January 23, 2007


Hatched by Dafydd

On Wednesday, China successfully tested a satellite-killer missile:

The anti-satellite test was first reported late Wednesday on the Web site of Aviation Week and Space Technology, an industry magazine. It said intelligence agencies had yet to “complete confirmation of the test.”

The Chinese test, the magazine said, appeared to employ a ground-based interceptor that used the sheer force of impact rather than an exploding warhead to shatter the satellite into a cloud of debris.

There are many ways to respond to this test; the most direct response would be to use our own laser-based ASATs (anti-satellite weapons), not to destroy an American satellite, but merely to "blind" it. This would demonstrate a much more sophisticated approach than the crudity of hitting a large satellite -- falling in a fixed orbit known in advance -- with a medium-rang ballistic missile, technology the Russians were deploying 30 years ago).

Besides, blinding a satellite would not produce a debris field that could disrupt other satellites, both military and civilian.

In the 1980s, we conducted our own tests of using missiles to destroy satellites; but we fired the missiles from a moving platform, an F-15 Strike Eagle... again, far more impressive than the Chinese launch from a ground-based facility.

Our own ballistic-missile defense (BMD) systems are far more advanced than the Chinese satellite killer: both the Ægis and THAAD (Theater High-Altitude Area Defense) systems fire interceptor missiles that locate the incoming missile and crash directly into it at high velocity, destroying it. The ability of our missiles to determine their own trajectories "on the fly" (to hit an incoming missile) puts them lightyears beyond the klunky Chinese demonstration last week.

The instant reaction from the usual suspects -- pacifist groups, from the Stimson Center to the Union of Concerned Scientists -- to this eye-roller of a "threat" is to (wait for it) sign a new treaty!

Treaties are panaceas; they solve everything, as Neville Chamberlain can surely affirm:

Michael Krepon, cofounder of the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center, a private group that studies national security, called the Chinese test very un-Chinese.

“There’s nothing subtle about this,” he said. “They’ve created a huge debris cloud that will last a quarter century or more. It’s at a higher elevation than the test we did in 1985, and for that one the last trackable debris took 17 years to clear out.”

Mr. Krepon added that the administration has long argued that the world needs no space-weapons treaty because no such arms exist and because the last tests were two decades ago. “It seems,” he said, “that argument is no longer operative.”

In the first place, Krepon cites no attribution to this alleged argument by the Bush administration; we have no verification that they ever said such a silly thing. (And "space weapons" of the type China used last Wednesday have existed since the 1970s.) More important, however, there is a much better argument why we absolutely do not need a new "space-weapons treaty."

The most serious objection to any proposed space-weapons treaty is that it would be virtually unenforceable... even more so than most other treaties, since external inspection would be impossible -- unless we built a Space Shuttle for the U.N. It's unenforceable precisely because... it's so easy, even the Chinese can do it!

Rocket science made easy

In the first place, as we just saw, all you need to shoot down a satellite in LEO (low-Earth orbit, up to 2,000 KM, 1,240 miles) is a medium-range ballistic missile or better. You can shoot from a fixed site, a ship, or an airplane. Such missiles are indistinguishable from any other type of medium or intermediate-range missile.

How do you prevent China from simply pointing them at our satellites? There is no way we would know -- until the launch, that is.

Faster, satellite! Kill! Kill!

Second, the technology of space-based "killer satellites" (satellites that can match orbit with another satellite and destroy it) is available to anyone who can launch a satellite. Once launched, they look just like any other satellite... until they match orbits with the target and go boom. They don't even need to get that close: once in the target's orbit, if the killer-sat just blows itself up, it can leave a lethal debris field right in the path of the target. Except for certain highly maneuverable military satellites, the target will just blunder on in, and we can do nothing to stop it.

The technology is relatively easy; it should be obvious that if you can launch a satellite with a payload, an instrument package, e.g., you can make the payload explosive. Killer-sats don't require much testing, and there is nothing that we could tell from a ground test of the killer-sat that would allow us to distinguish it from any other explosive.

Thus, we can never know how many are already up there today; and God knows we can't stop North Korea, Iran, or China from launching suicide-bomb satellites (unless we attempt to interdict every launch they make, which is probably beyond our capablities right now).

The level of sophistication you need to launch a satellite is not great: Iran has its "IRIS" program to build a satellite-launching rocket; North Korea has the Nodong-2 and (despite the recent splash) the Taepodong-2 under development, either of which could likely launch small satellites. You don't need much of an explosion to destroy a satellite in orbit (or damage it beyond repair).

