Satellite downing shows US arsenal
Critics fear other nations now will test
WASHINGTON - The unprecedented downing of an errant spy satellite by a Navy missile makes clear that the Pentagon now has a new weapon in its arsenal: an antisatellite missile adapted from the nation's missile defense program.
While the dramatic intercept took place well below the altitude where most satellites orbit, defense and space specialists said Wednesday night's first-shot success strongly suggests that the military has the technology and know-how to knock out satellites at much higher orbits.
The Pentagon officials said it was 90 percent certain the missile had struck its primary target, a tank containing toxic fuel, but they stressed that the shootdown did not indicate that the United States was actively developing an antisatellite program.
General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the effort was not a test of the nation's missile defense system nor a show of force to put other countries on notice that the United States can take down a satellite.
"This was uncharted territory," he said. "We see this as a one-time event."
Nonetheless, many space analysts and arms control advocates in the United States and abroad said the shot had opened the door to antisatellite tests by more nations.
"Demonstrably, we do have an [antisatellite] capability now," said David Mosher, a defense and space specialist with Rand Corporation.
"Anyone who followed national missile defense issues knew we've had that inherent ability for some time," he said. "But now it's real, and we can expect there will be consequences."
Clay Moltz, a professor of nuclear and space policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, agreed that the destruction of the satellite did not signal a new capability, but he said it might have sent a signal to other countries that could set a bad precedent.
"It solved a short-term problem, but it may cause us long-term headaches in terms of emerging test programs in other countries," Moltz said.
Riki Ellison, president and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said it was "remarkable" - and good news - that the missile defense system is so easily adaptable.
"We now have something that has the capability, anywhere around the world, to handle a falling satellite," Ellison said. "The world wasn't really watching it before."
The Chinese government - which conducted a full-scale antisatellite test in January 2001 - asked the United States to release data on the shootdown and where the satellite's debris would fall. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in Honolulu said some data would be shared to assure the Chinese and others that any pieces that reach Earth will not be hazardous.
Many governments accepted the Bush administration's explanation that the satellite had to be knocked down because it was carrying a tank of potentially hazardous hydrazine rocket fuel.