Sunday, February 17, 2008

Satellite shoot-down plan provokes Cold War flare-up

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The U.S., as you may have heard, is planning to shoot down a rogue spy satellite. Needless to say, the Russians are not amused:

Russia has accused the US of using a plan to shoot down a broken spy satellite as a cover for testing an anti-satellite weapon.

The US said last week that it would use a missile to destroy the satellite, to stop it from crash landing.

Officials say the satellite contains hazardous fuel which could kill humans.

But Russia's defence ministry said the US planned to test its "anti-missile defence system's capability to destroy other countries' satellites".


Russia's defence ministry said the US had not given enough information on the reasons for the decision.

"Speculations about the danger of the satellite hide preparations for the classical testing of an anti-satellite weapon," a statement reported by Itar-Tass news agency said.

"Such testing essentially means the creation of a new type of strategic weapons," it added.

"The decision to destroy the American satellite does not look harmless as they try to claim, especially at a time when the US has been evading negotiations on the limitation of an arms race in outer space," the statement continued.

This is a sensitive operation, and, obviously, there is a lot we don't know. Still, as Noah Shachtman has pointed out, the official rationale for the operation -- namely, that "the hydrazine tank could rupture, releasing a 'toxic gas' over a 'populated area,' causing a 'risk to human life'" -- seems rather far-fetched. In fact, there isn't much of a risk at all. Hydrazine isn't that toxic, and any affected area, in terms of geographic size, would be tiny.

So, then -- why?

Shachtman cites "a veteran space security specialist" who suspects, and with good reason, that, for the U.S., "the satellite shot is a chance for the military to try out its missile defense capabilities; a way to keep secret material out of the wrong hands; and a warning to the Chinese, after they destroyed a satellite about a year ago." "Regardless of the central rationale for the anticipated intercept of a dying satellite," however, "the action almost certainly would offer the Pentagon useful data on conducting antisatellite missions."

All of which is to say that the Russians are probably right, more or less.

To be fair, the U.S. may have communicated this in some way to Moscow and/or to Beijing and/or to anyone else -- through back channels. And the official Russian response may have been largely for domestic consumption. Putin does not want to appear weak, after all, and Moscow can ill-afford to appear as if it isn't standing up to the U.S.

Still, the U.S. is up to something -- and that something has required the use of a flimsy pretext, a cover story that is simply not credible and that further weakens America's credibility generally, both at home and abroad. (What does America's word mean nowadays?)

I don't expect the U.S. military to make public its more sensitive projects and operations, of course, but it must collectively think that we are all too stupid to figure out what's really going on. Given that the go-ahead for this operation came from the occupant of the Oval Office, it should be no surprise that there has been such a campaign of misinformation.


Update: China isn't amused either.

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  • Hydrazine isn't that toxic when compared to dimethylmercury, but it's toxic enough that standing near a leaking tank of hydrazine is a Bad Idea.

    This is immaterial to the human heath risk posed by falling satellites, however, as hydrazine tanks rarely survive re-entry. Atmospheric heating burns off hydrazine before it reaches the ground.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:02 PM  

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