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Pentagon Space Shot to Offer Antisatellite Data, Experts Say

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Defense Department plan to use a Navy missile to shatter a dysfunctional spy satellite in the coming days would likely spawn data that could boost the U.S. ability to destroy foreign space assets, according to military experts (see GSN, March 12, 2007). President George W. Bush ordered the intercept as a way of ensuring that toxic rocket fuel aboard the spacecraft would burn up when pieces of the satellite re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, administration officials said. 

The first attempt to destroy the satellite could be made as soon as Sunday or Monday, and later efforts would be possible for seven or eight days after that, the officials said.  Left untouched, the satellite would fall back to Earth on or about March 6.

At a Pentagon press briefing yesterday, U.S. officials insisted that the only reason for undertaking the extreme measure was to prevent people on the ground from potentially being exposed to any hazardous hydrazine fuel that might survive re-entry.

"The likelihood of the satellite falling in a populated area is small, and the extent and duration of toxic hydrazine in the atmosphere would be quite limited," Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffrey told reporters.  "Nevertheless, if the satellite did fall in a populated area, there was a possibility of death or injury to human beings, beyond that associated with the fall of satellites and other space objects normally."

A number of space and missile experts are not buying the explanation, though.  Given the limited nature of the risks associated with an uncontrolled descent for the crippled satellite, some are pointing to other possible justifications for the White House plan.

"I think the scenario is kind of funny," said one space contractor who declined to be named in this article, citing the sensitivity of calling the administration's explanation into question.  If the satellite were to fall to Earth unhindered, "it shouldn't contaminate a large area," the official said.

Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, estimated yesterday that the toxic fuel potentially could disperse in gas or liquid form over an area the size of two football fields.

"There has to be another reason behind this," Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, told the Washington Post.  "In the history of the space age, there has not been a single human being who has been harmed by man-made objects falling from space."

The space contractor speculated that U.S. officials are more concerned about the potential that classified technology or information aboard the reconnaissance satellite could endure re-entry and fall into adversary hands, if discovered on the ground.

There exists "as high a chance" that spy technology or data "would survive [descent] as a fuel tank filled with hydrazine," said the space expert.

Administration officials explicitly rejected that hypothesis.

"Our assessment is high probability that it would not be of any intelligence value," Cartwright said.  "Just the heating, the destruction that occurs on the re-entry would leave it in a state that … other than some rare, unforecasted happenstance, this would not be of intelligence value."

Rather, he insisted, "it is the hydrazine that we are looking at.  That is the only thing that [makes it] worthy of taking extraordinary measures."

"I am willing to believe Gen. Cartwright even though his statement makes no sense to me," said Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the Nuclear Strategy Initiative for the New America Foundation.  "His personal credibility is so high."

Regardless of the central rationale for the anticipated intercept, the action almost certainly would offer the Pentagon useful data on conducting antisatellite missions, Lewis told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview.

The dead U.S. satellite is to be struck at a significantly lower altitude than other space assets.  However, that could prove even more of a challenge to the Navy than any future antisatellite operation because spacecraft on lower orbits typically travel at higher speeds, Lewis said. 

The upcoming shot -- using a sea-based Standard Missile 3 developed for regional and tactical missile defense -- could thus prove to be a useful test for less demanding intercepts that might someday follow, he said.

"The higher a satellite is [in space], the slower it moves, more or less," Lewis said.  "This is a perfectly good ASAT test."

Cartwright said Thursday that a Navy Aegis ship would launch a single missile to destroy the satellite.  Two additional ships with back-up missiles would also remain on station in case the first attempt fails.  In such an instance, the military would assess in fewer than two days whether the benefit of any subsequent shots would outweigh the risks.

Cartwright said the first shot would probably hit its target.

"I don't think hitting a satellite is very hard," Lewis added.  "I would be surprised if they missed."

"What could be the worst downside?" asked Cartwright, saying this was a question administration leaders pondered carefully.  Assessing each alternative, "we really came away with we're better off taking the attempt than not," he said.

However, some pundits have already taken issue with that notion.  Some note the heavy criticism Cartwright and others leveled at China for an antisatellite test Beijing conducted early last year (see GSN, Jan. 11).

In that January 11, 2007, test, China destroyed an aging weather site with a ground-based missile, leaving thousands of pieces of debris in orbit.

A U.S. official in Vienna, speaking at an international space conference coincidentally under way this week, today said that the United States expects 99 percent of the debris from the planned destruction to fall to Earth within two weeks.

Officials briefing the Washington press yesterday insisted the planned U.S. shot in no way should be construed as a response to Beijing's own satellite shootdown.

"This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings," Jeffrey told reporters.

The top U.S. officials' public explanation for the upcoming action would not stop China or others from interpreting the move differently, some observers have said.

Bush's National Security Council "may have no sensitivity to the political costs," Lewis said.  "The administration has been generally willing to offend allies and [doesn't] put as much stock into how their actions are perceived."

Asked if it would be fair for other nations to regard the Standard Missile 3 as an antisatellite-capable weapon if the upcoming mission is successful, Cartwright said it was "a fair question and a good question."

However, he said, the Navy has implemented for this action a "one-time" modification to the three ships and missiles, which "would not be transferable to a fleet configuration."

For their part, "the Chinese are going to use this to excuse their otherwise inexcusable test," Lewis said.  "And those other countries who we count on to create a norm against debris-creating ASATs will be less willing to help us" in that effort, he said.

That said, Lewis added, "maybe they'll buy the hydrazine story."

Jeffrey said international consultations began only yesterday so it was too early to know how foreign nations would react to the use of a Navy missile in taking down a U.S. satellite.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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