U.S. Makes Case About Satellite To Foreign Envoys

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

The State Department sent cables to all embassies yesterday instructing diplomats to explain to foreign governments how the upcoming attempt to shoot down an out-of-control spy satellite is different from China's destruction of one of its orbiting satellites early last year.

"This particular action is different than any actions that, for example, the Chinese may have taken in testing an anti-satellite weapon," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "The missions are quite different, and the technical aspects of the missions are quite different."

The administration is sensitive to international concerns that the United States might be moving toward beefing up its anti-satellite weapons or developing an offensive anti-satellite system, and the diplomatic message is an attempt to convince foreign countries that they need not worry. Unlike the Chinese anti-satellite test, the cable said, the U.S. attempt to destroy the potentially dangerous satellite is being done for peaceful reasons and in a transparent way.

"Our role is to reassure nations around the world as to the nature of what we are trying to do," McCormack said. "It's an attempt to try to protect populations on the ground."

National security and military officials said Thursday that the Navy would try to shoot down the malfunctioning satellite as it begins to reenter Earth's atmosphere -- as early as next week. They said President Bush ordered the action because the satellite is carrying 1,000 pounds of frozen hydrazine fuel, which could be harmful if it falls to Earth and a person came into contact with it.

The announcement came at a somewhat awkward time, because earlier in the week Russia and China had put forward a proposal at a 65-member United Nations Disarmament Conference to ban the development of weapons in space. The proposal would not necessarily prohibit the United States, or any nation, from shooting down satellites from the ground, but it does forbid development of offensive weapons based in space. The United States has been in a small minority opposing similar treaty proposals.

Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, said the administration's plans to shoot down the satellite -- using a missile that is part of the missile defense program -- will inevitably be interpreted by some as a test of an anti-satellite system.

"I don't believe our missile defense was developed as a secret offensive system, but this plan [to shoot down the satellite] shows the technology can go either way," Hitchens said. "We've given the Chinese and the Russians more cause for concern, and there could be very unfortunate consequences."

John Tkacik, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that the satellite shoot-down will be seen by Chinese and Russian leaders as further indication that the United States intends to develop its abilities to intercept incoming ballistic missiles that travel through the atmosphere and briefly through space.

"I don't think the U.S. is in fact sending that message, but I'm certain the Chinese will think so," Tkacik said. He also said he wishes the administration were more serious about expanding the missile defense system into space.

David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the Navy has no better than a 50 percent chance of hitting its target. He also said he is concerned that a successful strike could push debris further into space and harm spacecraft in low orbit.

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