U.S. Satellite Shootdown May Weaken Americans’ Moral Standing To Oppose Other Nations Performing ASAT Shots, Critics Say

But Colonel Says United States Had ‘Moral Responsibility’ To Eliminate Any Level Of Hazard To Humans; Satellite Debris Will Be Gone By June

Several critics assailed the U.S. move to use a Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] sea-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system and Raytheon Co. [RTN] Standard Missile-3 interceptor to shoot down a dead/disabled intelligence satellite, saying the action impairs U.S. moral standing in opposing satellite destruction by other nations.

The critics also questioned whether the shoot-down was justified by a sufficient probability that a tank full of 1,000 ponds of toxic hydrazine fuel on the out-of-control satellite would survive reentry into the atmosphere and strike a populated area, injuring or killing humans.

However, the critics didn’t say that the failed satellite and its hydrazine fuel tank posed no threat to humans.

As well, the critics didn’t dispute Pentagon estimates that debris caused by demolishing the satellite with a U.S. ballistic missile defense system would come down safely into the atmosphere and burn up during reentry, with most of the debris de-orbiting within hours and the remainder within months at most. An officer said all the debris would be gone by June.

And the critics didn’t argue that the United States was more open in giving prior public announcements and warnings of the shoot-down than China was before it abruptly sent a ground-based interceptor missile to destroy an aging Chinese satellite in January last year.

Rather, the critics said the Pentagon should release details of risk assessments and probability figures that went into the decision to shoot down the ailing U.S. intelligence satellite, which never functioned after it was launched into orbit in 2006.

Separately, however, a military officer involved with the shoot-down said that regardless of the percentage probability that the hydrazine tank would survive reentry and strike a populated area, so long as there was any chance of endangering humans — and there was — then the satellite shoot-down was a moral imperative.

Two of the critics were Geoffrey Forden, senior research associate with the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Jeffrey G. Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative with the New America Foundation. They spoke to journalists at a luncheon of the Center for Media and Security at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

Also on Tuesday, many of the same views were expressed separately by another critic, Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a non-partisan defense-oriented Washington think tank. He also is a diplomat scholar at the University of Virginia. Krepon wrote his views in a white paper titled “After the ASAT Tests” that was published by the Stimson Center.

For the other side of the issue, Space & Missile Defense Report interviewed Col. Mike Carey, deputy of J-3 Operations with the U.S. Strategic Command at Offut Air Force Base, Neb.

Carey’s key point is that the United States had to take action to protect innocent humans from harm, and demolishing the dead intelligence satellite was the only way of assuring that, since military officials couldn’t take the customary step of commanding the satellite to reenter the atmosphere and plunge to its demise in an unpopulated area (because the satellite wasn’t functioning).

Here are the views of the critics, and then the views of Carey:

Was Satellite Shot Needed?

Forden and Lewis said there is so much of the Earth that is either covered with oceans or lightly-populated or vacant land area that there was little chance the U.S. intelligence satellite would harm anyone, even if the hydrazine tank survived reentry and then vented hydrazine gas upon landing, as the Pentagon feared.

Forden also said the United States doesn’t have to counter Chinese abilities to shoot down U.S. military or commercial satellites with anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, because the United States has such an immense amount of redundancy in its satellite systems. That applies to various types of satellites, such as global positioning birds.

Further, Forden said, if China openly prepares for an ASAT shot, as it did last year, that provides warning to Americans that gives them time to shift satellites around, and relocate them on orbit.

“One could imagine suffering very little” even if China launched an ASAT attack, Forden said.

In telecommunications satellites, there is some 14 gigabytes per second of capacity aloft, and even in the early days of the Iraq war just 3 gigabytes were used, he said.

The real danger, he said, may be creation of space debris, perhaps hundreds of pieces of space junk, that then strike satellites or other objects orbiting Earth to create a vast cloud of debris, which then would strike other satellites, in a vicious cycle that would create ever more debris, leading to a cataclysm in space.

It is debris in space, and ASAT shots creating debris, that should cause worry, he counseled. And therefore, the United States should wish to remain in a position of moral suasion, to dissuade other nations from launching debris-creating ASAT shots.

