EDITORIAL: Strike from space?

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Russian Maj. Gen. Leonid Shershnev surprised us Tuesday with his strange charge that the United States had engineered the collision between America’s Iridium 33 and Russia’s Cosmos 2251 satellites over Siberia on Feb. 10. More shockingly, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Gen. Valentin Popovkin, said Thursday that Russia was working on anti-satellite technology and already had the “basic, key elements” of such weapons.

One certainty we remember from the Cold War: Whatever Russia accuses us of doing, it is, in fact, doing itself. That makes us wonder whether the Russians really did down an American satellite last month. Is this the long awaited “test” of our new president that Vice President Biden warned of?

A spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command denied Gen. Shershnev’s claim, assuring us that it was “an unforeseen collision” in the vastness of space and that “any claims that this collision was intentional are false.” Yet our sources provide a somewhat different story. Senior military officers, intelligence analysts and space industry executives tell us that this space strike was no accident. “The possibility the Russians were testing a pre-positioned space mine is very plausible,” says former Department of Defense space consultant Taylor Dinerman. Given the alignment of means, motive and opportunity, it is not surprising that buzz is growing that the Russians pulled off a coup.

The Iridium 33 was a functional communications satellite while the Cosmos 2251 was a Cold War relic that had not been in use for over a decade. Since the Cosmos was past its useful life for its intended purpose, it seems that the Russians found a new mission - as a kinetic kill weapon.

While the Department of Defense leases Iridium satellites to carry unclassified communications, some of them serve as relays for encrypted or classified signals. Thus the Russians consider the Iridium 33 a legitimate military target to test an anti-satellite capability.

Our satellite was an easy target. The Iridium was in an extremely regular orbit as part of a network of 66 satellites. The Cosmos was outside of Russia’s normal orbit for communications satellites, but was in a good orbit for a spy satellite. Given the predictability of satellite trajectories, the Russians could well have calculated that the two satellites were going to pass closely and made a minor course adjustment to ensure the side-impact collision. Atmospheric conditions that day were idea for the Russians to conduct such an operation - the weather was perfectly clear and cold in Siberia, and ground-based heat sensors located under the point of impact would be at maximum effectiveness.

Of course, a clever attacker would want to disguise his efforts. If the Cosmos satellite showed a heat signature before the collision, indicating that a thruster had been fired to modify the orbit, Russia would find the collision hard to deny. America’s DSP-23 early-warning satellite should have been able to spot precisely such a heat signature, but this satellite went quiet in September. We can only wonder why. No official explanation has been offered.

It is no secret that Moscow sees our satellites as a key vulnerability. They are vital to our war-fighting and intelligence-gathering capabilities, yet largely defenseless. Russia and other countries will continue to experiment with innovative capabilities to counter this critical American advantage. As Russia continues to develop anti-satellite weapons, the question is: What is the Obama administration prepared to do to protect America’s satellites and the homeland they help safeguard?

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