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The politics of that falling satellite

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COMMENTS

15 February 2008 09:02

There are a couple of interesting geopolitical angles to the news that the US plans to shoot down a falling spy satellite to prevent it causing harm to civilians on re-entry. First, it will be a very public test of the US Navy's ballistic missile defence system, based on the AEGIS radar and the SM-3 missile. This system has been successful in testing, but although only a few military wonks and some Congressional committee members notice when a test fails, this is a far more public event. The US has apparently put three destroyers on standby, but even having to resort to the third ship after two misses would make the system a laughing stock. Missing altogether would do substantial damage to the program, and to the credibility of US missile defence of Japan. Of some note: should Australia decide to deploy missile defences, it would very likely be this AEGIS/SM-3 system.

The other geopolitical angle concerns China — should the US succeed in shooting down this satellite, China will have a stronger hand in the space weapons debate. China was justifiably criticised for its successful test of an anti-satellite missile in January 2007, because the test was provocative and such a capability is destabilising. The US has no dedicated equivalent to China's anti-satellite weapon, but defence specialists have always known that America's ballistic missile defences have an inherent anti-satellite capability — after all, it is technically easier to shoot down a satellite (large, with a predictable orbit) than a missile warhead. But that anti-satellite capability now goes on public display, after which it will suddenly become very hard for the US to claim it does not have at least a de facto anti-satellite weapon. There goes the moral high ground.

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