By Eli Lewine
Published on Nukes of Hazard blog on February 20, 2008
Below is an in-depth look at all the problems with the Bush administration’s decision to use the Sea-Based Midcourse Missile Defense system (SMD) to strike a U.S. spy satellite that lost power shortly after launch last year. The Navy is calling the operation “The Shot.”
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION’S JUSTIFICATION
During the briefing that described the necessity of taking “The Shot,” Deputy National Security Advisor James Jeffrey and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright both stated that the reason that this falling space debris was different from previous debris was the possibility that a 1,000 pound tank of hydrazine may fall to the Earth and spray its contents over 200 yards. Gen. Cartwright described the effects of hydrazine as:
In a worst-case scenario for the hydrazine, it’s similar to chlorine or to ammonia in that when you inhale it, it affects your tissues in your lungs. You know it’s — it has the burning sensation. If you stay very close to it and inhale a lot of it, it could in fact be deadly. But for the most part here, we’re talking an area, say, roughly the size of two football fields that the hydrazine could be dispersed over, and you would at least incur something that would make you go to the doctor.
A quick check of the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) essentially confirms this assessment. It states that, “Breathing hydrazines for short periods may cause coughing and irritation of the throat and lungs, convulsions, tremors, or seizures.” Generally, it seems that this stuff could burn if it got into your lungs, but only would be deadly if you ignored that burning and continued to breathe it in for a long period of time. Even the official Health Advisory issued by the Center for Disease Control said that “The risk of health effects related to the satellite is considered to be low.”
But what are the chances that this tank will even fall in a populated area? Discovery quotes some numbers that say that the chance a person will be hit by space debris is less than one in one trillion. Given that three-fourths of Earth’s surface is water, and of the one-fourth that is land, only 1.5% can be considered populated urban centers, the likelihood that this satellite will land where it will have an effect on humans is pretty minute. Dr. Lewis at Armscontrolwonk.com asked a colleague of his to do a quick calculation of the risk assessment and he found that the hydrazine gas has a two out of a thousand chance of crashing in an area that would affect three people, in a worst case scenario.
This means that the Bush administration determined that because there is a fairly infinitesimal chance that a satellite will crash in an area where there is a concentration of people, and then possibly leak a chemical that might cause irritation to people within a couple hundred yards, they need to spend $40-60 million to shoot three missiles at this satellite to possibly break it apart or miss it, instead of just tracking where the satellite will fall and then contacting those who are likely to be in the crash zone hours beforehand. This seems to be a pretty flimsy justification for a decision that has numerous negative consequences.
In January 2007, the Chinese conducted a test of an anti-satellite missile and were soundly criticized by the international community. Many believed that it would start a dangerous new arms race in space. The spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, Gordon Johndroe, stated that the Chinese test was inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that exists in the development of space technology.
Less than a year later, the U.S. has put itself on a course to conduct a very similar test and likely faces even more serious international consequences. Both China and Russia have come out against the U.S. decision and stated that the U.S. has simply come up with a flimsy excuse in order to conduct an anti-satellite missile test. What makes matters worse is that these countries also recently submitted a new draft for a treaty against space weapons to the UN Conference on Disarmament. Whether the U.S. government means to or not, it will be thumbing its nose at those two countries by making the decision to conduct this test so soon after the renewal of efforts to negotiate this treaty.
The diplomatic consequences of the United States shooting down this satellite will not just stop with statements of condemnation. No less than three critical ongoing foreign policy crises could be affected by the worsening of relations between these three world powers. Both the Six-Party talks for denuclearizing North Korea, and the United Nations Security Council work towards a diplomatic solution with Iran, involve intimate consultations and compromise between the United States, China, and Russia. More recently, these countries have come to loggerheads over recognizing the independence of Kosovo, which seems to be quickly evolving into a referendum on East-West relations. Rarely do these governments agree on the way forward on any of these issues, so “The Shot” just adds to the tension that seems to intensify each day.
On the technical side, there are a host of other issues. The first is the fact that this launching sets a standard by which other countries can conduct anti-satellite tests. One of the major reasons China was condemned so vehemently is that their test lacked any notification to other nations and resulted in a significant amount of space debris sent into higher orbits that could be a danger to other objects in orbit. The United States has notified other nations of its intentions and has modeled the test to minimize the possibility of dangerous debris. Yet, if other nations wished to conduct anti-satellite missile tests in the future, they would now likely simply include a human safety justification. By choosing to shoot down this satellite, the United States leaves itself in a weakened position to argue against other countries’ more dangerous military tests.
The second issue, and one that could be far more damaging to national security, would be that the United States has put itself in a place where it must succeed or face huge embarrassment and the loss of military credibility. Many experts have stated that even with three chances at hitting the satellite, the missile still has a reasonable chance of not fully accomplishing the mission. The United States gains very little even if this test is a success. However, were this mission to fail, the United States is now in a position where its most reliable missile defense technology, the Navy’s Aegis system, is publicly shown to come up wanting.
What other factors are influencing the Bush administration to make this decision? It just does not seem logical to move forward with this, given the low probability of serious danger and the far higher likelihood for consequences.
The most obvious answer seems to be that the administration wants to promote missile defense. Ever since it came into power and chose to abrogate the ABM Treaty with Russia, the administration has been on a path that promotes missile defense despite the consequences. It hasn’t mattered whether project costs continued to skyrocket with only minimal results, or if European and Russian governments protest against proposed installation sites. The Bush administration has continually discounted its critics and gone forward with promoting this program. In fact, the fiscal year 2009 budget request includes an unprecedented $12.3 billion in funding for missile defense related programs, despite the fact that they have yet to field a system that would protect the United States from a missile strike with any high rate of success.
This anti-satellite mission is a perfect cover for creating another justification for continuing missile defense. Congressional appropriators will now have solid evidence to point to that shows that missile defense not only works, but has the capacity to be adapted to unexpected crises that may arise. For missile defense advocates, this broken satellite was an opportunity that was just too good to pass up.