Difficult national security decisions involve hard trade-offs between benefit and risk. On the merits, the Bush administration’s decision about what to do with a failing satellite isn’t difficult. In this case, great harm can come from using this satellite for target practice, and there is relatively little risk in allowing the satellite to burn up in the atmosphere, with some charred remnants falling to Earth.
Why, then, has the administration decided to carry out the first US destructive anti-satellite or ASAT test since 1985? The ostensible reason is that the defunct satellite is carrying fuel that could cause public health problems in a two football field-sized area, if the fuel tank does not break up upon reentry, if it lands on a populated area, and if people linger at the site.
Another possible reason for blowing up the satellite is to prevent the loss of critical secrets, assuming once again, that the charred remains of the satellite survive sufficiently to reveal secrets and fall into the wrong hands. This explanation has been flatly denied by the Bush administration.
A third explanation, which is, by far, most compelling, is that the Pentagon wants to conduct one or more anti-satellite tests. The proposed shoot-down could actually require up to three tries.
ASAT tests are rare occurrences, which means that they have big consequences. The last ASAT test was carried out by China in January 2007. The Chinese test sparked heavy condemnation, partly because it broke a twenty-two year moratorium on such testing, and partly because the test created over 100,000 pieces of lethal debris that will remain a hazard to space flight and orbiting satellites for a century. (Getting hit by a marble-sized piece of debris in low earth orbit has roughly the same impact on Earth as a one ton safe dropped from a five story building.)
Global revulsion created by the Chinese test raised the possibility that another long moratorium on ASAT testing might follow. Not so, if the Pentagon proceeds as planned.
The Pentagon, unlike the People’s Liberation Army, will take great care to mitigate debris from the test. But there is much uncertainty associated with debris created by ASAT tests, even under the best of circumstances, which is why the Pentagon did not proceed until the space shuttle landed. What can be said with absolute certainty is that no debris in low earth orbit would be created by allowing the defunct satellite to burn through the atmosphere, and that some unknown debris hazards will be created by this test.
The planned ASAT test will use a sea-based missile designed for ballistic missile defense. If the shoot-down succeeds, other space-faring nations will presume that the United States Navy will henceforth deploy some ASAT weapons. The Pentagon has argued otherwise – that the missiles, ships and sensors involved in the test have been specially modified for this emergency, and this emergency only.
Russia and China are unlikely to find this argument persuasive. Their hedging strategies against the prospect of a deployed U.S. ASAT program are likely to accelerate, including the possibility of still more ASAT tests and counter-deployments. By using a public safety rationale for the test, the Bush administration has opened doors that others may choose to walk through.
All of these down-side risks, and more, are being incurred ostensibly to prevent the possibility that a two football field-sized area might be contaminated by a chemical spill, and if people live in the impact area and linger at the site, they could be injured or die. If these priorities were sincerely held, the Environmental Protective Agency would be far better funded.
The Bush administration’s cost-benefit calculation associated with the ASAT test is familiar. The same kind of skewed calculation and tunnel vision have led to far larger misadventures. Author Ron Suskind labeled this syndrome “the one percent doctrine,” based on this exchange with Vice President Dick Cheney: “If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as certainty in terms of our response.” Cheney added, “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence, it’s about our response.”
The likelihood that a chemical spill from space will create fatalities may well be less than one percent, or perhaps slightly more. The Bush administration has not provided a statistical analysis of the range of probabilities involved, because the results would clarify that this ASAT test really isn’t about preventing a chemical hazard.
The chances that the satellite’s secrets might fall into the wrong hands might exceed Vice President Cheney’s threshold of one percent – but not by much.
The cover story of a test impelled by concern for public safety lacks credibility. This errant satellite provides the Bush administration with its last, best hope to carry out one or more ASAT tests – tests that Capitol Hill would not otherwise approve. The brazenness of the administration’s choice is matched, once again, by the lack of pushback from the media and on Capitol Hill.
Michael Krepon directs the Space Security Project and is the co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center.