The Pentagon’s plan to shoot down a failed satellite with a missile defense interceptor in the coming days is aimed at preventing toxic fuel from reaching earth. But U.S. officials and experts said yesterday it would also signal that U.S. missile defenses can be used to counter China’s strategic anti-satellite weapons.
China conducted its first successful test of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon on Jan. 11, 2007, in what defense and military officials called a new strategic threat to the United States.
Bush administration defense and national security officials involved in interagency discussions on the satellite destruction plan said one reason for using the missile defense system against a space target would be to highlight its potential as an ASAT weapon. The Pentagon has been discussing ways to deter and counter China’s ASAT weapon, which can threaten U.S. military and civilian communications, especially command and control systems involving satellites.
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Publicly, however, officials who announced the plan yesterday sought to play down the ASAT capability.
The Greyhound bus-sized intelligence satellite failed shortly after launch in 2006. Intended to conduct both electronic eavesdropping and photographic intelligence-gathering, the satellite contains a large tank of unused toxic fuel called hydrazine. The fuel would pose a health risk if the tank survived re-entry and landed in a populated area. The satellite has been gradually moving closer to the atmosphere and could come down some time in the next several weeks.
Since the satellite cannot be maneuvered to fall into the ocean, the plan calls for firing a modified Navy SM-3 anti-missile interceptor from an Aegis battle management system equipped warship in the northern Pacific, as the satellite nears the atmosphere.
It will be the first time a missile defense interceptor will be used against a satellite, something that has not been attempted since the 1980s, when the Pentagon tested an anti-satellite missile from a jet fighter.
The administration began notifying the world community about the plan late last month, Deputy National Security Adviser James Jeffries told reporters in announcing the plan.
Asked if the modified SM-3 will be viewed by some foreign states as an ASAT weapon, Mr. Jeffries said that whatever other nations might think, “the truth” is that the missile strike is meant to prevent the hyrdazine tank from landing in a populated area.
Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, made clear that the Navy interceptor, which is designed to hit ballistic missiles as they transit space, was picked because of its ability to hit targets in space.
“Does it have the kinetic capability? That’s why we picked it. But you’d have to go in and do modifications to ships, to missiles, to sensors and they would be significant” before it could be an effective ASAT system, he said during the meeting with reporters.
“This is an extreme measure for this problem,” Gen. Cartwright said. “It is not transferrable to a fleet configuration.”
Gen. Cartwright was asked if the missile shot will show China a U.S. ASAT capability and he did not answer directly.
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To configure the missile against the satellite, SM-3 software is being modified that will help guide its nonexplosive warhead to the satellite, which is traveling at about 22,000 miles an hour. Three missiles will be available for the satellite shot and if successful it will result in most of the debris burning up in the atmosphere over several weeks or a month.
China’s ASAT weapon test, by contrast, used a ground-based missile to hit an orbiting Chinese weather satellite, and it left some 2,500 pieces of debris in a belt 527 miles in space that military officials say poses a danger to both manned and unmanned spacecraft.
U.S. military and national security officials said the Chinese ASAT test is part of China’s asymmetric warfare capabilities and represents a new strategic weapon that could cripple the U.S. military in a future conflict by giving Beijing the capability to shoot down most low-earth orbit satellites.
The window for the shootdown could begin in the next three or four days and last for as many as eight days, Gen. Cartwright said.
Announcement of the plan comes as China and Russia renewed an international effort to ban weapons in space.
John Tkacik, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said the proposed China-Russia agreement, if enforced, would prevent the missile shot against the satellite.
“We have a fleet of Aegis destroyers, including those in the Pacific, and the Japanese have several,” Mr. Tkacik said. “The demonstration of these anti-mission capabilities against a satellite, regardless whether it is intended as a signal to China or not, will certainly get the attention of the Chinese.”
Mr. Jeffries said President Bush authorized the anti-satellite blast because of concerns that if the satellite fell 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.”
“Specifically, there was enough of a risk for the president to be quite concerned about human life,” he said.