Analyst: U.S. Satellite Strike Was Justifiable; Critics Such As China, Russia, Are Off-Base

By | February 25, 2008 | Satellite News Feed

China Is The Last To Carp About U.S. Anti-Satellite Operation, Analyst Says

Pentagon Today Announces ASAT Shot Succeeded In Destroying Hydrazine Fuel Tank

A coming wave of criticism — assailing the United States for demolishing a dangerous, out-of-control satellite — is unfounded and unfair, a military analyst stated.

The analyst, Baker Spring, is a research fellow with the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

His monograph was published after the U.S. move last week to use the Aegis weapon control system and a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) aboard the USS Lake Erie (CG 70) to annihilate a dysfunctional/dead U.S. intelligence satellite as it was about to reenter the atmosphere.

President Bush, noting that the satellite contained 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine in a fuel tank, was concerned it might smash into a populated area and perhaps injure or kill innocent people somewhere on Earth.

So he ordered the satellite destroyed. (Please see full stories in Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, and Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008.)

The anti-satellite (ASAT) shot went off precisely as planned, with a clean hit on the satellite that destroyed the fuel tank filled with toxic fuel, the Pentagon announced today. The Navy shot was possible only after extensive modifications such as software changes needed to convert the Aegis system from its designed purpose of striking down enemy missiles, to hitting a satellite in orbit.

Spring expressed dismay that a needed humanitarian mission to protect civilians from possible harm could be criticized.

Even more, he voiced astonishment at some of those voicing the criticism, such as China, which last year itself shot down one of its own aging weather satellites.

Where the U.S. operation eliminated or reduced danger, Spring noted, the Chinese operation created an immense cloud of lethal space debris from the shattered remnants of the weather satellite. Typically, anything in orbit around the planet, including space debris, travels at 17,500 miles per hour, posing a grave hazard to satellites, spacecraft and astronauts.

Spring asked how any rational objection could be raised to the U.S. operation.

"Intercepting the tumbling, 5,000-pound, bus-sized satellite was a great achievement for the Lake Erie command and crew, the U.S. military, the missile defense community, and the Bush administration, who announced the real-world operation only days earlier," Spring asserted.

"Skeptics are wrong to suggest that the operation was in response to China’s successful — but unannounced — anti-satellite test," he stated.

Rather, the American ASAT operation was justified, fully, on humanitarian grounds, Spring argued.

"The Bush Administration made the appropriate executive decision after it was determined that the satellite was uncontrollable, unrecoverable, and — due to technical malfunctions — was going to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on March 7, posing a potential threat to human life, property, and the environment," Spring noted.

He contrasted the appropriate U.S. action with ensuing Chinese objections to it, which Spring saw as a stunning display of chutzpah, considering what China has done.

"In the past week, the Chinese government has repeatedly questioned President Bush’s decision," Spring noted. "In light of the pending shootdown, representatives from both China and Russia have again cited the necessity of an outer space arms control treaty to prevent what they claim is the unnecessary ‘weaponization’ of space."

As we reported earlier, China and Russia, just days before the already-announced U.S. ASAT mission, proposed a treaty to bar use of violence against orbiting spacecraft or satellites.

To gauge the sincerity of that treaty proposal, consider China’s earlier actions, Spring advised.

"Beijing’s commitment to a space treaty is suspect considering the circumstances surrounding its own ASAT test," Spring pointed out. "China launched its [ASAT] operation in secret and followed it with two weeks of steadfast denial. The operation [obliterating the aging weather satellite] littered outer space with an inordinate amount of debris that may orbit Earth for centuries, endangering peaceful space operations."

And key to this was that China gave the world, including nations with satellites and spacecraft orbiting the Earth, no prior warning of this debris-spewing recklessness, and no warning afterward until the United States announced it.

"Make no mistake: China’s ASAT operation was a clandestine test of the [People’s Liberation Army] Second Artillery Corps’s evolving asymmetric military capability against space assets of potential opponents," Spring stated.

The purpose of the Chinese ASAT test was to prove that Beijing at any time can order the destruction of U.S. military satellites, attempting to blind American forces, he wrote. This is one way China is targeting weaknesses of U.S. forces, Spring stated.