Reach out and touch someone

Finally, the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union -- at least -- have or had very active programs to use directed-energy weapons to destroy satellites from the ground almost instantaneously. And with the interest Vladimir Putin has shown recently in reviving Russia's ASAT warfare programs, it's likely they have considered this method as well as kinetic-kill and explosives.

The primary "directed energy" weapons we use are lasers and masers. Lasers and masers are functionally identical to each other; they only differ in the wavelengths used. Lasers use electromagnetic wavelengths from X-ray (nanometer range), through ultraviolet light (.1 micrometer range) and visible light (micrometer range), up to infrared (milimeter range).

An emitter using a wavelength from microwave (centimeter range) to radio waves (meter range) up through long waves (ten meters and up) is called a maser. (The terms are acronyms: Light Amplification through Stimulated Emission of Radiation; Microwave/Molecular Amplification through Stimulated Emission of Radiation.)

We, the Russians, and the Chinese have already demonstrated using lasers to blind satellites; add power, and you can destroy them, as well.

Fundamentally different are particle-beam weapons; these are directed beams of particles that actually have rest mass, such as protons, electrons, and neutrons. While they're harder to control and direct than is a laser or maser, they have more destructive power. They also take more energy.

We extensively tested particle-beam weapons at Lawrence Livermore during the 1980s, as part of research for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). But we don't know how far we got, whether we're still continuing to work on them, or whether we abandoned them. In any event, scientific breakthroughs happen all the time; and such a breakthrough in particle-beam weapons could happen tomorrow -- or may have happened five years ago and been kept out of the newspapers.

Everyplace to hide

But the upshot of all this should be clear: there are so many ways to shoot satellites out of orbit, many of which can remain undetected until the moment of impact, that "signing a treaty" outlawing AST is as foolish as signing a treaty outlawing cheating on treaties: such a treaty lasts simply as long as nobody sees an advantage in breaking it by attacking a satellite.

But if nobody sees an advantage in attacking a satellite, then nobody will attack a satellite, even without the stupid treaty. The only purpose of a treaty is to give the illusion of progress, to satisfying the "do something!" mantra.

Doing something lame and foolish is generally worse than doing nothing, especially where Congress is concerned... a point that should also be made to those desperately trying to cobble together a statement of defeatism that could garner bipartisan support: sometimes the best resolution is to resolve not to enact a resolution.

Or not to sign another useless, unenforceable treaty.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 23, 2007, at the time of 6:00 PM

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The following hissed in response by: charlotte

In reluctant agreement with Westhawk who said re Chinese satellite and cyber destructive techno-ability flexed in their interests, “Now, the Americans will have to think twice (before defending The Island against the Chinese)”:

It ain’t no use to care about Formosa, Yanks
It ain’t your matter, anyhow
An’ it ain’t no use to pledge defense of Taipei, Yanks
If you don’t know by now
When your computers go down at the outbreak of war
Look out your window and your sats’ll be no more
Taiwan’s the reason One China will roar
Better think twice, it’s not all right.

The above hissed in response by: charlotte [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2007 8:30 PM

The following hissed in response by: Binder

Last week there was evidence of old SDI programs being revitalized, as the US Navy performed tests on an old 8 megajoule railgun in Virginia. The Navy's attempting to create 32 and 64 megajoule versions for use on surface ships in fire-support roles, replacing (they hope) both the 5-inch guns and the tomahawk cruise missile. The 8 megajoule railgun was salvaged from an SDI program which was investigating the use of railguns to shoot down ballistic missiles.

In case you missed the event, here's the local paper which did the best reporting:

If the Navy's willing to roll out the old SDI railgun, I'd be quite surprised if the Army and Air Force haven't done something similar with other programs, particularly the various directed-energy weapons.

The above hissed in response by: Binder [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2007 9:48 PM

The following hissed in response by: Binder

Appologies, it seems the link didn't want to work properly, so here it is again:

A Missile Punch at Bullet Prices

The above hissed in response by: Binder [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2007 9:52 PM

The following hissed in response by: Big D

Isan't it funny how China tests an anti-sat weapon, creates a mess, and the first thing Krepon can think to do is criticize the Bush administration.

A treaty would be silly, except you could outlaw testing, which might introduce some uncertainty regarding the tech.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 24, 2007 5:02 AM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

Remember how successful the Kellogg-Brand Pact was?

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 24, 2007 6:12 AM

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