The stunning image of a Navy missile streaking into outer space at 6,000 mph to obliterate an orbiting spy satellite boosts the credibility of missile-defense advocates. Yet questions remain whether that success could be duplicated against a surprise, real-world attack.
The idea, whether the target is an unarmed satellite or an enemy missile, is basically the same: Fire a guided missile into the path of the moving target and smash it to bits by the force of impact. In theory, the collision could render harmless even a nuclear- or chemical-armed missile, an idea that evolved from President Reagan’s “Star Wars” program of the 1980s.
In the case of the spy satellite, a Navy SM-3 missile launched from a cruiser in the Pacific not only hit the U.S. satellite but apparently blasted the operators' main target: a titanium-encased tank of fuel that officials said could pose a health hazard to humans on re-entry.
Henry Cooper, who was the Pentagon’s “Star Wars” chief from 1990 to 1993, said the outcome bodes well for the Navy and prospects for adding to its missile defense repertoire.
“It’s definitely a boost for the Navy program because everybody is made aware of the flexibility and perhaps even the reliability of program,” Cooper said in a telephone interview.
It was the first time a U.S. missile interceptor had been used in an anti-satellite role.
It was not exactly a dry run for a missile defense test, but there are significant parallels. One is that neither mission — against a satellite or a missile — can be executed successfully without a network of space- and ground-based radars to track the target and to cue the intercepting missile. The satellite shootdown offered a chance to coordinate all those missile defense-related pieces.
“The successful intercept is further validation of America’s sea-based missile defense capability,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
A new challenge
The satellite, deemed worthy of a shootdown because of the slim possibility that its fuel tank could land in a populated area, was moving faster and traveling at a higher altitude than the missiles that the SM-3 had hit in controlled anti-missile tests. So it was a new challenge for the Navy missile.
“It did confirm the ability of the SM-3 to intercept at a higher elevation,” said Baker Spring, a specialist at the Heritage Foundation think tank and a longtime advocate of missile defenses.
Raytheon, the maker of the SM-3, said the missile was put in an unexpected role.
“The missile was never designed to engage a satellite,” company spokesman David Albritton said.
A major problem in ballistic missile defense is that an opponent like China might equip a warhead with enough decoys and other countermeasures to “outsmart” and evade a U.S. missile interceptor. Or it might launch a big enough volley of missiles to overcome a limited defensive system.
A touchy issue
That’s not an issue when shooting at satellites, which move in isolation on a relatively predictable path through space. Which helps explain why the United States has chosen not to field an arsenal of anti-satellite weapons: the risk of inviting retaliation against highly vulnerable U.S. satellites, which are vital to national and economic security.
This is a particularly touchy issue with China, which drew strong U.S. condemnation last year when it downed one of its own weather satellites, creating a large amount of space debris. Wednesday’s U.S. shootdown was timed to minimize the amount of debris that would remain outside the atmosphere. Space is increasingly a field of military competition between China and the U.S.
The Pentagon had shown decades ago that it could smash an orbiting satellite. This week’s strike showed that it could be done with an improvised array of missiles, radars and command systems that at times have failed to perform as advertised in tests against long-range ballistic missiles.
Downplaying the anti-satellite angle
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, applauded the outcome of the satellite shootdown but stressed that it should stand as a one-of-a-kind operation.
“This action should not be construed as standard U.S. policy for dealing with problem satellites,” he said.
It is not the policy of the U.S. government to field anti-satellite weapons. But some of the same technologies are at the heart of the Bush administration’s efforts to accelerate the development of a far-flung network that can reliably defend U.S. and allied territory against ballistic missiles. The Bush administration has spent about $10 billion a year on missile defense in recent years.
At the Pentagon, Gen. James Cartwright told reporters it would be wrong to think that the satellite shootdown was done to demonstrate that the U.S. military has an anti-satellite capability.
“We understand ASAT,” Cartwright said, using the military’s acronym for anti-satellite weaponry. “There’s no reason to go back and re-prove what we’ve already done.” And he said the satellite operation required modifications to the SM-3 missile that do not translate to an anti-missile mission.
“It doesn’t correlate,” said Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Will I be able to convince everybody that that’s the case? No.”
One such skeptic may be China, which raised concerns about the satellite shootdown before and after the fact.
On Thursday the Beijing government asked the U.S. to release data on the shootdown, and the Communist Party’s newspaper blasted what it called Washington’s callous attitude toward the weaponization of space.
Asked about China’s concerns, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters during a visit to U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii that the United States is prepared to share with China some of the information about the shootdown, but he was not specific. He said some was provided beforehand.
Robert Burns has covered military and national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.