Thursday, March 6, 2008

Downing a Sick Satellite, or Upping the Arms Race?

The Center's Katie Mounts recently put together a terrific piece on the long-term ramifications of the decision by the United States to shoot down its failing spy satellite. The full text of the article is provided below.

Downing a Sick Satellite, or Upping the Arms Race?

When the White House announced in January that a failed U.S. intelligence satellite would soon fall out of orbit to the Earth, Bush administration officials claimed the potential for risk was “very small."

That story quickly changed, however, in order to launch an experiment with dangerous consequences. Claiming that the satellite’s toxic fuel tank could land and explode in a populated area – an extremely unlikely scenario – the Pentagon elected to attempt to destroy the satellite with an anti-ballistic missile. The goal was to rupture the gas tank, causing the fuel to disperse safely at a high altitude.

The administration’s explanation unravels, however, when one looks beyond the cover story. Was the United States using a failed satellite as cover for target practice to develop high-tech space weapons? Maybe Star Wars isn't just for the big screen after all.

The satellite’s toxic fuel might have been vaporized from the heat of re-entry or expelled through the tank's openings even without being hit. When the missile was launched and succeeded in striking its target, there was still a chance it would fail to burst the fuel tank. As for the risk to human life, it is worth pointing out that no falling satellite has ever caused a human casualty.

Some experts placed the chance of intercepting the satellite as low as 50 percent. Even Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright only gave it a "reasonably high opportunity for success" -- hardly enough to inspire confidence, especially when you consider a price tag of $40 million to $60 million to carry out the mission.

Beyond these immediate costs, the operation calls into question the logic of excessive spending on ballistic missile defense, the most expensive weapons system in the Pentagon budget. The United States has already spent over $200 billion on missile defense to date, and the Pentagon proposes to spend another $12 billion in 2009. This latest stunt may be a last-ditch effort for the Missile Defense Agency to demonstrate that its product works before facing possible budget cuts under the next administration.

The political costs of this stunt are also high. When it comes to targeting a satellite, missile defense clearly becomes an offensive weapon, not just defensive.

America has not conducted an anti-satellite test since the 1980s because of concerns over dangerous debris left in the Earth's orbit. The United States objected loudly when China destroyed one of its own failing satellites in January 2007 and created thousands of pieces of space debris. An American test now is not just perceived as hypocritical by the international community, but appears to the Chinese as a response to their test. Should the United States, more reliant on satellite technology than any other country, launch a space arms race with China, it undoubtedly has the most to lose.

The Bush administration's announcement came in the wake of the U.S. rejection of a draft Russian and Chinese treaty banning weapons in space. At a time when the United States needs these countries’ cooperation, especially in regards to Iran and North Korea, this missile strike jeopardizes larger U.S. foreign policy goals.

In light of this larger context, the Bush administration should not be surprised that experts and the American public do not take their humanitarian justification for this operation at face value. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time the Bush White House has provided false justification for a controversial – and later regrettable – foreign policy decision.

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