Arms Control Advocates Say Test Increases Fears U.S. Is Developing Anti-Satellite Weapons


Missile defense advocates are citing the Pentagon’s recent shootdown of a falling satellite as further evidence of the efficacy of its missile defense systems. However, one critic believes that the destruction of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite

Feb. 20 had little bearing on the military’s ability to intercept incoming ballistic missiles.

The shootdown has been warmly embraced by missile defense advocates on Capitol Hill, where Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) introduced a resolution

Feb. 28 honoring the Pentagon’s achievement.

“Friend or foe alike should take note that the United States has the capability of defending itself against not only incoming missiles, but of space

based threats as well,” Rohrabacher said in a news release announcing the legislation. “It’s gratifying to those of us who have been supporting missile defense as articulated by Ronald Reagan to see its success as a worthwhile investment.”

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Missile Defense Caucus, said in a Feb. 28 interview that he did not want to overstate the degree of difficulty involved with the shoot


Franks noted that the target may have been 10 times the size of the missiles destroyed in recent demonstrations with the sea-based interceptor system. However, he noted that the Aegis system had demonstrated an ability to hit a precise point on the incoming target when it shot down the satellite – in this case the fuel tank of the falling satellite – which had not been a requirement in previous testing with the sea-based system.

Franks also acknowledged that the Pentagon had advanced warning that the spacecraft was falling and thus some time to prepare, but noted that it could not control the path of the satellite, as is the case with the target missiles in missile defense testing, further complicating its ability to build a firing plan.

Franks said the

satellite shootdown not only further confirmed his confidence in the Aegis system’s missile defense capability, but helped to illustrate the connection between national security space and missile defense.

Victoria Samson, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, said in a written response to questions

Feb. 28 that the Aegis missile defense system has demonstrated one of the best track records of the Pentagon’s interceptor systems thus far in intercept testing, with a record of 12 for 14 in such tests.

However, the satellite shoot

down, like those tests, included elements that made it a far from realistic missile defense demonstration, she said.

One example of a luxury that the Pentagon had in this case – that it would not have had in an operational missile defense scenario – was its ability to wait before firing

at the satellite until contact with the sun had warmed the spacecraft to the point that it increased the size of the satellite’s infrared signature, Samson wrote in an analysis distributed to reporters

Feb. 26.

The Pentagon also almost postponed its shot at the satellite due to weather concerns, but went ahead when it determined that the sea would not be too choppy, Samson said. “In wartime circumstances, an enemy launching a missile attack might not be as cooperative as to wait until the seas were less rough,” she wrote.

While the Pentagon did not control the location of the incoming satellite in the same way that it can control the location of a target missile during missile defense tests, it still was aware well in advance of the satellite’s path, and had details of what it would look like and how it would behave that it might not in an operational missile intercept, Samson wrote.

The most significant long-term impact of the satellite shootdown, which the Pentagon described as necessary to prevent toxic fuel from creating a serious potential health risk upon impact, may be to inflame international suspicions that the United States is developing anti-satellite weapons, Samson said.

While the Pentagon described the configuration necessary to shoot down the satellite as being incompatible with the ships’ missile defense mission, and announced shortly after the test that the ships were returning to their missile defense configuration, it would be impossible for a foreign nation to be sure if a deployed ship was set up for shooting down missiles or satellites, she said.

The capability demonstrated

Feb. 20 could be applied to the counterspace mission, which might

be necessary as potential U.S. enemies like China expand their military space capabilities, Franks said. However, Franks noted that the Pentagon

already had tested an anti-satellite weapon more than 20 years ago, and has demonstrated a responsible attitude where it has not created debris fields in low Earth orbit as was the case following the Chinese demonstration of an anti-satellite weapon in January 2007