"In addition to developing cyberwarfare capabilities, China wants to exploit America’s architecture of satellites, which it sees as a potential Achilles heel," Spring explained. "Beijing believes that having the capacity to target U.S. space assets will make American leaders more reluctant and less capable of challenging China on the battlefield, if necessary. Further, the strategy behind the Chinese asymmetric capability is both aggressive and indiscriminant. It would permit the use of ASAT weapons that would contaminate important orbits for all nations in order to counter the U.S. advantage in space systems."

Given that Sino recklessness, one must look askance at Chinese posturings in favor of forbidding violent acts in space, Spring pointed out.

"China’s power ambitions cast further doubt on the sincerity of its commitment to a space treaty," the analyst wrote. "There would also be serious difficulties in defining ‘space weapons’ and verifying compliance in any arms control agreement."

If one wishes to see goodwill and sincerity in actions regarding space, one should look instead to the United States, Spring asserted.

"By contrast, the U.S. strategy is defensive," Spring wrote. "The Bush administration is putting into place a damage limitation strategy designed to protect the American people, U.S. friends and allies, and people around the world against attacks and other threats that pose risks to their lives and well-being.

"Given the aggressive and indiscriminate Chinese strategy and the defensive nature of the U.S. counterpart, there is no moral equivalency between the Chinese ASAT test of a year ago and the shootdown of the U.S. [intelligence] satellite."

Therefore, Spring expressed exasperation with those who criticize the U.S. ASAT shot, including complaints emanating from Beijing.

"Arms control advocates would prefer to ascribe justification for the fielding and employment of weapons on the basis of the capabilities of the weapons themselves," automatically condemning anything that might appear to be a weapon, such as a missile.

"By this way of thinking, all weapons capable of shooting down satellites are bad," Spring observed.

Wrong, he argued. Rather, "The more appropriate way to address the question of justification is on the basis of the overarching strategic purpose of the weapon in question."

And while the SM-3 is, without dispute, a missile, the purpose it served was to prevent loss of life, not to take lives, Spring noted.

"The defensive purpose of the SM-3 and its use to destroy the [intel] satellite provides more than sufficient justification, both morally and in terms of arms control," for the Navy obliterating the satellite, he reasoned.

"The care the U.S. took in conducting this operation, which was carried out with meticulous planning and execution and included landing the Space Shuttle Atlantis and declaring closure areas [off limits to ships in sea lanes beneath the satellite strike area], reflects the fundamentally defensive and non-aggressive purpose of a damage limitation strategy," Spring stated. "The operation mitigated, if not eliminated, the potential effects of hazardous chemical fuel onboard the satellite, and any long-term space debris is believed to have been destroyed."

Nonetheless, Spring predicted that unfounded criticism of the United States will continue unabated.

"The decision to intercept the U.S. … satellite will be debated in the months to come by arms control advocates, opponents and proponents of missile defense, and space experts in the U.S. and abroad," Spring wrote. "Critics will portray the operation as a staged event that was undertaken just to test missile defense or ASAT technologies under the guise of a humanitarian exercise.

"They will likely accuse the United States of starting a space arms race and will portray the two ASAT tests as moral equivalents."

Those arguments, he said, won’t hold water, because they "fail to recognize the vast discrepancies between the two strategies that stand behind the corresponding events. China’s ASAT test was a military exercise to demonstrate its ability to execute an aggressive strategy of asymmetric warfare. As such, it does not compare to the transparent and necessary actions taken by the United States in the face of pending humanitarian danger. The U.S. operation demonstrated the defensive and protective features of a damage limitation strategy."

And Spring will not brook quibbling that perhaps the U.S. satellite, had it been permitted to plunge uncontrolled into the atmosphere, might have landed in an unpopulated area, since oceans cover a majority of the planetary surface.

To risk harm or death to innocent humans, no matter if chances of that harm are slight, would be callous and irresponsible, Spring asserted.

"No matter how small the chances that hazardous materials would have reached the Earth’s surface without the shootdown, the United States was fully justified and possibly obligated to pursue its chosen course of action," Spring stated.

"As such, this operation marks an important point in the transition from a Cold War strategy focused on retaliatory deterrence and vulnerability to a damage limitation strategy based on protecting and defending people in the [United States] and elsewhere. Other nations, including China, would do well to consider the merits of the damage limitation strategy. The world will be a better place if they do."

Spring’s monograph titled "Satellite Shootdown Was a Necessary Operation" can be viewed in entirety at http://www.heritage.org on the Web.

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