Saturday, February 16, 2008

IFOs Part 2 - Shooting Down a Satellite

When I was working on my undergrad degree in political science, there were two things that particularly fascinated me. My main academic love, which first entranced me towards the end of my scholastic career, is the use of large scale opinion and behavior polling like the National Elections Survey to track changes in the voter participation. (See Andrea Louise Campbell's paper entitled Participatory Responses to Policy Threats and you'll see what I mean. That paper was also the basis for my senior seminar project.) My second academic love, that dirty little girl I still sneak back to every so often, is nuclear escalation theory and her little sister missile defense technology.

Defense against ballistic missiles was a national obsession here in the States throughout the Cold War, once technology reached a point that the main threat of nuclear attack was no longer from long range bombers. Fighter patrols and air defense artillery might have forestalled an attack by Soviet bombers, but they meant precisely bollocks against a ballistic missile attack. The search was on for a method of intercepting and neutralizing incoming missiles.

One important thing that people tend to forget about ballistic missiles is that they're kind of like the rockets used to launch the space shuttle. Sure, they're big at first, but they are also launch in phases and get progressively smaller as they expend fuel and discard unused fuel containers. A missile that leaves its silo the size of a telephone pole may reach its target as nothing more than a warhead no bigger than an economy-sized coffee can. At its heart, missile defense is something akin to shooting a bullet with a bullet.

One of the earliest ideas was to simply launch a counter-nuke that would detonate at a certain altitude, destroying the attacking warhead during its terminal phase with the force of its explosion. It was a ham-handed approach that was necessary early on because of the limitations on missile guidance technology. As the years went by other strategies evolved, most of them centered on some form of direct interception by a sophisticated guided missile. Plans were drawn up for detecting and firing at missiles during their vulnerable (and highly visible) launch phase, then firing at the target all the way through its cruising and terminal phases. Some of these were doomed to infamous failure - the ill-fated Star Wars program represented an attempt to use space-based kill vehicles to shoot down missiles during their cruising phase.

Sophisticated counter-missiles came into being, such as the Patriot missile that achieved fame (and an exaggerated record of success) interdicting Russian-designed Iraqi Scud missiles during the first Gulf War. Nonetheless, hitting a bullet with a bullet remains a difficult feat. Even some of the best counter-missiles have abysmal records destroying dummy warheads. When I was in school we were taught that the rule of thumb was something like one kill out of eight attempts versus dummy missiles that were intentionally giving off tracking signals. In the event of a nuclear war, that's not a pretty picture.

But I digress.

The current state of the art interceptor missile is the RIM-161 SM-3, also known as the Standard-3. Manufactured by Raytheon*, the Standard-3 is currently equipped on the Navy's Aegis cruisers as a means of theater-wide sea-based defense against medium and long range ballistic missiles. It has one of the highest kill ratios in testing of any missile interception device to date.

In the coming weeks the Standard-3 will be tested in a real world scenario. It will be deployed in a slightly modified form to shoot down USA 193, an American spy satellite that has lost power and is plummeting back to Earth. USA 193 actually failed shortly after it was launched in 2006, and its orbit has slowly been degrading since then. It is apparently equipped with some neat secret imaging equipment, but somewhat more important for those of us walking around on the ground is its payload of unspent fuel - a big ol' tank (1000 pounds or so) of toxic hydrazine. If by some black miracle the fuel tank survives atmospheric reentry, it would unleash a cloud the size of several city blocks that would do unkind things to anyone who happened to breathe it.

Due to potential complications, the missile won't be launched until until the Atlantis lands on the 20th of this month. Even as we speak the USS Lake Erie, a Ticonderoga Class Aegis cruiser, is heading to the North Pacific with a destroyer escort to carry out this mission.

Anyway, I know this isn't really on topic at all, but I thought it was pretty cool, and it's not getting as much press as you'd think a movie-of-the-week scenario like this would. Sure, the world's not in danger, but this is some kind of scary stuff. In any event, good luck to the crew of the USS Lake Erie in the carrying out of this important, and unusual, mission.

*Raytheon makes essentially all the missiles you've ever heard about - Sidewinders, Mavericks, Sparrows, etc. If you've ever played a video game about fighter jets, you've pretended to shoot Raytheon missiles.

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