Using a chance to test space weapons

February 22, 2008

THE U.S. military announced plans in mid-February to shoot down a 5,000-pound spy satellite by firing a missile into space.

"President Bush ordered the action to prevent any possible contamination from the hazardous rocket fuel on board, and not out of any concern that parts of the spacecraft might survive and reveal its secrets, the officials said," according to a New York Times report.

"The effort will be a real-world test of the nation's anti-ballistic missile systems and its anti-satellite abilities, even though the Pentagon said it was not using the effort to test its most exotic weapons or send a message to any adversaries."

But there's reason to doubt U.S. claims that it is acting out of only the purest motives.

Until a few weeks ago, U.S. officials were downplaying the threat posed by the satellite's imminent crash to earth. "It's really just a big thing falling on the ground that we want to make sure we're prepared for," said Gen. Gene Renuart, chief of the United States Northern Command.

The satellite is the size of school bus, but most of it is expected to break up in the earth's atmosphere, and what does hit the earth will likely land in an ocean or on uninhabited land. As the New York Times reminded readers, "Even when the space shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas five years ago and rained debris over two states, no one on the ground was injured."

The White House got into the act, noting that 328 satellites have fallen to earth and not a single injury has resulted. But as the opportunity unfolded for a chance to fire space weapons at the satellite, the administration reversed itself. "This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings," said James Jeffrey, deputy national security adviser.

Few people inside or outside the U.S. see it this way--especially considering Washington's sharp denunciation of China for shooting down one of its own satellites in a test of an anti-satellite missile.

"The politics are terrible," said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation. "It will be used by the Chinese to excuse their hit-to-kill test. And it really strengthens the perceived link between anti-satellite systems and missile defenses. We will be using a missile defense system to shoot down a satellite."

The Bush administration has described the failing satellite's fuel cell as "toxic," but it is relatively innocuous. The hydrazine fuel cell is nitrogen-based, and upon impact would spread over an area of about two football fields, quickly burning up and producing nitrogen gas and water vapor.

If the Bush administration were really concerned with "reducing the danger to human beings" posed by objects falling from the sky, one certain way it could save lives would be to stop dropping 5,000-pound bombs in densely populated Iraqi neighborhoods.

THE PENTAGON predicts an 80 percent chance of hitting the satellite, which will be 150 miles above the earth when a single missile from a Navy cruiser in the northern Pacific Ocean is fired at it. Officials say they may fire a second shot if the first misses.

Boosters as well as critics of the U.S. government's costly spending on its missile defense program, which has been largely unsuccessful in demonstrating the viability of trying to shoot down an incoming missile with another missile, will be watching the shoot-down of the satellite with keen interest--hence a good reason to consider this a test, whatever the official insistence to the contrary.

"Should it succeed, the accomplishment would embolden those who champion even more spending on top of the $57.8 billion appropriated by Congress for missile defenses since the Bush administration's first budget in the 2002 fiscal year," according to the New York Times. "It might even revive a dormant effort to focus the military on anti-satellite operations, as well. Failure, on the other hand, would be cited as hard and fresh evidence for those who point to the futility of space-warfare programs."

But for now, the U.S. continues to refuse to sign onto any treaties banning space weapons, such as the one proposed this month by Russia and China.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia carried out about 50 anti-satellite tests. Now, the U.S. sees itself as leading the race to weaponize space. Hence, in the words of New York Times reporter Thom Shanker, "The United States has resisted suggestions that a new arms-control regime be negotiated to govern space weapons, and has asserted its sovereign right to defend its own access to space and to deny it to others in future wars."

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