives of the Pentagon specify why this happened.

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And on February 28, 4 days after the start of the special military operation in Ukraine, Google satellites “fell off”. The company even had to issue a statement informing users about the “temporary shutdown” of updates for images in areas of concentration and movement of Russian troops. In total, according to Professor Todd Humphreys of the University of Texas, at least 50 different synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellites were deployed over Ukraine after the start of its military operation by the Russian Army.

Satellite view of “Azovstal”. Photo © Getty Images / Maxar Technologies

It is curious that the combat protection of such objects as the “Peresvet” laser is carried out not only by electronic warfare troops and air defence units, but also by fully-fledged “Zadira” combat lasers. This complex was developed at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center (Russian Federal Nuclear Center — All-Russian Research Institute of Experimental Physics) in Sarov. The power of the weapon is not disclosed, however, according to some reports, a few seconds of radiation is enough to “cut” a small reconnaissance drone into two parts.

Starlink to Ukraine

According to some reports, the American and Ukrainian military had several simultaneous serious problems.

Firstly, a significant part of the equipment of the US surveillance satellites “failed” in the first few days of the special operation in Ukraine. The reasons why this happened are not disclosed in the United States, just as in Russia they do not make statements on the combat use of “Peresvet” lasers capable of burning out the powerful optics of satellites in orbits up to 1,500 kilometres high.

Secondly, the transmission of data from Maxar Technologies’ WorldView-2 satellites to Ukrainian spacecraft was difficult, since the latter, as it turned out, were not designed for such a volume of information. Data overload has led to the fact that a significant part of telecommunications satellites simply failed. It is not possible to restore their functionality at the moment, so the spacecraft are just hanging out in orbit like garbage.

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It is for this reason that Elon Musk was urgently brought into the arena. Starlink communications satellites, previously tested at military exercises of the US Army and the Strategic Command, turned out to be the most convenient channel for data transmission. If it were not for the data transmission network that SpaceX deployed in orbit, the UAF would have lost all intelligence — both its own and those transmitted to them by American intelligence.

Sergey Andreyev

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