By Geoff Metcalf
February 23, 2008
"The first quality that is needed is audacity." � Winston Churchill
Sooner rather than later, the Pentagon plans to lob a missile at a satellite falling toward Earth. This movie-like scenario is an unprecedented effort to allegedly keep the satellite's toxic fuel from injuring or killing people.
The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, acknowledges we have never done this before. What he doesn�t acknowledge is this is a target of opportunity that yields significant �testing� benefits.
The �official� word is we are not destroying the satellite to keep classified information from falling into the wrong hands or as a means to test an anti-space missile. That�s the Pentagon�s story, and they�re sticking to it.
However, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says satellites carrying the same type of toxic fuel fall to Earth all the time, and no one has ever been hurt by falling satellite parts. "The risk of this is very low, and that leads to the question, 'Why bother?' �Lewis said.
Last year China shot down a satellite in a test, and it was vilified by other nations (including the U.S.). I addressed it in my column �Warfare in Space�
The Standard Missile-3 the Pentagon reportedly intends to use is reliable and successfully hit an incoming ballistic missile during a 2007 test.
"It's almost certainly possible to do," said Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists. "Whether it is a good idea or not is another thing entirely."
I have written about this more than once. In many ways, it suggests �Preparing the battlefield', which is a martial basic.
Once upon a time �preparing the battlefield� consisted of archers attriting the enemy. Later it became artillery �softening' the enemy. Delivery systems have improved with laser designators and now GPS �smart bombs'.
In the future, �preparing the battlefield' will include disrupting command and control mechanisms. With two rival GPS systems in place, we can anticipate that prior to any tanks or missiles being deployed, phase one will consist of trying to take out satellites. �Preparation of the battlefield' isn't going to happen just �on the battlefield' but also in space.
Russia has said the U.S. using the satellite blast may be a �test� to cover a new space weapon.
"In our opinion, the decision to destroy the U.S. satellite is not as harmless as it is being presented. Especially as the United States has been avoiding talks on restricting a space arms race for quite a long time," the ministry's information department said in a statement.
Actually, according to multiple sources, the future of missile defense may hinge on the success of the pending mission to destroy the errant satellite.
The order to launch an antimissile interceptor to destroy a disabled satellite offers opportunity, but also presents the risk of embarrassment.
The decision reveals the administration�s diffidence to any treaty limiting anti-satellite weapons. That very reluctance is opposite China and Russia, which just recently proposed a new pact banning space weapons.
However, a critical question about the Russian and Chinese proposed restrictions is whether or not they would actually comply or renege after locking the U.S. into an international agreement.
If or when the satellite shoot down is successful, the accomplishment would encourage those who support additional spending above the $57.8 billion appropriated by Congress for missile defenses since the Bush administration�s first budget in the 2002 fiscal year.
This �target of opportunity� may well revive a dormant effort to focus the military on anti-satellite operations. Failure, however, would be used by those who claim space-warfare programs are futile.
The United States has resisted suggestions to negotiate a new arms-control regime to manage space weapons, and has asserted our right to defend our own access to space and to deny it to others in future wars.
�The administration places a higher priority on military flexibility and does not want to constrain military options,� said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, an arms-control advocacy organization. It is significant that that assessment is not refuted by White House officials.
During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted some 50 anti-satellite tests: sounds like a lot, but is minor when compared with the 2,000 nuclear weapons tests carried out in that same dark times of superpower arms races.
During a session of the Conference on Disarmament earlier this week in Geneva, China and Russia proposed a pact that would go beyond the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which bans orbiting weapons of mass destruction, and would prohibit all weapons in space.
This is a classic �catch-22�. If/when we shoot down the broken satellite we will be criticized for testing warfare in space. If we don�t shoot down the satellite and �any� damage results, we will be criticized for not protecting citizens.
Carl Jung once observed, �Caution has its place, no doubt, but we cannot refuse our support to a serious venture which challenges the whole of the personality. If we oppose it, we are trying to suppress what is best in man�his daring and his aspirations.�
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In the future, �preparing the battlefield' will include disrupting command and control mechanisms. With two rival GPS systems in place, we can anticipate that prior to any tanks or missiles being deployed, phase one will consist of trying to take out satellites.