World Politics Review
February 22, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd

A U.S. warship prowling the Pacific Ocean has officially ushered in the Missile Defense Age, firing an SM-3 missile-killing rocket to destroy a satellite tumbling toward Earth. “The intercept occurred, and we're very confident we hit the satellite,” Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calmly reported. 

Like the Rocket Age, which terrified Americans when Sputnik orbited the globe and then transfixed the world when Armstrong took his giant leap on the lunar surface; like the Jet Age, which turned the skies over Korea into a killing field and then opened the way to inexpensive, high-speed global travel; like the Nuclear Age, which ended a war by erasing two cities, put Armageddon within man’s grasp and then provided boundless supplies of energy; this new epoch promises to bring both high and lows, worry and wonder. 

To be sure, countries like the U.S., China and the now-defunct U.S.S.R. have tested anti-satellite weapons (or ASATs) before, but this is different because of what the U.S. used to intercept this satellite—and how the military did it. 

It is no small feat to hit a target traveling 17,000 mph 150 miles above the Earth with a rocket, especially when the interceptor platform is on the open seas, where waves wreak havoc with guidance and targeting. And it’s no small feat to recalibrate and retarget a system that is still technically in development. Yet that’s what the U.S. military did.  

There were many reasons for the intercept of the crippled spy satellite known as US193:  

-It carried a thousand pounds of the toxic fuel hydrazine, which probably would not have burned up upon reentry, something NASA and the Pentagon learned during the Columbia disaster.  

-John Pike of Globalsecurity.org notes, “The Chinese and the Russians spend an enormous amount of time trying to steal American technology. To have our most sophisticated radar intelligence satellite—have big pieces of it fall into their hands—would not be our preferred outcome.”

-As The International Herald Tribune has reported, Washington announced its decision to destroy the satellite “just days after China and Russia renewed their call for a global ban on space weapons.” To accede to such a proposal would hamstring and endanger the U.S. No country relies on space assets like the U.S.—and much of the world relies on the U.S. to ensure freedom of movement in and through space. “We know from history that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict,” as a U.S. commission on space defense concluded in 2000. “Reality indicates that space will be no different.” Indeed, history reminds us that if man can possess something or travel through it, he will fight over it—and in it.  

And that leads us to one of the reasons for the intercept that remains unspoken by Washington. The mission signaled America’s ability and readiness to defend itself from missile attack—and to respond in kind should its satellites be targeted. As The Washington Post observes, “The operation made it clear that the missile defense system can be modified very quickly to accomplish such a task,” adding that software and equipment modifications were performed over just 30 days. 

Make no mistake: By swinging its sites onto the crippled satellite and knocking it down—and for good measure, telling the world it intended to do just that—the U.S. was sending a message. The target audience: China, North Korea and Iran. 

But the USS Lake Erie and her crew did more than send a wordless message to China, which recently used its own ground-based ASAT to knock out a satellite deeper in orbit, recklessly creating a debris field in space; and the North Koreans and Iranians, who have assisted each other in developing missiles and nukes. The Navy also put an exclamation point on a dramatic year of progress for the U.S.-led international missile defense system (IMD). 

As the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (USMDA) recently reported, the last 12 months have seen the U.S. deploy nine new ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and one at Vandenberg AFB, California, bringing the total to 21 in Alaska and three in California. 

USMDA delivered an additional 13 Aegis SM-3 interceptors—the same weapons system that knocked down the stricken satellite—for a total of 21 SM-3s. Along the way, USMDA delivered upgrades to four other Aegis missile defense-capable destroyers, bringing the total to seven Aegis destroyers and three Aegis cruisers. In other words, that’s 10 warships that are ready to defend America from missile attack. 

New IMD sensors and systems were deployed in Alaska, Britain and Greenland. New IMD support facilities were completed in Japan. Denmark and Italy signed agreements on IMD cooperation and development. USMDA has “28 active agreements with 11 nations.” In fact, USMDA reports “ongoing collaboration activities with Japan, United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Republic of Korea, Ukraine, Taiwan, India, and NATO.”  

Poland, for example, recently agreed to deployment of IMD missile-interceptors on its soil. For daring to behave like a sovereign nation and fielding a wholly defensive weapons system, Poland has been treated to threats from Moscow, which warns that Russian missiles will be retargeted onto Poland. (So maybe China, North Korea and Iran aren’t the only reason IMD’s time has come.) 

In the field, nine successful “hit-to-kill” tests were performed, at various ranges. The Airborne Laser—a missile-killing laser mounted on a 747 that can loiter outside enemy territory and destroy a missile long before it threatens friendly soil—carried out a number of successful tests. And a specially-armed F-16 fighter used an air-to-air missile to knock a rocket out of the sky in its boost phase, “marking the first intercept of a ballistic missile from an air platform and the first boost-phased intercept of a ballistic missile,” according to USMDA. 

In short, the Missile Defense Age has begun on a high note.