U.S. shot raises tensions and worries over satellites

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The shot that slammed into a crippled U.S. spy satellite Wednesday has raised fears of a new arms race in the heavens and increased tensions on Earth.

The USS Lake Erie launches a Standard Missile-3 at a non-functioning National Reconnaissance Office satellite as it traveled in space at more than 17,000 mph over the Pacific Ocean February 20, 2008. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout

Thirteen months after China destroyed an aging satellite with a missile, the operation also added to concerns about disruption of space assets vital for 21st-century global commerce and security.

The craft was hit 247 kms (153 miles) over the Pacific, the Pentagon said, using arms designed for the ship-based leg of a multibillion-dollar shield against missiles that could be tipped with chemical, germ or nuclear warheads.

The Bush administration has insisted it was not trying to demonstrate anti-satellite capabilities of the Lockheed Martin Corp “Aegis” ballistic missile defense -- though experts said the effect was just that.

The administration said its goal was to protect populated areas from the spacecraft’s unused supply of deadly hydrazine propellant -- an explanation many called unpersuasive.

The Pentagon said on Thursday it was very confident it had hit the fuel tank. The 5,000-pound (2,270 kg) satellite was struck by a Raytheon Co Standard Missile-3 fired from the USS Lake Erie northwest of Hawaii, the Pentagon said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, responding to Chinese criticism of the event, said in Honolulu the United States “certainly would be prepared to share” resultant data with Beijing -- “whatever appropriately we can.”

The operation marked the first time the U.S. missile defense system has been tweaked to aim for a satellite, although the United States and the Soviet Union conducted anti-satellite tests during the Cold War.

“It does not take an arms race to mess up space,” said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington. “All it takes is a few destructive anti-satellite tests.”


China drew strong criticism from the United States and others after it fired a ground-based missile at one of its weather satellites last year in the first anti-satellite test since Washington and Moscow halted theirs more than 20 years ago.

The January 12, 2007, Chinese test occurred at 850 kms, close to orbits crowded with functioning satellites. Tens of thousands of debris bits were created instantly, some of which may complicate space operations for decades if not centuries, experts say.

Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester under former President Bill Clinton, said he suspected one of the unstated U.S. goals on Wednesday was to strut an ability to shoot down a satellite from any ocean on earth.

“It was a bad idea,” he said. “It will make it easier for other countries to justify shooting down satellites for whatever supposed reason, thereby increasing the likelihood of an arms race in space.”

“I’ll bet you a dinner that the Russians will do it next,” he added in an E-mail interview.

Russia and China have long suspected that the U.S. missile defense program was in fact “cover” for offensive space and anti-satellite, or ASAT, weapons, said Theresa Hitchens, head of the Center for Defense Information’s space security project.

Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee, said the shoot-down was an “exceptional case.”

“We abandoned the pursuit of anti-satellite technology two decades ago due to concerns about the consequences of its use, and our country has no plans to renew those efforts,” the Missouri Democrat said. “Congress will closely monitor U.S. policies concerning our space assets in the coming days.”

A Lockheed Martin executive hailed the adaptability of the company’s Aegis ballistic missile defense, or BMD, hardware used to fire the three-stage interceptor missile at the satellite, code-named USA 193. The satellite malfunctioned shortly after it was launched on December 14, 2006.

“Through our Aegis BMD testing, we know that hitting a target in space is a tremendous challenge,” said Fred Moosally, president of Lockheed Martin Maritime Systems & Sensors business unit.

“With an unpredictable flight profile and significantly greater speed, this mission added new twists to that challenge,” he said.


Lockheed Martin engineers will now begin reversing unspecified modifications to the guided-missile cruiser Lake Erie and two destroyers that took part in the mission.

Lockheed Martin and Raytheon did not immediately respond to a request to discuss tweaks made to their hardware to target USA 193. The Aegis system uses powerful computers and radar to detect and track targets as they rise over the horizon and guides the SM-3 to its predicted interception point.

Victoria Samson of the Center for Defense Information said the episode showed U.S. missile defense could function as an ASAT system able to shoot down other nations’ assets in space.

The United States -- which relies heavily on space for everything from national security to telecommunications to executing financial transactions via satellite -- “stands to lose the most from weaponizing space,” she said.

“Given how much the United States complained when China tested an ASAT last year, this kneecaps future criticism of their program,” Samson added in an E-mail.

Riki Ellison, who heads the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and who has close ties to the Pentagon and to industry, said using the missile defense system to destroy a falling satellite, ballistic missile or dangerous meteor was “an achievement for mankind.”

A Raytheon sea-based X-band radar was deployed to support independently the discrimination and tracking of USA 193, he said, adding: “Other U.S. military sensors and satellites were deployed in the area and were also used for evaluation of the intercept.”

Raytheon said the mission demonstrated its missile’s ability “to meet a unique situation and perform beyond its intended purpose.”

“The missile was never designed to engage a satellite,” said Anne Marie Squeo, a company spokeswoman. “Much engineering and technical expertise made this one-time mission possible.”

Boeing Co, which has partnered with Raytheon on SM-3 development since 1996 and builds components of the missile’s heat-seeking warhead, was withholding comment, said a spokesman.

Additional reporting from Kristin Roberts in Honolulu and Andrew Gray; Editing by Brian Moss