Lewis asserted that the U.S. shoot-down of the 193 intelligence satellite was “distressing,” because the decision-making that preceded the decision to initiate the shoot-down was “secretive.”

That is directly counter to Pentagon officials’ statements stressing that the United States was open in the period leading up to the shot, unlike the Chinese saying nothing before their ASAT shot and then not admitting it for weeks afterward.

Lewis said he would like Pentagon officials to disclose several items:

  • What was the chance the 193 satellite would come down in a populated area? One in 1,000? Three in 1,000?
  • What was the chance that the hydrazine fuel tank would survive reentry? And how was that probability derived? Was it derived from information gathered after the disintegration of Space Shuttle Columbia after the damaged shuttle attempted to return to Earth in 2003? If so, this shouldn’t be classified information, he argued.
  • If the satellite, or parts of it, survived reentry, such as the hydrazine fuel tank, how much harm might it do to humans, either immediately or in risk of the hydrazine gas causing cancer?
  • What was the risk to the International Space Station from debris created in the U.S. 193 satellite shoot-down?
  • What is the risk that the U.S. shoot-down could make it more difficult to dissuade other nations from ASAT actions?

All this information, Lewis argued, “should be put in the public domain.”

He alleged that these calculations may not have been done, and instead there may have been officials who “wanted very much to demonstrate the technology” that the United States could execute the unprecedented shoot-down.

Space & Missile Defense Report asked whether the critics disagreed with Pentagon findings that most of the debris safely reentered the atmosphere shortly after the satellite take-down, and whether they disagreed with statements in Congress, even by high-ranking Democrats, that the United States created the danger by launching the satellite in 2006, and therefore had a moral obligation to demolish it before it caused harm to humans.

Forden said that some debris from the U.S. shoot-down “went up very high,” but added that if someone said within six months the debris from the shoot-down would be gone, he couldn’t disagree with that.

Lewis responded that “the politics of this are hard to ignore,” and also said that “I’m not surprised people would make this decision.”

While he acknowledged that there was an “incredibly small” risk that debris from the U.S. shoot-down would endanger satellites or people in space, Lewis also argued that the risk was small that the satellite would survive reentry and come crashing down in a populated area.

Forden said the United States also incurred risk that it’s stance against other nations performing ASAT shots is weakened. “There is a moral price that you pay for shooting it down,” he said.

By shooting down a U.S. satellite, the United States has “to some extent legitimized China’s anti-satellite weapon,” he said.

However, the critics acknowledged there could be some hazard to humans if the U.S. intelligence satellite were permitted to tumble out of control into a reentry at some unknown point, with the hydrazine tank possibly returning to Earth substantially intact.

Forden said the chances of the satellite affecting any humans on the ground might be a minuscule 3.5 percent, which he asserts wouldn’t justify shooting down the satellite. He said if the force in reentry was 50 times gravity, or 50 gs, the hydrazine tank never would have made it back to the ground, and instead would have been destroyed, along with the hydrazine fuel. But on the other hand, if the force was 10 gs, “I cannot say it will break up,” because that wouldn’t be much more than the 6 gs of force the satellite endured during launch and ascent in 2006.

“I can’t say it will definitely break up,” Forden said. “I can’t say they [Pentagon officials] are totally wrong.”

But, he said, it should be up to Pentagon leaders to prove the fuel tank would have survived reentry and hit the ground intact.

The satellite shoot-down was impressive for the closing speed of the Standard Missile-3 with the failed intelligence satellite, Forden said. However, the bang-on accuracy of the interceptor in hitting the satellite wasn’t impressive, because military officers permitted the sun to warm up the satellite, making it easier to target and hit, before the strike, Forden said.

Krepon Paper

Similarly, Krepon, of the Stimson Center, said the Pentagon should release information about factors that led to the decision to perform the shoot-down.

“The Bush administration delayed its public announcement of an imminent threat of a chemical spill to the eleventh hour,” Krepon asserted.

