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NSRC 2023

USA 193 intercept illustration
When the SM-3 missile hit USA 193 on February 20, it did not “shoot down” the satellite, but instead broke it apart: one of a number of misconceptions about the intercept. (credit: AGI)

Sense, nonsense, and pretense about the destruction of USA 193

<< page 1: myths or mistakes?

Fallout on Earth

Beyond the technological myths, there are a number of political-diplomatic myths that have technological contexts.

Myth # 5: The action was denounced by all experts, and especially by the Russians.

Some of the generic denunciations by Western experts have already been quoted, above. There are more:

“The reason given by the Pentagon … has perplexed space circles.” Le Figaro.

“The US claims that destroying one of its defunct satellites with a missile was necessary for the hazard its toxic fuel posed to life on Earth. It’s an understatement that the world isn’t convinced; neither are American experts… The toxicology appears too far-fetched to merit such a gargantuan program.” Surajit Dasgupta, The Pioneer, New Delhi, Feb 25.

If there is a leading “space expert” in Russia, it would be Anatoliy Perminov, head of the Russian space agency. It was his opinion that the measure was necessary, and justified.

Actually, it may be true that condemnation was universal from the people on the rolladexes of writers for the New York Times, the Washington Post, AP, Reuters, Agence France Presse, and other major news media outlets, but that simply reflects the narrow range of sources they rely on, not the full spectrum of existing assessments available to anyone seeking a balanced collection of views. Keep in mind that these notable quotables are called “experts” not because they have ever been professional space workers (or even studied the field or any other in college) but often because they are employees of lobbying groups funded to promote particular political, ideological, and diplomatic ends.

If there is a leading “space expert” in Russia, it would be Anatoliy Perminov, head of the Russian space agency. It was his opinion that the measure was necessary, and justified. “Destroying it is the inevitable and right thing to do,” Perminov told “Vesti TV” news in Moscow on February 16. “I think the decision to destroy it is the right one.” Oddly enough, none of the leading news media outlets that I’ve come across ever included Perminov’s opinion in their descriptions of what “Russian experts” thought.

Other foreign commentators agreed, but their views also were never quoted. For example, General Jiri Sedivy, former chief of staff of the Czech Army’s General Staff: “There was no other way… It was the right thing to do.” [Prague, Mladá fronta DNES, February 22.] The Times of India, in an editorial on February 23, opined: “It was a necessary step.”

Members of the US Congress were briefed on the action and both Democrats and Republicans issued statements of support. I never saw any quoted in the press.

See also, for example ,“Satellite Shootdown Was A Necessary Operation,” by Baker Spring, The Heritage Foundation, or Ashley Tellis (senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), “Don’t Panic About Space Weapons”, Wall Street Journal, Feb 22. Jeffrey Kueter, president of the George Marshall Institute, had a guest editorial in USA Today on February 21. Neither Spring nor Tellis nor Kueter seemed to have gotten quoted anywhere else in the mass media.

The apparent unanimity of condemnation of the action therefore looks more like an artifact of the filtering of sources deemed worthy of mentioning, which is a sad reflection on the professionalism and fairness of dominant news reporting agencies.

Myth #6: The smashing of the satellite violated established “rules of the road” for minimizing hazards from space debris.

Actually, NASA space debris expert Nicholas Johnson addressed this accusation directly in a paper he presented to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer space (COPUOS) in Vienna on February 18. NASA was a member of the US delegation to the 45th Session of the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, and the State Department reviewed and approved Johnson’s paper. But so far as I can tell, the world news media totally ignored the presentation and its contents.

“To be compliant with the COPUOS STSC space debris mitigation guidelines and to minimize any effect on the near-Earth space environment, the kinetic engagement of USA-193 would occur shortly before a natural reentry and at an altitude below 250 km,” the paper stated. “More than 50% of the debris created will not be orbital and will enter the Earth’s atmosphere within 45 minutes of the event. Of the debris left in temporary orbits about the Earth, more than 99% will fall out of orbit within one week of the event.”

