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Satellite shoot-down plan provokes concern from Russia
Michael Roston
Published: Friday February 15, 2008

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US government officials formally briefed the international press on Thursday regarding their plans to use a missile defense interceptor to shoot down a bus-sized spy satellite that will re-enter Earth's atmosphere in the next week. And the plan is already provoking concern in the Russian Federation.

Officials from the White House, the Pentagon, and NASA formally announced the plan to shoot down the satellite sometime in the next week by launching a missile interceptor from one of the Navy's Aegis cruisers. The three officials insisted that their efforts to inform foreign governments of the plan demonstrated that this operation was being conducted for the purposes of safety, and not to demonstrate an anti-satellite weapon capability.

"What we're doing today is to reach out to the various U.N. organizations, the U.N. headquarters itself and essentially the entire international community, through capitals, to let them know more details about the satellite coming down, and about our plan to intercept it," said James Jeffrey, the Deputy National Security Adviser, in a Thursday press conference. "And, of course, these countries may or may not have comments. They may or may not have supportive statements, and we'll see."

The Russian Federation seems to be the first government to sound off on the mission. A report in RIA Novosti, a government-linked news service, showed Russian authorities not only worrying about the implications of the launch, but questioning the publicly stated justification of preventing poisonous rocket fuel from raining down on the planet.

"Igor Barinov, first deputy chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, also expressed concern that the U.S. had made a unilateral decision to destroy the satellite," the government-linked news agency said on Friday. "He said that decisions, which could jeopardize collective security, 'should be made taking into account all parties concerned and all countries involved in space research.'"

Barinov also said he was informed by, "Russian military experts," that "the satellite could have an on board nuclear power source."

While the Thursday press briefing also sought to present a united governmental front on the planned satellite strike, other news reports seemed to hint that the order to go forward with the operation came from the top.

"Two defence officials also cited disagreement within the administration over the action and said the decision appeared to have been strongly influenced by the White House," according to a Friday morning report from Reuters.

Concerns within the government may result from the debris that will be created by the strike, and what it could do to satellites, the International Space Station, and future work in space.

The government briefers took pains in the press conference to offer assurances that little debris would remain in space from the satellite shot, saying that, "what we're attempting to do here is to intercept this just prior to it hitting the Earth's atmosphere...It reduces the amount of debris that would be in space."

But one expert on the weaponization of space questioned the safety of the plan.

"[S]ome of the debris will remain in orbit," wrote Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation at his blog Arms Control Wonk. "[T]here would be only a 1 in 1000 chance of wiping out the [International Space Station]. Great."

And the debris-related risks posed by the operation may reinforce concerns that the real purpose of the test is to demonstrate the offensive anti-satellite capability possessed by the United States.

"Bush administration defense and national security officials involved in interagency discussions on the satellite destruction plan said one reason for using the missile defense system against a space target would be to highlight its potential as an ASAT weapon," reported the Washington Times' Bill Gertz. "The Pentagon has been discussing ways to deter and counter China's ASAT weapon, which can threaten U.S. military and civilian communications, especially command and control systems involving satellites."

China, which shot down an aging weather satellite in orbit in Jan. 2007, has been notably quiet so far regarding the US plan. A news report at the official Xinhua News Agency described the operation in a matter of fact way, and offered no comment from Chinese government officials.

After coming under heavy US criticism for the Jan. 2007 shot, the Chinese have insisted they did nothing wrong.

"The recent test conducted by China in outer space was not directed against any country," said Premier Wen Jiaobao in March 2007. It did not pose a threat to anyone, nor did it violate the relevant international treaties. China stands for the peaceful use of outer space and opposes arms race in outer space."

China and Russia have both continued to call for a treaty outlawing the use of weapons in space, which the US has opposed. And as the Boston Globe noted Friday, the two countries reiterated their calls for a treaty banning the weaponization of space days before the Pentagon operation was announced.