The United States destroyed a dead satellite overnight Feb. 20 by firing a Standard Missile-3 — which was designed and built for ballistic missile defense (BMD). The satellite hit marks the first operational validation of the United States' next generation of BMD technology both in the realm of missile defense and anti-satellite operations.
For the first time in more than 20 years, the U.S. military destroyed a satellite orbiting Earth overnight Feb. 20. To do so, it used an interceptor designed and built for ballistic missile defense (BMD). At 3:26 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time on Feb. 21, the USS Lake Erie (CG-70) launched a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). (The Lake Erie, an Aegis-equipped Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, has been one of the principal test-beds of the SM-3 program.) Within less than half an hour, ground stations observed the break-up of National Reconnaissance Office L-21 Radarsat (known as USA-193) just above 150 nautical miles altitude. The Pentagon reportedly is tracking debris no larger than a football — suggesting that the satellite's tank of hydrazine fuel (used for maneuvering) was likely ruptured, though there are doubts about whether the potential threat to human life really justified such extraordinary measures. The SM-3 boosts a kinetic kill vehicle rather than an explosive warhead. The kill vehicle relies on its own velocity — and that of its target — for the immensely destructive energy that breaks apart the satellite (or re-entry vehicle, in more traditional BMD applications). The SM-3 has had one of the most successful development histories of all the interceptors in the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's portfolio. Based on a naval surface-to-air missile system that has been in service for nearly four decades, it is widely considered the most reliable BMD interceptor in the inventory. This marks the first operational validation of the new generation of U.S. BMD technologies — both as a BMD system and as an anti-satellite weapon. Though the intercept reportedly was delayed for better conditions, it is hardly a surprise that with a window that remains open for another five or six days, the Navy would choose to hold off for a few hours for better conditions — especially given the credibility of the U.S. BMD system at stake.