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ARMS-US: Satellite Shootdown Fuels Fears of New Space Race

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Feb 21 2008 (IPS) - Independent arms-control critics here say that Wednesday’s successful strike by a missile launched from a U.S. warship in the Pacific Ocean of a dying spy satellite will add to growing fears in Russia and China that Washington is determined to assert military dominance in space.

They are deeply sceptical of the Pentagon’s explanation that it decided to shoot down the satellite in order to protect populated areas from space debris, and specifically the half-tonne of hydrazine that might have been released if the satellite’s fuel tank were to survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and explode on impact.

“So far, in the entire history of the Space Age, no man-made object has badly injured anyone,” Michael Krepon, director of the Space Security Project at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washinton, told the Baltimore Sun after the Pentagon reported the strike late Wednesday local time. “The ostensible reason for the ASAT (anti-satellite) test – to protect human beings from the satellite’s unused supply of deadly fuel – is unpersuasive.”

Indeed, as recently as three weeks ago, the spokesman of the White House National Security Council, Gordon Johndroe, assured reporters that the L-21 satellite, which was secretly launched by the National Reconnaissance Office in 2006 but apparently failed shortly after reaching low-Earth orbit, posed only a negligible threat to human life.

“Given that 75 percent of the Earth is covered in water and much of the land is uninhabited, the likely percentage of this satellite or any debris falling into a populated area is very small,” he told reporters Jan. 28 when it first became known that the Pentagon anticipated that the L-21 would likely fall out of orbit as early as Mar. 1.

Last week, however, the Pentagon appeared to change its tune, insisting that the risk to human life was great enough to warrant an effort to shoot down the satellite over the ocean.

The Pentagon’s announcement spurred strong statements of concern from both China and Russia, which only two days before had jointly proposed at the U.N. Disarmament Conference in Geneva a new international arms pact that would tighten a 1967 treaty to ban the development of all weapons for use in space.

While Wednesday’s missile shot, the precise effectiveness of which has not yet been confirmed, would not technically violate the proposed accord, it clearly raises questions about Washington’s military intentions in space, notwithstanding the Bush administration’s efforts to reassure Moscow and Beijing that its motives were strictly humanitarian.

The launch of the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptor involved switching the Navy’s radar system, which is designed to shoot down intermediate-range ballistic missiles, to what is essentially an anti-satellite (ASAT) system – something that is accomplished through the use of a different software programme, according to Deborah Bain of the Ploughshares Fund, a California-based arms-control and philanthropic group.

“The fact of the matter is that the software wasn’t all that hard to develop, and it now exists,” she wrote on Ploughshares’ website this week. “And while the SM-3 missiles don’t have the range to reliably target most active satellites, the U.S.-Ground-Based Midcourse interceptors in silos at Fort Greeley and Vandenberg (Air Force bases) do. The bottom line is that the attempted intercept only increases concern about missile defence and U.S. plans in space.”

In any event, the technology on display in Wednesday’s launch offers many potential military applications in space that are certain to add to apprehensions in both Moscow and Beijing, according to arms-control specialists here.

“There’s a real concern that the U.S. is trying to develop space weapons in the guise of other systems,” David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Washington Post before the test which, he added, “fuels the flames for those who think we want to build anti-satellite capabilities.”

Suspicions about U.S. intentions in space have been particularly high since George W. Bush pledged that he would renounce the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union during his campaign for president in 2002.

He followed through on that promise when he gave formal notice in December 2001 that Washington was withdrawing from the pact. The move was strongly protested by Moscow, and was one of a series of measures taken by his administration culminating in the invasion of Iraq four months later that Bush was determined to free U.S. foreign policy from what he viewed as excessive international legal constraints on its freedom of action.

Last August, the administration issued a new space policy asserting a right to “freedom of action in space” and a determination to “deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities to do so.”

Some experts believe that any ASAT activity by Washington could be counter-productive due to the fact that that its military and economic infrastructure, more than any other country, depends on satellites – a point made just last week in testimony before Congress by a senior intelligence official.

“I’m concerned about the implications this will have with the Chinese and the Russians for starting an anti-satellite arms race,” said Ivan Oelrich, an expert at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). “(It) will do nobody any good but will particularly threaten the United States because we are far and away the biggest presence in space.”

Indeed, Washington issued a formal protest after a China shot down one of its own older weather satellites with a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile some 850 kms above Earth.

The test, which was also protested by Japan and other U.S. allies, effectively demonstrated Beijing’s ability to knock out U.S. lower-Earth-orbit satellites, many of which are critical to U.S. military operations.

Beijing was accused not only of risking an arms race in space, but also with destroying the satellite in such a way as to leave in orbit considerable debris that posed a threat to other satellites, including the International Space Station (ISS).

In defending Wednesday’s launch, the Pentagon stressed that it was specifically to minimise the amount of debris that would be left in orbit, although other experts noted that the U.S. satellite was significantly larger than the Chinese one and that, while most of the remains would likely fall into the atmosphere in the next few weeks, some parts could be propelled into higher orbit by the explosion.

While questioning the humanitarian justification for the satellite’s destruction, Krepon suggested it may have been intended to deny the Russians and Chinese any opportunity to recover the satellite which, despite its failure, is believed to contain some of Washington’s newest and most sensitive spy technology.

China Thursday dismissed Washington’s public explanations and denounced it for hypocrisy. “The United States, the top space power, has often accused other countries of vigorously developing military space technology,” the official People’s Daily charged in an editorial. “But faced with the Chinese-Russian proposal to restrict space armaments, it runs in fear from what it claimed to love.”

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