Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Taking "The Shot"

Following up on Max's excellent post about the strategic logic of what has been dubbed by the Navy as “The Shot,” I thought I would provide an in-depth look at exactly why this is such a bad policy decision.

1. The Reasoning Given

During the briefing that described the necessity of taking “The Shot,” Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright both stated that the reason that this falling space debris was different from previous debris was the possibility that a 1,000 pound tank of hydrazine may fall to the Earth and spray it contents over 200 yards. Gen. Cartwright described the effects of hydrazine as:

In a worst-case scenario for the hydrazine, it's similar to chlorine or to ammonia in that when you inhale it, it affects your tissues in your lungs. You know it's -- it has the burning sensation. If you stay very close to it and inhale a lot of it, it could in fact be deadly. But for the most part here, we're talking an area, say, roughly the size of two football fields that the hydrazine could be dispersed over, and you would at least incur something that would make you go to the doctor.

A quick check of the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) essentially confirms this assessment. It states that, “Breathing hydrazines for short periods may cause coughing and irritation of the throat and lungs, convulsions, tremors, or seizures.” Generally, it seems that this stuff could burn if it got into your lungs, but only would be deadly if you ignored that burning and continued to breathe it in for a long period of time. Even the official Health Advisory issued by the Center for Disease control said that "The risk of health effects related to the satellite is considered to be low."

But what are the chances that this tank will even fall in a populated area? Discovery quotes some numbers that say that the chance a person will be hit by space debris is less than one in one trillion. Given that three-fourths of Earth's surface is water and of the one-fourth that is land, only 1.5% of that can be considered populated urban centers, the likelihood that this satellite will land where it will have an effect on humans is pretty minute. Dr. Lewis at asked a colleague of his to do a quick calculation of the risk assessment and he found that the hydrazine gas has a 2 out of a thousand chance to crash in a area that would affect 3 people, in a worst case scenario.

Taking both of these factors together, this means that the Bush Administration determined that because there is a fairly infinitesimal chance that a satellite will crash in an area where there is a concentration of people, and then possibly leak a chemical that might cause irritation to people within a couple hundred yards, they need to spend $40-60 million to shoot 3 missiles at this satellite and possibly break it apart or miss it, instead of just tracking where the satellite will fall and then contacting those who are likely to be in the crash zone hours beforehand. This seems to be a pretty flimsy justification for a decision that has numerous negative consequences.

2. The Consequences

In January of 2007, the Chinese conducted a test of an anti-satellite missile and were soundly criticized by the world community. Many believed that it would start a dangerous new arms race in space. The spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, Gordon Johndroe, stated that the Chinese test was inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that exists in the development of space technology.

Less than a year later, the U.S. has put itself on a course to conduct a very similar test and likely faces even more serious international consequences. Both China and Russia have come out against the U.S. decision and state that the U.S. has simply come up with a flimsy excuse in order to conduct an anti-satellite missile test. What makes matters worse is that these countries also recently submitted a new draft for a treaty against space weapons to the UN Conference on Disarmament. Whether the U.S. government means to or not, it will be thumbing its nose at those two countries by making the decision to conduct this test so soon after the renewing of the treaty efforts.

The diplomatic consequences for the U.S. shooting down this satellite will not just stop with statements of condemnation. No less than three critical ongoing foreign policy crises could be affected by the worsening of relations between these three world powers. Both the 6-Party talks for denuclearizing North Korea and the United Nations Security Council work towards a diplomatic solution with Iran, involve intimate consultations and compromise between China, the U.S. and Russia. More recently, these countries have come to loggerheads over recognizing the independence of Kosovo which seems to be quickly evolving into a referendum on East-West relations. Rarely do these governments agree on exactly the way forward in any of these issues, and “The Shot” just adds to the list of issues of tension that seems to get longer each month.

On the technical side, there seems to be a host of other issues. The first of such issues is the fact that this launching sets a standard by which other countries can conduct anti-satellite tests. One of the major reasons China was condemned so vehemently is that their test lacked any notification of other nations and resulted in a significant amount of space debris sent into higher orbits that could be a danger to other objects in orbit. The U.S. has notified other nations of its intentions and has modeled the test to minimize the possibility of dangerous debris. Yet, if other nations wished to conduct anti-satellite missile tests in the future, they would now likely simply include a human safety justification. By choosing to shoot down this satellite, the U.S. leaves itself in a weakened position to argue against other countries more dangerous military tests.

