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Lasers have place in space defense

One humanitarian use of lasers is in eye surgery. But it isn't only people with cataracts whose vision lasers may help preserve. Shortly, the Army plans to test a light-wave weapon that could ensure our satellites continue to see clearly what an enemy's up to during wartime. Predictably, the experiment strikes some as "provocative."

How? When the Army trains its Miracl (Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser) system for 10 seconds on a wheezing Air Force satellite 263 miles above, then surveys the damages, it will know better how to protect military spacecraft from laser attack. Russia reportedly has anti-satellite lasers - the Soviets may have temporarily blinded a U.S. pilot with one - while various plug-ugly regimes want them. American war games often begin with a simulated blinding of our spy satellites, which peeped to good effect on Iraqi forces during Desert Storm. To learn how to better safeguard these assets is hardly an act of belligerence.Although treaties prohibit the militarization of space, nothing bans the sort of ground-based testing contemplated by the Army in New Mexico. At present, there are no concrete plans to even repeat the test, much less develop satellite-killing weapons - though research should proceed on this technology, which, unless space-based, would comply with treaty law.

It's dangerous to assume any institution, including the military, is genetically benign; arms-control activists sometimes usefully file Freedom of Information suits to uncover Pentagon-held secrets. But the people's right to know extends to American soldiers, too. Their eyes in the sky shouldn't develop sudden cataracts because we don't know how to provide eye protection.