The U.S. downed a wayward satellite Feb. 20. Its success — and the confidence demonstrated beforehand that the operation would succeed — is evidence of a mature weapon system.
The political fallout was oddly muted Feb. 21 following the downing of a wayward U.S. spy satellite Feb. 20. Despite the reception, the successful intercept by a U.S. Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is one of the most significant strategic developments in a generation. The Pentagon's publicly expressed reason for shooting down the satellite — that it feared the risk to human life posed by the satellite's toxic fuel, hydrazine (which is used for maneuvering), and the uncontrolled re-entry of the National Reconnaissance Office's L-21 Radarsat (also designated USA-193) — is unconvincing. Hydrazine is toxic, but the odds of the hydrazine fuel tank's surviving re-entry and striking a reasonably populated area almost certainly did not justify the extraordinary measures taken the night of Feb. 20 over the Pacific. The Pentagon's fears of USA-193 coming down on unfriendly territory and the White House's desire to respond to China's January 2007 anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test, however, might have. The most interesting aspect of the intercept might not be the success itself but the telling Feb. 14 announcement by Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright concerning the operation. There was, of course, a need to notify other space-faring nations of the operation, as well as to manage domestic and international perceptions of the event. But while some amateur astronomers might have been watching USA-193, the issue of the satellite's decaying orbit truly was brought into the spotlight by leaks from U.S. officials in January, followed by the very detailed Feb. 14 Pentagon press conference. The announcement suggested a fairly high degree of Pentagon confidence that the test would succeed. Of course, Cartwright raised the possibility that follow-on shots might be necessary should the first attempt miss, and even that the follow-on efforts might fail. But if the Pentagon had held deep concerns about the likelihood of success, we suspect the U.S. military might have handled the situation more discreetly until the intercept was completed. So, the real takeaway from the successful intercept is what appears to have been military confidence in a mature weapon system prior to the operation. Though the slight delay of the intercept raises questions about the drop-off curve for performance in less-than-optimal weather conditions and sea states (it is unclear just how significantly the system bleeds off accuracy under such circumstances), the achievement remains undisputed. With the success of the intercept itself — the first operational test of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptor — the credibility of the U.S. BMD program has seen a significant boost. Meanwhile, the inherent dual-use applicability of BMD technology for offensive ASAT purposes also is now clear and unequivocal, and with it, Washington's command and offensive dominance of space.