Spy Satellite's Downing Shows a New U.S. Weapon Capability

The U.S. Navy shot down a wayward spy satellite orbiting the Earth. Video courtesy U.S. Department of Defense
By Marc Kaufman and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 22, 2008

The unprecedented downing of an errant spy satellite by a Navy missile makes it clear that the Pentagon has a new weapon in its arsenal -- an anti-satellite missile adapted from the nation's missile defense program.

While the dramatic intercept took place well below the altitude where most satellites orbit, defense and space experts said Wednesday night's first-shot success strongly suggests that the military has the technology and know-how to knock out satellites at much higher orbits.

The Pentagon officials said they were 90 percent certain the missile had struck its primary target, a tank containing toxic fuel, but they stressed that the shoot-down did not indicate that the United States is developing an anti-satellite program. Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the effort was not a test of the nation's missile defense system or a show of force to put other countries on notice that the United States can take down a satellite.

"This was uncharted territory," he said. "We see this as a one-time event."

Nonetheless, many space experts and arms-control advocates in the United States and abroad said the shot had opened the door to more anti-satellite tests by more nations.

"Demonstrably, we do have an [anti-satellite] capability now," said David Mosher, a Rand Corp. defense and space expert. "Anyone who followed national missile defense issues knew we've had that inherent ability for some time. But now it's real, and we can expect there will be consequences."

Clay Moltz, a professor of nuclear and space policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, said destruction of the satellite may have sent a signal to other countries that could set a bad precedent.

"It solved a short-term problem, but it may cause us long-term headaches in terms of emerging test programs in other countries," Moltz said.

Riki Ellison, president and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said it is "remarkable" -- and good news -- that the missile defense system is so easily adaptable.

"We now have something that has the capability, anywhere around the world, to handle a falling satellite," Ellison said. "The world wasn't really watching it before. This is much more now known throughout the world that we have this capability."

The Chinese Communist Party newspaper condemned what it called Washington's callous attitude toward the weaponizing of space. The Chinese government -- which conducted a full-scale anti-satellite test in January 2001 -- asked the United States to release data on the shoot-down and where the satellite's debris would fall. In Honolulu, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said some information would be shared to assure the Chinese and others that any pieces that reach the surface will not be hazardous.

Many governments accepted the Bush administration's explanation that the satellite had to be knocked apart because it was carrying a 1,000-pound tank of potentially hazardous hydrazine rocket fuel. "Obviously, we regret the circumstances, but we understand that these were exceptional circumstances, and we support the decision," said Emmanuel Lenain, a French Embassy spokesman.

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