The United Nations explicitly recognizes that it may occasionally be necessary to smash a satellite, and spells out the conditions under which this is acceptable. The NASA paper describes how the requirements will be satisfied: “Guideline 4 of the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines addresses those rare cases when ‘intentional destruction and other harmful activities’ might be necessary: ‘Recognizing that an increased risk of collision could pose a threat to space operations, the intentional destruction of any on-orbit spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stages or other harmful activities that generate long-lived debris should be avoided. When intentional break-ups are necessary, they should be conducted at sufficiently low altitudes to limit the lifetime of resulting fragments.’ Under the plan to neutralize the USA-193 spacecraft, the event will take place at a very low altitude and will result in space debris with extremely short orbital lifetimes to be fully compliant with Guideline 4 of the COPUOS STSC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines.”

Post-smash tracking vindicated the planning, according to a statement provided to me by the Missile Defense Agency: “Most of the fragments, gravel, marbles, shards stayed close to intercept altitude. A handful of fragments were tracked with a much, much higher apogee. Total number of objects created after the smash was much lower than we predicted. It seems we have work to do modeling 22000 mph [35,400 km/h] collisions! Now we have empirical data, at least.”

Myth #7: The missile attack marks the inauguration of a substantially new operational “space weapon”.

Responding to my direct inquiry, the Missile Defense Agency released a comment from an official who asked to remain unnamed: “We were operating on the margins of a system well engineered for a different job.”

The modified Aegis/SM-3 system that destroyed USA 193 doesn’t seem to make a very effective anti-satellite weapon if you want to attack really important targets. Only by stretching its speed, software, and range beyond original design specifications was it able to reach barely above the atmosphere to hit a satellite within weeks of terminal reentry. Getting higher—reaching altitudes where potential targets orbit, up where the US test in 1985 occurred, or the Chinese test last year, or the Soviet tests throughout most of the Cold War—may not even be physically possible. Higher altitudes need stronger rockets and means much longer launch-to-impact coasting durations, requiring more warhead power supplies. Precision tracking with radars on several ships loses accuracy by the fourth power of increasing range, because the pulse weakens on the way out and on the way back, so a target twice as far away is only one-sixteenth as observable. Other countries’ critical warning and command/control satellites are far, far beyond such a system’s reach.

Responding to my direct inquiry, the Missile Defense Agency released a comment from an official who asked to remain unnamed: “We were operating on the margins of a system well engineered for a different job.” The need for bigger rockets and farther reaching would make the current achievement irrelevant to a more capable ASAT.

Myth #8: Russia and China will be “forced” to respond by developing corresponding weapons.

This “blank check for the bad guys” claim seems to be a view espoused by spokesmen for DC lobby groups, for foreign governments, and for other associations who seem to favor one spin in common: any foreign action allegedly sparked by anybody’s worries about US actions is excusable, while any US action sparked by activities of another nation is dangerously paranoid. But China has already “pre-responded” with its own test a year ago—a weapon with far greater capability (and leaving far worse space pollution) than the US missile. As for Russia, it’s had its space-capable anti-missile defense shield deployed around Moscow for decades, and recently reopened a mothballed missile test range at Sary Shagan in Kazakhstan to test-fire upgraded missiles. They are probably launched so far only against imaginary missile or space targets, or potentially against real ones with no final impacts. Even if one of them is soon used in a demonstration against a satellite, it will represent nothing new in their arsenal, only the exercise of a latent capability that had always been there.

Why is this worth fussing about?

The danger in such terminological confusion and myth-making is that the topic of weapons in space is a serious one requiring serious national debate, especially in this presidential election year. But if all parties cannot find verbal tools with clear meanings, and develop a common foundation of factual reality, then any discussions will quickly decay into non-interacting exchanges of slogans and sincere but pointless posturing. At least, that’s what has been happening so far, and what this recent missile test could become a valuable impetus for repairing. But it will only happen if there’s a major change of heart—and change of brain—in the way people report on such activities.

If a debate over the USA 193 smash-up can “shoot down” the widespread sloppy terminology, knee-jerk politicizing, and reliance on deeply-rooted ambiguous concepts that have frustrated serious exchanges of opposing views on important aspects of national security policy, it will make a much more profound contribution to the safety of this planet than just protecting one random spot from half a ton of plummeting poison. And that would be a real breakthrough. Will it survive entry into our atmosphere?