Space Arms Race?

The United States recently destroyed a broken satellite that was crashing toward earth. The President was concerned large pieces of the bus-sized object might end up falling on someone’s house, along with a few thousands pounds of toxic fuel. Some years ago, according to former missile defense Director Hank Cooper, a Russian and US satellite under similar circumstances fell to earth intact. Immediately, those suffering from BDS, or Bush Derangement Syndrome, such as Ted Postel of MIT, and Virginia Samson and Phil Coyle of the Center for Defense Information, whined that (1) there really was no threat from falling debris or toxic chemicals; (2) shooting down the satellite was not possible anyway;  (3) shooting down the satellite was rigged; and (4) the demonstrated capability was a sneaky way to test the US missile and anti-satellite capability.

The drive-by media joined the chorus as well, referring to such critics as “arms controllers.” Supporters of the shoot-down were quickly labeled as hawks or militarists, uninterested, of course, in “arms control” and seriously jeopardizing a just announced Chinese and Russia proposal to seek a ban on the “weaponization of space.”

What was particularly extraordinary about the test was the ability of the interceptor, a Standard Missile-3 launched from the Navy’s USS Lake Erie, to strike the tank of fuel aboard the satellite, not unlike hitting a gas can inside a bus at some 20,000 miles an hour at a height some 100+ miles above the earth. Dr. Postel had argued the interceptor would simply travel through the bus itself — leaving a hole but nothing else. Phil Coyle argued the intercept couldn’t succeed as we did not know the speed of the broken satellite. Virginia Samson argued the contrary, claiming since we knew the speed of the satellite and could operate it, the test was essentially rigged and demonstrated nothing about the effectiveness of missile defense. Others argued the test was actually a sneaky way to demonstrate not only a missile defense capability but an ability to shoot down satellites.

The latter issue was of concern because last year the PRC had shot down one of its own orbiting weather satellites at some 500 miles above the earth. The shattered vehicle then continued to orbit the earth, scattering space debris over a broad area and threatening the safe functioning of other space satellites. The Chinese got much of a pass for this shoot-down. We were told it represented a plea by Peking to engage the United States in space arms control talks. For many years, opponents of missile defense — as far back as the 1984 Mondale Presidential campaign — portrayed missile defense as an evil US scheme to weaponize space. China and Russia joined the campaign by proposing to the United Nations in early 2008 to ban weapons in space. But missile defenses no more weaponize space than US Navy ships have weaponized the world’s oceans.

The US shoot down was actually a variant of 16 other missile defense tests conducted by the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy of the Standard Missile 3 over the past few years, 14 of which have been successful. In this test, about $25 million in software changes had to be undertaken, but the successful intercept demonstrated the remarkable capability of the missile defense technology. This hardly was “sneaky” in that we announced each of the tests, conducted them within an area with range safety issues paramount, and relayed the results quickly to the press, Congress and our allies. What really upset our critics was that the shoot-down worked.

Postel, Samson and Coyle have been leading a campaign to eliminate missile defense capabilities from the US security posture, wedded as they are to the Cold-War era of mutual assured destruction and guaranteed vulnerability. To call them “arms controllers”, as the drive-by media does, is absurd. They are no such thing. The real arms controllers, those extraordinary Americans who secured agreements to reduce nuclear weapons, include Hank Cooper, Judge Clark, Tom Reed, Larry Welch, Max Kampelman, Ed Rowney, R. James Woolsey, and Linton Brooks, all strong supporters of missile defense.

US policy up until 2001 largely kept the US vulnerable to nuclear attack from our enemies. This ‘balance of terror,” however, relied on the rationality of these regimes to maintain the peace. But with the advent of emerging nuclear powers including Iran and North Korea mutual assured destruction with these terror masters came to be seen as, well, irrational. Thus President Bush moved the US out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which prohibited nation-wide missile defenses, and toward a global and layered deployment of missile defenses, to where some 1400 interceptors will be deployed around 2012-14. 

But the high priests of “arms control,” including Postel, Samson and Coyle, know that the proofs that missile defenses work  strips missile defense opponents of their claimed infallibility and of their authority in Washington politics. Although it took some 25 years for President Reagan’s stance to become a full reality, “Thank God” we rejected the doctrines of the Nuclear Freeze and of what Senator Jon Kyl calls “peace through paper” advocated by these same opponents of missile defense.

In my lectures on nuclear terrorism, I ask whether Americans would be happy to adopt a posture of “mutual assured destruction” with the madmen in Tehran and Pyongyang. I get no takers. Opponents of missile defense are, after all, free to offer such views as they want. But their “blame only America” stance and perpetuation of a balance of terror should not be described as having anything to do with “arms control,” let alone protecting American security.