“Nor did it release unclassified assumptions and probability risk assessments used to justify the ASAT test. To have done so would, most likely, have clarified how unusual and unnecessary the proposed remedy was. Media outlets faithfully reported the administration’s case, and congressional overseers were quiescent, unwilling to buck the public safety argument.”

To be sure, Krepon condemned China for not announcing its ASAT test before demolishing the old weather satellite, and for creating a lethal cloud of space debris imperiling satellites and spacecraft.

Krepon argued that the United States, in demolishing the intel satellite, loses the high ground in arguing against ASAT actions by other nations.

“The immediate consequences of the U.S. ASAT test include the loss of credibility of U.S. government spokespersons who have long claimed that the Bush administration was innocent of charges that it sought to demonstrate and build up ‘offensive counter-space’ capabilities,” according to Krepon.

“The Bush administration’s argument that new space diplomacy initiatives are unnecessary has also become even more threadbare,” he wrote. “In diplomacy, as in politics, you can’t beat something with nothing. But the Bush administration still has not, and will not, offer a substantive alternative to the draft treaty banning space weapons proposed by Russia and China.”

An Opposing View

Carey, the military officer involved in the U.S. intelligence satellite shoot-down, stressed that it was prompted by a confluence of unusual factors.

First, ground controllers couldn’t communicate with the satellite, because it was dysfunctional. Therefore, they couldn’t command it to reenter the atmosphere at a point where, even if it were to survive reentry intact, remnants of the satellite would land safely in an unpopulated area, he observed.

Rather, there was no way to know, with a satellite circling the planet 16 times daily, just where it finally would strike the atmosphere and plunge downward, out of control.

Also, since the satellite had been largely unused, since it was dead on arrival in orbit more than a year ago, the hydrazine fuel on board was largely unused, posing a 1,000 pound hazard, unlike functional satellites that gradually use up their fuel, he noted.

The point here was that the satellite posed a hazard to humans, and thus demolishing it before it could cause injury or death “was the right and responsible thing to do,” Carey said in a telephone interview.

Given that there was no way to communicate with the satellite, the decision had to be made “to engage the spacecraft,” Carey said.

A question asked in these deliberations was whether the shoot-down to avert danger to humans on the ground could, perversely, make matters worse by forming a cloud of lethal space debris that would pose an even greater danger to humans in space, such as on the International Space Station.

The answer was, no, Carey said.

Even if some debris from the demolished intelligence satellite were to go higher, and some critics say that did indeed happen, the debris would then drift down and safely renter the atmosphere, burning up before reaching Earth, Carey said.

Conversely, “the risk was high enough” that the satellite might injure someone on the ground to justify demolishing the satellite with the interceptor, Carey said.

The United States then mitigated the risk of creating space debris by waiting until the intelligence satellite orbit level decayed so that it was quite near the atmosphere, meaning that debris from the shoot-down would reenter the atmosphere quickly, Carey said.

All debris from the satellite will be down by June, Carey added.

Rather than harming the moral authority of the United States, the satellite shoot-down “gives us credibility inside and outside the United States” that Americans will do the right thing to eliminate a hazard to innocent people posed by a U.S. space asset, he said.

Even Russian leaders endorsed the move, Carey noted.

He agreed that chances were greater that the satellite, left to reenter out of control, would have hit an unpopulated area, given that a majority of the planet is covered with water, and given that “population densities vary so dramatically around the globe.”

But the problem is that there could be no certainty as to whether the satellite might plunge down on, say, Manhattan instead of Texas, he said.

Shooting down the satellite in a way that ensured it wouldn’t hit a populated area wasn’t driven solely by “the thought that some soul … would get injured;” the decision also was dictated by the fact that “it was the right thing to do,” Carey said.

“It was our satellite that went up, and we had the responsibility to do something about it” to obviate chances of it injuring innocent people, he said.

As far as Krepon’s assertion that the Bush administration waited until the 11th hour to announce plans for the satellite shoot-down, Carey said the announcement was made just after President Bush decided to order the action. And the decision followed a top-level meeting of high-ranking defense, missile defense, NASA and other leaders, and then a notification of members of Congress and international partners, Carey said.