Monday, February 18, 2008

History of U.S. Anti-Satellite Weapons Belies Claims that U.S. Has No Motive for Further Tests

The Bush administration announced plans this week to use the Sea-Based Midcourse Missile Defense system (SMD) to strike a U.S. spy satellite that lost power shortly after launch last year. Left alone, the satellite would hit the earth, emitting a potentially deadly amount of hydrazine fuel. However, the planned use of a missile against the satellite has raised fears that the whole exercise is a pretense for the Bush administration to test and/or demonstrate its anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons capabilities. As the AP reported, "The Bush administration is trying to convince foreign countries that the Pentagon's plan to shoot down a dying spy satellite is not a test of a program to kill their orbiting communications and intelligence capabilities."

A 2003 test of the interceptor that will be used to destroy a disabled U.S. spy satellite this month.

Administration officials argued that the United States has no secret interest in testing anti-satellite weapons because a successful test has already been conducted--twenty years ago.
[Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey "and other U.S. officials"] said Washington was not shooting the satellite down in response to China's anti-satellite test last year, noting the United States had already demonstrated its capability to hit a space object with a missile in the 1980s.
However, as the Union of Concerned Scientists' excellent history of U.S. and Soviet ASAT programs demonstrates, Jeffrey's historical reasoning is dubious. While the United States has conducted a successful test of an anti-satellite weapon, that weapon was of an entirely different type than the weapon that will be used against the beleaguered U.S. spy satellite. The spy satellite will be shot with a sea-based missile, while the successful U.S. test in 1985 used a missile (the Air-Launched Miniature Vehicle, or ALMV) fired from an F-15 fighter jet.

Jeffrey is arguing that the successful test of the ALMV in 1985 means that the United States has no reason to conduct an ASAT test in 2008, and that the motives for shooting down the spy satellite are purely innocuous. He is mistaken for at least two reasons:
  1. The test of the ALMV over two decades ago does not demonstrate that the United States retains a viable ASAT capability. As the Union of Concerned Scientists' Laura Grego points out, "The current capabilities of the Air Force's ALMV systems are not clear, as testing was never completed" due to political opposition to the testing of space weapons.
  2. Defense Department activity after the 1985 test belies Jeffrey's argument that U.S. ASAT capabilities are already firmly established and not in need of further demonstration: Despite successfully testing the ALMV in 1985 the Department of Defense has continued to fund the development of a ground-based ASAT system--the Army's Kinetic Energy ASAT, or KE-ASAT.
We should not conclude from the 1985 ASAT test that the United States has no motive for further ASAT testing. Rather, the use of the Aegis Sea-Based Midcourse Defense system (SMD) to destroy an errant spy satellite will serve, intentionally or not, as a test of one part of the Bush administration's emerging portfolio of space weapons.

As Laura Grego and David Wright observed in 2002, "some of the systems currently being developed to intercept ballistic missiles would have considerable inherent capability to be used as ASAT weapons, and could therefore significantly increase U.S. ASAT capability." The Sea-Based Midcourse Defense system is no exception. While its ASAT capability is decidedly niche compared to the ground-based components of the National Missile Defense system, the SMD could serve as an important anti-satellite weapon. Grego and Wright point out that the nautically mobile missile defense system offers "essentially global coverage against satellites at these [i.e. low] altitudes." The SMD system has potential to serve as an anti-satellite weapon, and the use of the SMD to destroy the American spy satellite will serve as a test of those capabilities.

Such a test is undesirable for a number of reasons. As the spokesman for Bush's National Security Council stated publicly after China's successful ASAT test last year, "...development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area." Anti-satellite weapons pose a threat to the peaceful and commercial use of space that enriches our lives on a daily basis, they uniquely threaten American security given our disproportionate reliance on satellites for military command, control, and intelligence, and they may create catastrophic instability in the case of an international crisis. Bush's planned test of American anti-satellite capabilities is one more ill-advised step towards an age of unrestrained space warfare.

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