The second issue, and one that could be far more quickly damaging to national security, would be that the United States has put itself in a place where it must succeed or face huge embarrassment and loss of military credibility. Many experts have stated that even with three chances at hitting the satellite, the missile still have a reasonable chance of at least not fully accomplishing the mission. As pointed out in Max’s post below, the U.S. gains very little even if this test is a success. However, were this mission to fail, the U.S. is now in a position where its most reliable missile defense technology, the Navy’s Aegis system, is shown to come up wanting.

3. Other Possible Reasoning

This situation seems to point to additional factors that must be influencing the Bush Administration to make this decision. It just does not seem logical to move forward with this, given the low probability of serious danger and far higher likelihood for consequences. So what else could be influencing the Bush Administration to go ahead with this mission?

The most obvious answer seems to be that they want to promote missile defense. Ever since the Bush Administration came into power and chose to abrogate the ABM Treaty with Russia, they have been on a path that promotes this capability despite the consequences. It hasn’t mattered whether project costs continued to skyrocket with only minimal results, or if European and Russian governments protest against proposed installation sites. The Bush Administration has continually discounted its critics and gone forward with promoting this program. In fact, the fiscal year 2009 budget request includes an unprecedented $12.3 billion in funding for missile defense related programs despite the fact that they have yet to been able to field a system that would protect the U.S. from a missile strike with any high rate of success.

This anti-satellite mission is a perfect cover for creating another justification for continuing this program. Congressional appropriators will now have solid evidence to point to that shows that missile defense not only works, but has the capacity to be adapted to unexpected crises that may arise. For missile defense advocates, this broken satellite was an opportunity that was just too good to pass up.


Max Postman said...

Eli, great post but I disagree with you on the issue of the administration's real motive for "the shot." You say that "this anti-satellite mission is a perfect cover for creating another justification for continuing this [i.e. missile defense] program." I think the opposite is true: The real motivation of the Bush administration is to develop an anti-satellite weapons capability, and the hydrazine risk is the pretense.

Anti-satellite weapons would not constitute a "perfect cover" for continuing the missile defense program because anti-satellite weapons are far more controversial than missile defense. According to the UCS fact sheet I quoted in my post, congress has intervened at various points to ban the testing of two of the three contemporary American ASAT systems that have been developed. (Testing of the air-launched ALMV was banned from 1985-1987 and testing of the ground-based MIRACL laser was banned from 1991-1995). The third ASAT system (the ground-based KE-ASAT) has never been tested, and the directors of the program have publicly acknowledged that "there would likely be significant political opposition to flight tests."

Additionally, while Congress was willing to fund most of the administration's missile defense request this year, they refused to fund the administration's attempt to develop space-based interceptors. The closer missile defense gets to a space weapon, the less political suport it garners.

Thus, I have a very hard time believing that the Bush administration thinks missile defense can be made more politically viable if it is dressed up as an anti-satellite weapon. To quote SNL from a few years ago, that would be like trying to sneak drugs onto an airplane by hiding them in the barrel of a gun.

It is exactly because ASAT tests are so controversial that I think they are the real motive here. I believe Bush wants to develop space weapons but is aware that tests of these weapons are politically (and publicly) unpopular. The failed satellite presents an opportunity for a "freebie," as the hydrazine can be used as a pretense to justify the test. The real motive here is testing satellite weapons; the development of satellite weapons is not a pretense to garner support for missile defense.

Eli Lewine said...

I see your point, and certainly agree that there likely was an effort to sneak in an ASAT test under false pretenses. I just don't think that the ASAT justification precludes my reasoning. There could have been military planners who promoted The Shot on the basis that it would provide them real data and proof of concept for an ASAT capability. Then MDA, who certainly was intimately involved as the (SM)-3 is their baby, could have thrown their weight behind the project because it helps them defend their budget in the next few years when a fight is likely to arise after Bush's Budget Boys head for the door.
I really don't think there has to be 1 overall motivating factor that overrides other interests. As with most government decisions of some magnitude, it was likely a large interagency process where the State Dept. and the National Reconnaissance Office were overcome by more influential military players. And we can't leave out the fact that the "anti-arms-control" people likely threw in their support on the basis that it hurts the chances for a global space weapons treaty, and exerts our policy towards holding onto maximum flexibility in out capacity to field weapons systems.

Doesn't it seem somewhat sad that no matter what the general analyst's argument is about this test, it seems a given factor that the hydrazine story is far too flimsy to hold weight?