he U.S. Navy’s successful
of a failed U.S. spy satellite
Feb. 20 is being hailed as a stunning success. Certainly, in the short term, it looks like a win for both U.S. President George W.
Bush’s administration and the Pentagon.
The Bush administration got to: claim credit for acting boldly to stave off any danger to the public and thus perhaps erase some of the lingering stain from the Katrina disaster; bolster its arguments in support of a robust U.S. missile defense program; and
re-demonstrate U.S. anti-satellite (A-Sat
) capabilities as a reply to Beijing’s test of such a weapon in January
2007 – and do so in such a manner that leaves little room for direct criticism.
The Pentagon, and more specifically the Navy, got to: showcase its missile defense prowess
at a time when tightening defense budgets are likely to force tradeoffs among competing programs; gather new data about the Aegis-based system’s performance margins; and put in its back pocket new software designed to target satellites that could easily be dusted off if such a need were to arise.
From a long-term perspective, however, the view
instead could show a Pyrrhic victory. That is because the second- and third-order consequences for U.S. security arising from the satellite kill are likely to be highly negative.
For one thing, the Russians and Chinese long have suspected that the U.S. missile defense program is really just a cover for an offensive U.S. space control program. The use of the SM-3 missile defense interceptor to destroy the out-of-control USA 193 spy satellite can only confirm those fears. Russia thus is likely to further dig in its heels regarding U.S. missile defense interceptors and radars heading to Central Europe; as well as to consider its other options given that it is the only one of the big three powers to not have recently rattled its A-Sat sword.
China, which was roiled by the burst of international condemnation following its January 2007 A-Sat
test, announced it was suspending its testing efforts and apparently launched an internal debate about whether and/or how to proceed. The U.S. move is likely to give yet more ammunition to the hardliners in
China’s People’s Liberation Army
who support Chinese A-Sat
development as a counter to U.S. military strength.
Perhaps even more worrying, other nations that might have their own reasons for contemplating A-Sat
capabilities – such as India, Pakistan, Israel or Iran – may read the U.S. action as “green-lighting” tests of such weaponry, as long as they are done “safely.” That would be unfortunate indeed. The proliferation of destructive A-Sat
capabilities would be in no nation’s interest, as at some point, someone would fail to resist the temptation to use them.
And as was proven in spades by the Chinese A-Sat test, shattering satellites in space results in enormous amounts of dangerous space debris that threatens all satellites in its path. The Chinese test, which destroyed a 1-ton weather satellite, created more than 2000 pieces of large debris (bigger than a baseball) and at least another 150,000 pieces of debris bigger than a marble – and even tiny pieces of junk in orbit can damage or destroy a satellite. Most satellites are a lot bigger than that weather satellite, some up to more than 10 tons, and thus would create even more debris if destroyed.
A shooting war in space involving a handful of large satellites could so pollute an area of valuable orbital real estate to the point where no satellite or spacecraft could safely transverse it for decades. Given the dependence of modern society of satellites – for everything from the Internet to bank wire transfers to weather reports – the loss of their use would be catastrophic. Further, the new era of space exploration would abruptly come to a halt, setting humankind even farther back from any hopes of someday becoming a true space
Rather than allow the world to slide down that dangerous path, it is time for the United States to re-orient its space strategy from a near-term focus on achieving tactical, political and military advantages towards a long-term strategic one that fully recognizes and addresses the risks to U.S. national security of space weaponization. A first step should be for Washington to lead the international community in an effort to establish rules of acceptable behavior for space
faring nations, rules that should preclude the testing and use of debris-creating weapons. No one will win if space is denied to us all.
Theresa Hitchens is director of the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information (CDI), and runs the CDI Space Security Project in cooperation with the Secure World Foundation.