As the US Air Force moves towards fielding an airborne laser designed to destroy theatre ballistic missiles, the US Army is working on a weapon able to knock out enemy reconnaissance and communications satellites.

The anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon being developed by Rockwell International's Rocketdyne Division for the US Army's Space and Strategic Defence Command is different from the USAF effort to field an aircraft-launched satellite killer, which was ditched in the mid-1980s.

The US Army ASAT project was initiated in 1990, but reduced to a technology-demonstration project two years later by Congressional critics. In 1994, a modest ASAT weapon programme was resurrected. Although it is continuing, the pace of the project remains threatened by budget cuts.

As designed, refurbished rocket boosters will be used to launch kinetic-kill vehicles (KKVs) which employ electro-optical homing to intercept satellites in low-Earth orbit. Candidate rockets include the STARS booster (the first and second stages of a de-activated Polaris sea-launched ballistic missile); and the retired Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile. Perhaps best described as a "swat-to-kill" weapon, the KKV deploys a "sail" which strikes and disables the target.

The next steps include finalising development of the on-board processor; flight qualifying the seeker; conducting a hover test; purchasing initial rocket boosters; and integrating the KKV with the booster rocket.

The US Army received $30 million in fiscal year 1996, but only $50 million of the $75 million requested for FY1997. Unless funding is restored, flight tests planned during FY1998 will not take place.

The weapon has been successfully tested, destroying an ageing scientific satellite in one trial. It is still possible that additional KKVs could be produced and more boosters purchased during 1997 and 1998, giving the US Army ten ASAT weapons for contingency purposes.

Source: Flight International