Missile's Bull's-Eye On Satellite Echoes Far, Experts Say

Missile's Bull's-Eye On Satellite Echoes Far, Experts Say
February 22nd, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Missile's Bull's-Eye On Satellite Echoes Far, Experts Say

Missile's Bull's-Eye On Satellite Echoes Far, Experts Say
Los Angeles Times
February 22, 2008 The strike on a dying spacecraft is seen as bolstering the credibility of a long-troubled system and sending a signal to potential foes. The U.S. plays down the event.
By Greg Miller, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON —The successful U.S. missile strike against a failing spy satellite 133 miles above the Earth on Wednesday bolstered the credibility of America's long-troubled missile defense system, according to military experts.
U.S. military officials have sought to play down the strategic value of the operation, saying that it was solely intended to take out a malfunctioning satellite hurtling toward Earth with a tank of toxic rocket fuel.
But the power and precision of the strike also provided a demonstration for North Korea and other potential adversaries that the United States has deployed a sea-based missile defense system that can be adapted to multiple targets with relative ease.
"This is the latest indication among several that we've made a lot of progress on interception of simple ballistic objects," said Loren B. Thompson, a military expert at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Virginia. "What this shows is that the United States has a modest capability to destroy large satellites in very low orbits."
Hours after the missile was fired from the Navy cruiser Lake Erie in the Pacific Ocean, Pentagon officials showed footage of a fireball created when the missile struck the satellite, and expressed "high confidence" that the fuel tank was destroyed.
Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Pentagon was "80, 90% sure that the tank was breached."
He said it could take up to two days for final confirmation, but noted that imagery of the collision showed that the missile struck the satellite "right in the area of the tank" and that an ensuing vapor cloud was probably caused by the release of the satellite's hydrazine fuel.
The 5,000-pound satellite -- operated by one of the nation's largest spy agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office -- failed shortly after its launch in December 2006. Since then, it has been drifting down toward the atmosphere.
Officials said they could not yet rule out the possibility of fragments of the satellite falling on populated areas, but noted that the force of the missile strike left little but debris.
"Right now we're seeing nothing bigger than a football," Cartwright said. "So by all indications, we're on a positive path that this was a successful intercept."
The operation marked the first time that the Aegis system, designed to intercept missiles, was used to strike a satellite. Such spacecraft always have a limited life span, but in most cases can be guided toward oceans -- and away from population centers -- as they plummet back to Earth.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was on a flight from Washington to Hawaii when he gave the order for the missile shot, said afterward that the exercise showed the system had worked.
"I think the operation speaks for itself in that respect," Gates told reporters after touring a warship that served as a backup vessel Wednesday.
At the same time, Gates said the missile defense system had proved itself in past tests and needed only to be improved for larger and more sophisticated threats.
The unusual nature of the operation had prompted speculation that the United States was using the failed spacecraft as an excuse for testing a system ordinarily designed for missile defense, or demonstrating its capabilities to other countries.
Cartwright dismissed those suggestions, saying that the modifications necessary to target the satellite made the operation of little use as a test for hitting a missile. He also said that there was no need for such tests because the capabilities of the SM-3 missile had been demonstrated during exercises in the 1980s.
Even so, military experts said the operation was likely to rattle China and other countries, and showed the significant capabilities of America's sea-based defense system.
John Pike, who tracks weapons systems at GlobalSecurity.org, said the strike showed a capability that could be used to thwart ballistic-missile-carrying subs deployed by China.
He also said the success of the operation would strengthen the case that the sea-based system operated by the Navy should play a greater role in overall missile defense strategy. "It does suggest that the demands on the land-based systems could be reduced by putting this layer in first," Pike said.
Much of the missile defense effort in recent years has centered on the development of more expensive -- and, so far, less reliable -- land-based systems in Central California and Alaska.
Those systems are designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at the U.S. mainland, while the Navy's Aegis system is designed for shorter-range threats, such as a possible missile strike by North Korea against Japan.
Overall, experts said the satellite strike was of limited value as a weapons system test because the spacecraft was many times larger than missiles that might be targeted.
Further, experts said that although the operation showed that the United States can knock a satellite out of the sky, most space-based platforms that America might seek to disable in a conflict are much farther away. Spy satellites generally orbit at an altitude of 300 miles, experts said, and communications satellites typically hover 22,300 miles above the Earth.
Some experts have expressed concern that the operation would provoke an arms race in space with China and other nations. Largely because of that concern, the United States was harshly critical of China for striking one of its own low-orbit satellites last year.
China had registered its objections before the satellite's destruction, and reiterated its concerns Thursday.
"China is continuously following closely the possible harm caused by the U.S. action to outer space security and relevant countries," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.
"China requests the U.S. . . . provide to the international community necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way," the spokesman said.
Gates said U.S. officials would provide "whatever appropriately we can."
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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