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15. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter 1

SUBJECT

  • Soviet and US High-Energy Laser Weapon Programs

As you recall, a little over a week ago, [2 lines not declassified] Harold Brown has reacted by sending you an assessment of US high-energy laser (HEL) Programs (Tab A).2 His main points are: (1) that we are probably somewhat ahead in technology and would probably be ahead in some applications if we chose to pursue them; [less than 1 line not declassified] I have also had my staff examine both the US high-energy laser program [less than 1 line not declassified] As a result of that examination, I think that it is appropriate to make the following points.

[less than 1 line not declassified]

—[3 lines not declassified]

—[4 lines not declassified]

—As part of the comparative technology assessment done for PRM–10,3 [4 lines not declassified]

Concerning US Programs

A short description of US HEL research programs is given at Tab B.4 Overall, those of our programs that are pursuing the technology needed for tactical applications seem aggressively funded. We could probably move more rapidly toward a space-based laser ASAT capability if we were willing to fund a program directed at this purpose. Before making such a decision, we should examine its impact carefully—particularly in light of our ASAT arms control interests.

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Concerning Relative Progress and Its Significance

For the various tactical applications of lasers, the military significance of being the first to deploy an operational system is probably not very great because such systems would have to be deployed in large numbers to make a significant overall impact.

Ground or space based ABM applications are potentially very significant. However, a number of ground based systems would be required, and while laser radars may be practical, systems with enough power to destroy large numbers of missiles or RV’s in very short times are a long way off.

[1 paragraph (9 lines) not declassified]

Nonetheless, the political consequences of a Soviet laser ASAT system in space might be substantial. Soviet demonstration of a space based laser ASAT system might shatter our sense of technical superiority as badly as it was when the first Sputnik was orbited.5

Conclusions

The issue seems to boil down to one basic question. What should we do to guard against the possibility of a space-based laser ASAT “gap”?

The obvious answer would be to prevent high-energy lasers from being put in space—or, if there are valuable legitimate uses of HEL’s in space, to develop agreed procedures with the Soviets to govern all such uses. Accordingly, I have asked the ASAT arms control working group to examine the possibilities for verifiable agreements along such lines.

To hedge against the failure of efforts to limit the use of HEL’s in space, we should pursue the technology required to do this ourselves—as fast as reasonable levels of efficiency will allow. I therefore intend to ask Harold whether or not there are any additional technology efforts we should consider if we want to minimize the delay involved in bridging the gap from tactical to space ASAT applications.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject Chron File, Box 124, Weapons Systems: 11–12/77. Secret.
  2. Not attached. An undated memorandum from George Heilmeier, the Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to Secretary of Defense Brown, which was attached to a November 14 memorandum from Under Secretary of Defense William Perry to Brown, contains information about High-Energy Laser programs. Heilmeier’s and Perry’s memoranda are in the Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–80–0017, Box 56, 471.96 (11 Nov–Dec) 1977.
  3. Presidential Review Memorandum 10, “Comprehensive Net Assessment and Military Posture Review,” is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IV, National Security Policy.
  4. Tab B is attached but not printed.
  5. The Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957.