WASHINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The U.S. decision to shoot down an ailing spy satellite raises new concerns about an arms race in space and could drive Russia and China to respond, analysts said on Thursday, voicing skepticism about the explanation for the move.
Space and security experts said they did not believe the Bush administration's justification for plans to fire a missile into a disabled satellite -- namely to prevent a potentially deadly leak of toxic gas as it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.
The Pentagon, they argued, was more likely testing its ability to target other states' satellites -- a suggestion rejected by U.S. officials.
Michael Krepon, security expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a private research group in Washington, called the Pentagon's reasoning "unpersuasive."
"If this man-made object causes human casualties or fatalities, they will be the first in the history of the space age," he said.
The Bush administration announced on Thursday it would try to shoot down a disabled U.S. spy satellite before it enters the atmosphere.
It will be the first time the United States conducts an anti-satellite operation since the 1980s, analysts said. Russia also has not conducted anti-satellite activities in 20 years.
China launched a ground-based missile into an obsolete weather satellite in January 2007 -- drawing international criticism and worries inside the Pentagon that Beijing now has the ability to target critical military assets in space.
"It's not lost on this audience what a strategically dislocating event that was -- on par with the October 1957 Sputnik launch" that put the Soviet Union ahead of the United States in space, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley told a space industry conference after the Chinese test.
The U.S. military and intelligence agencies rely extensively on space-based technologies, which provide capabilities ranging from communications and positioning data to precision targeting in counterterrorism operations.
The number of U.S. military and intelligence satellites is classified.
That dependence coupled with concern about China's test has driven Washington to demonstrate its abilities to hit satellites in space, security experts said.
"They're going to use this as a test of an anti-satellite system to destroy the satellite," said Ivan Oelrich, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
"I'm concerned about the implications this will have with the Chinese and the Russians for starting an anti-satellite arms race, which will do nobody any good but will particularly threaten the United States because we are far and away the biggest presence in space," he said.
U.S. officials called the missile launch an extraordinary measure aimed at protecting people, not a test or demonstration of space weapons.
Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said modifications to existing systems would be needed to make the type of missile launch that is planned into a space weapon incorporated into the U.S. arsenal.
"You'd have to go in and do modifications to ships, to missiles, to sensors, and they could be significant," he said. "This is an extreme measure for this problem. It would not be transferable to a fleet configuration, so to speak."
Asked about the international response, James Jeffrey, deputy national security adviser, would not speculate.
"What I do know is the truth. I know why we're doing this," he said. "We all know why the decision was taken and we stand by it." (Reporting by Kristin Roberts; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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