February 21, 2008

A subtle message to the bad guys....

SM-3 Launch (click for larger image)The U.S. Navy’s successful intercept of an unresponsive satellite in an erratic orbit almost 150 miles above the earth’s surface should not be lost on countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Although the United States demonstrated an anti-satellite capability as early as 1985, the Pentagon insists this recent operation was neither a test nor a demonstration of an anti-satellite weapon. Note that China launched a missile to destroy a weather satellite a year ago, spreading debris all over the satellite belt that will last for decades.

To successfully intercept the satellite, an SM-3 Standard missile was modified to track a low infrared signature target. The Navy modified three missiles at a cost of about $3 million a copy – the remaining two will be reconfigured to its normal anti-missile capabilities.

Although the Defense Department denies any special significance to this operation other than destroying the satellite, there are subtle messages to those who either target or are planning to target the United States with ballistic missiles. In essence, the Navy successfully intercepted a maneuvering object re-entering the atmosphere – to the untrained eye, that satellite resembles a ballistic missile.

That said, ballistic missiles have a much more defined trajectory – this was a much more difficult target to hit. That fact should be read with great interest in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran. The United States, downing one of its errant satellites, demonstrated the capability to track and intercept an object moving in excess of 17,000 miles per hour. That intercept was with a missile launched from a mobile platform – in this case a U.S. Navy destroyer, easily deployable around the world.

The interceptor missile was launched from the USS Lake Erie, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile destroyer. The ship was modified as an Aegis ballistic missile defense system platform in the late 1990’s - an anti-ballistic missile platform pressed into service to intercept a dead satellite.

Recent media reports have indicated that the Navy “shot down” the satellite. That was not the mission, and ideally not the result. The SM-3 was intended to hit the satellite and cause it to break up into smaller pieces which would burn up as they re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, including the breakup of the fuel tank with 1,000 pounds of hydrazine, a toxic rocket fuel. This is markedly different from China’s rather sloppy destruction of a satellite in outer space.

If the Iranians were watching television these last few days, they would have seen a credible display of American technology – the return of yet another in the series of over 100 space shuttle missions, and the successful missile intercept of USA 193. As the Iranian regime continues its aggressive program of ballistic missile research and development, combined with its suspect nuclear enrichment efforts, it should take note of the existing and demonstrated defensive capabilities of the U.S armed forces.

The United States arguably was merely eliminating a danger by destroying the dead satellite. At the same time, it demonstrated the ability to move platform into position and intercept an object re-entering the atmosphere over a hundred miles above the earth.

That sure looks like an anti-ballistic missile and an anti-satellite capability. The Pentagon can try to downplay it if it wants, but it is what it is.

Heads up, Mr. Ahmadinejad.