The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

How is this a good idea?


February 15, 2008

I’m sure you’ve all be closely following the story of the 5000-pound, bus-sized top-secret satellite that is tumbling toward earth and set to re-enter the atmosphere in the next several weeks. The satellite, reportedly a top-secret NRO advanced imaging device launched in December 2006, died soon after launch. Its big enough that a sizable chunk is expected to survive the re-entry process. Obviously the most important question of the day is who will the satellite land on when it returns to earth….

Today we learn that the Bush administration has decided to have the military shoot down the satellite. The NYT reports:

Only twice in history has any nation shot an actual satellite down: China did it last year, and the United States more than 20 years ago.

The Bush Administration claims that it only has humanitarian interests and public safety as its chief concerns.

President Bush ordered the action to prevent any possible contamination from that hazardous rocket fuel on board, and not out of any concern that parts of the spacecraft might survive and its secrets be revealed, officials said….

It contains a half-ton of hydrazene, a rocket fuel that officials said can burn the lungs and even is deadly in extended doses….

The fuel tank is believed sturdy enough to survive re-entry, based on studies of the fuel tank that fell to earth after the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Officials said that the slushy frozen fuel would have then been released wherever it came down….

Although White House, military and NASA officials described the president’s decision as motivated solely by wanting to avoid a spread of toxic fuel in an inhabited area, it has implications for missile defense and antisatellite weapons.

“This is all about trying to reduce the danger to human beings,” said James Jeffrey, the deputy national security adviser.

And to keep anyone from somehow recovering any top-secret parts, and, of course, sending not at all subtle signals to China.

The challenging mission to demolish it instead on the fringes of space will rely on an unforeseen use of ship-based weapons developed to defend against ballistic missile attacks. That makes it a real-world test both of the nation’s antiballistic missile systems and its antisatellite capabilities, even though the Pentagon said that they were not using the exercise to test their most exotic weapons or send a message to any adversaries.


In many ways, the task resembles shooting down an intercontinental nuclear missile, although in this case the target is larger, its path is better known, and if a first shot misses, it will continue to circle the earth for long enough to allow a second or even a third try….

Even so, the ramifications of the operation are diplomatic as well as military and scientific, in part because the United States criticized China last year when Beijing used a defunct weather satellite as a target in a test of an antisatellite system.

China shoots down one of its own defunct satellites in high-earth orbit, creating tons of space junk (junk, incidentally, that poses a greater threat to US military satellite capability than the a-sat capability itself), and the US offers massive protests and condemnation. Now, less than a year later, the US seeks to do roughly the same thing, only in a lower orbit, and its OK. The Chinese and Russians vehemently protest the development and deployment of US missile defense systems, and the US will activate and use them in this operation. Exactly what what message is China (and Russia) supposed to get here?

A Congressional Democrat considered one of the party’s experts on missile defense agreed that the United States had to take responsibility for any threat posed by the satellite, but she warned that the nation needed to be open in the effort as it will be a precedent for other countries.

“Just like our partners in space, we need to be responsible for the risks we create,” said Representative Ellen O. Tauscher of California, who is chairwoman of the House strategic forces subcommittee. “This can’t be a demonstration of an offensive capability.”

Jeffrey G. Lewis, an arms control specialist at the New America Foundation, warned that China would cite the intercept to justify the antisatellite test it conduct last year.

“The politics are terrible,” Mr. Lewis said. “It will be used by the Chinese to excuse their hit-to-kill test. And it really strengthens the perceived link between antisatellite systems and missile defenses. We will be using a missile defense system to shoot down a satellite.”

Who thought this was a good idea?

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.