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

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.

Geoffrey Forden, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked with colleagues to estimate the probability of the hydrazine harming anyone on Earth, said that if the fuel tank made it through the atmosphere, there was a 3-in-100 chance that it would land within 100 yards of someone.

He and his colleagues also calculated, however, that the tank would be subject to a force of 50 times gravity (at the surface) as it fell through the atmosphere, and there was virtually no chance that it would have remained intact.

"It certainly would seem that protecting people against a hazardous fuel was not what this was really about," he said.

The congressional response was also mixed, although several members said the shoot-down must be a one-time event.

After praising the military for the feat of shooting down the satellite, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said in a statement: "This was an exceptional case, and I reiterate that this action should not be construed as standard U.S. policy for dealing with problem satellites."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, was more critical, saying "the geopolitical fallout of this intercept could be far greater than any chemical fallout that would have resulted from a wayward satellite."

At 150 miles altitude, the shot was the highest successful intercept by an SM-3 missile, surpassing earlier successes by nearly 50 percent. Experts said that means it is possible the military could use the modified missiles to track and destroy satellites that are 200 to 250 miles aloft, although no testing has been done at those heights with these specific missiles.

The Pentagon had modified three SM-3 missiles to shoot at the out-of-control satellite at a cost of $30 million to$40 million. Cartwright said the two unused missiles would be reconfigured to their previous condition. Left alone, the satellite was expected to fall to Earth on March 6.

Amateur astronomers on Canada's west coast told the Associated Press that they had seen about two dozen trails of debris in the sky within minutes of when the missile hit, about 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.

While officials expect the remaining debris to fall out of orbit within two weeks, the debate over the implications of the shoot-down will remain.

"I think they were using the threat as cover to do something they have been wanting to do for a long time," said Victoria Samson, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information who specializes in missile defense. "It shows that our missile defense programs are not just missile defense programs, they're also anti-satellite programs."

Supporters of missile defense technologies, however, said the U.S. intercept was far different from China's high altitude anti-satellite test because the Pentagon was transparent about its actions and because it was necessary for safety reasons.

"In my judgment, the China test was a message to the U.S. that they are pursuing an asymmetric space policy," said Baker Spring, a missile defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. "That's a fundamentally different moral proposition than the U.S. shooting down a decaying satellite that could hurt life on the ground."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company