Think of the downing of the US satellite as an episode of Fox’s award winning television series 24. In the series the apparent objective changes as the terrorists are discovered to be pawns in a larger, more insidious scheme.
Like 24, the operation that downed the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-21 Radarsat is more complicated than simply protecting earthlings from a wayward spy satellite.
Last Wednesday at 10:26 PM Pacific time, the USS Lake Erie, an Aegis cruiser, launched a three-staged Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) from northwest of Hawaii. Three minutes later the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California confirmed the interceptor and the satellite collided at a combined velocity of 22,000 mph. The satellite’s titanium tank which was loaded with 1,000 pounds of hydrazine rocket fuel was fractured dispersing the toxic material harmlessly in near-space.
The officials who convinced the President to bring down the satellite must have gone through an exhaustive process of risk analysis. The selected course of action was apparently successful and now we are seeing the gains and losses resulting play out.
The risk assessment would have considered the political and human toll had an intact tank of hydrazine hit a populated area. On the other hand, it also would have assessed the implications of missing the satellite for the US’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) program and the possible compromise of the satellite’s secret payload.
The ABM people were confident in their interceptor or they would have handled the situation more discreetly. Instead of seeking an enemy warhead as it arcs on a relatively short ballistic path, like hitting a bullet with a bullet, General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the satellite was an easier target because it was “… much larger than a warhead, almost the size of a school bus … circling Earth predictably about 16 times a day.”
Even though the satellite’s orbit was over populated areas, the risk to humans was low according to research scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “It certainly would seem that protecting people against a hazardous fuel was not what this was really about,” said Geoffrey Forden, a MIT researcher. Forden and his colleagues calculated there was a 3-in-100 chance that the fuel tank would land within 100 yards of someone and there was virtually no chance it would remain intact.
So why did the president go ahead with the estimated $40 million operation if the risk was so low? Apparently, the unspoken advantages tipped the scales on the disadvantages.
The key advantage appears to be keeping the satellite’s debris out of the hands of hostile intelligence agencies and/or avoiding an international incident trying to retrieve surviving parts. The NROL-21 spacecraft included a highly classified Enhanced Imaging System which represents the next generation of raw source material for exploitation within the US Imagery and Geospatial Information System.
This mission was also an easy test for our ABM interceptor which showed that our capability works and can be rapidly modified. But as General Cartwright said, “The technical degree of difficulty was significant here” and this was a “low flying” satellite and the Aegis and SM-3 could unlikely be modified to intercept anything at much greater altitudes.
Another advantage is that the successful operation virtually guarantees future ABM funding even in a Democratic administration. Both Democratic presidential contenders have stated their opposition to ABM but if either becomes president it will be politically difficult to cancel funds for a “proven” system. Republican front-runner Senator John McCain strongly supports the development and deployment of theater and national missile defenses.
The US is a prime target for ballistic missiles that are proliferating. The advantage earned from the satellite operation is that it demonstrates to our adversaries a capability to deploy a sea-based ABM system that can reach three-quarters of the globe to thwart ballistic missiles from rogues like Iran or North Korea or even ballistic-missile-carrying submarines deployed by China.
Washington may have intended this operation to respond to China’s January 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test. Although this operation does not demonstrate that capability, especially against communications satellites which typically hover 22,300 miles above the Earth, it does demonstrate the dual-use advantage of our BMD technology for offensive ASAT which could be used against “low flying” spy satellites.
One geopolitical disadvantage is the chance that the shoot-down will encourage further proliferation of ballistic missiles, ASAT and ABM systems. "It solved a short-term problem, but it may cause us long-term headaches in terms of emerging test programs in other countries," said Clay Moltz, a professor of nuclear and space policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. The Carnegie Foundation’s non-proliferation project counts 35 nations as fielding some type of ballistic missile.
There is also the disadvantage that the effort further complicates our troubled relations with China and Russia. At a news conference in Beijing, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao called on the US to provide "necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way so that relevant countries can take precautions." Disturbingly, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agreed to provide ”appropriate” data from the operation to the Chinese.
Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that any US use of its ABM system against satellites would bring an unspecified response. The US and Russia are already in a tug-of-war over the US-proposed Europe-based BMD to counter Iran’s missile threat. Putin contends our system will marginalize Russia’s missile capability and promises to counter it by retargeting Russian missiles at Europe as it did during the Cold War.
The Russians and Chinese also accuse the US of weaponizing space. The fact is that space has been militarized for decades because most of the modern world depends upon space for navigation, intelligence gathering, and targeting.
Sharing responsibility for weaponizing space hasn’t stopped China and Russia from rushing to the United Nations to leverage America’s BMD advantage. Early last week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and China’s UN representative Li Baodong introduced a treaty aimed at banning weapons in space. The treaty was necessary because “… weapons deployment in space by one state will inevitably result in . . . a new spiral in the arms race both in space and on the earth," Mr. Lavrov said. But the proposed treaty is hollow because it bans non-existent space weapons while ignoring counter-space systems like China’s ASAT.
The downing of NROL-21 Radarsat was about protecting American technology and showcasing anti-missile capabilities as a warning to our enemies. This incident should be a wake-up to our presidential wannabees that our security challenges are becoming very complicated and the nation’s high office is not for amateurs.