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Effort to Shoot Down Satellite Could Inform Military Strategy

By Marc Kaufman and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Bush administration's attempt to shoot down an out-of-control spy satellite as early as this evening will help the military advance its anti-missile and anti-satellite planning and technology, according to space weapons experts and analysts. Both fields are of high interest to the military and of high concern for many other nations.

While U.S. officials have depicted the attempt solely as a precaution against the slim chance that the satellite's hazardous rocket fuel could harm people on Earth, the test will inherently have spillover military consequences, the experts said.

To accomplish this week's task, for example, the Navy has modified its Aegis anti-missile radar system for satellite tracking, making clear that a system designed for missile defense can be transformed into an anti-satellite system in a short time.

The attempted shoot-down will also enable the Pentagon to practice using, in an urgent scenario, key elements of its space defense apparatus, including the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and its sophisticated space identification, tracking and targeting system.

The attempt will further provide an unscripted opportunity to see whether ship-based missiles can blow up the satellite just as it reenters Earth's atmosphere -- a key moment in any attempt to intercept an intercontinental missile that might someday be launched against the United States.

"Whatever their motivation for shooting down the satellite, it's clear that this will be quite useful to the military," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on military space issues and a department head of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

The targeting of the satellite follows several decades of effort by the Defense Department to develop weaponry to shoot down enemy satellites or missiles.

In 1985, the Air Force successfully tested an air-launched missile to shoot down a satellite, and in 2004, it called for ensuring American "space superiority" in an official policy statement, a phrase meant to cover the denial of enemy access to space when needed.

The Pentagon now spends more than $12 billion annually to develop weapons capable of shooting down missiles entering or leaving space, but it has no dedicated U.S. anti-satellite weapons program in its latest unclassified budget. The military has also worked on a laser project in New Mexico that could have anti-satellite capabilities, and has launched two small satellites that independent experts speculate could be modified to attack, or defend, larger spacecraft.

International treaties, opposition from Congress and concerns about future space debris from anti-satellite tests have all complicated these efforts. The incoming spy satellite, some believe, offers an opportunity to avoid some of those constraints and to test what amounts to an anti-satellite defense.

The Navy has said that it may take as many as three shots at the satellite, and Johnson-Freese said "that will give them data they've never had before," adding: "They're taking a missile defense system and using it as an anti-satellite system, and now they'll be able to see how well it works."

David Wright, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said "there's a real concern among people here and in other nations that the U.S. is trying to develop space weapons in the guise of other systems." The plan to shoot down the satellite, he says, "fuels the flames for those who think we want to build anti-satellite capabilities." Both China and Russia have criticized the planned satellite intercept.

Paul B. Stares, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has written books about anti-satellite technology and space security, said the skills to be demonstrated in the attempt emphasize how important military activity in space has become. "It's hard to imagine how, as the use of space for military purposes increases, the interest in anti-satellite weaponry won't increase at a similar pace," he said.

Stares said that the first American anti-satellite weapons in the early 1960s were nuclear-armed and designed to destroy or disable satellites across vast expanses of space. Nuclear tests in the atmosphere, however, made clear that these weapons were impractical, because the explosions knocked out useful satellites as well as the targets and severely disrupted ground communications. The United States and former Soviet Union signed a treaty banning nuclear tests in space in 1963.

The United States and Russia have intermittently pursued anti-satellite programs since then, and also have occasionally respected informal moratoriums on testing. The Russian program involved launching smaller craft to follow a target and get close enough to blow it up. Early last year, China demonstrated its own capability by shooting a ground-based missile at an old satellite 600 miles in space. That test produced thousands of pieces of potentially damaging space debris and brought condemnation from much of the world.

The potential vulnerability of U.S. satellites to foreign weaponry is well known to officials at home and abroad. When asked last week about Chinese and Russian capabilities to harm our satellites, Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, told the House Armed Services Committee, "It would not be that difficult to inflict significant, serious damage to our capabilities over [a] couple of days."

Since the United States abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, both China and Russia have pushed for a new treaty that would ban weapons in space. The United States has opposed the proposal at the United Nations disarmament conference.

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