Last night, backdropped coolly against the total lunar eclipse, the USS Lake Erie successfully shot down USA-193, a disabled spy satellite that was crashing back into the Earth carrying with it half a ton of toxic hydrazine fuel. The missile, a Standard-3 originally intended to intercept ballistic missiles, was propelled, without a warhead, into the satellite and to all appearances has broken it up sufficiently to alleviate any danger it may have posed.
So what now?
Well, China and Russia are not happy campers. President Bush has, as we all know, shown a renewed interest in missile defense over the years and has actively campaigned in both Europe and Japan to establish a grid of overlapping counter-missile launchers to reduce what he perceives as a threat to the U.S. and its allies from intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This resurrection of Cold War era strategizing has rankled the Chinese and the Russians because they're the only two states left that are both on somewhat shaky terms with the U.S. and possess significant numbers of ICBMs.
Theoretically this missile defense system would be more of a method of keeping in line nuclear states with relatively small arsenals - states like North Korea or a potentially nuclear Iran. In the event of a nuclear attack, states like Russia and China could put too many missiles into the air at once for even a fairly grandiose defense grid to mean much, but a state with only one or two ICBMs available could conceivably be deterred by such a system. The intention is for this to not only neutralize such states but also to create a "chilling effect" whereby non-nuclear states might deterred from seeking military nuclear technology because they would, even for several years after its development, remain vulnerable to reprisals from the U.S. without being able to bring their nuclear weapons to bear.
In any event, Russia and China also see this as an attempt to neutralize their nuclear arsenals, and thus tensions have been running somewhat high for a while now. It seems to some as if the old arms race might be starting to roll again. Eyes have slanted on all sides and the three players here are looking at one another suspiciously.
All of this tension resulted in a stern rebuke of China by the United States last year when the Chinese successfully tested an anti-satellite missile by shooting down an old weather satellite. Like the missile launched from the Lake Erie last night, the Chinese weapon was not armed with a warhead, but unlike the U.S. SM-3 it was apparently designed specifically for targeting satellites. Naturally there was concern in the U.S. that this weapon could be used to target U.S. equipment in space.
Because of the criticism it received from the U.S. and others, China has been quick to accuse the USS Lake Erie operation of being a ploy for the U.S. to perform its own anti-satellite missile test. I'm actually inclined to put a little bit of stock in this. While the satellite posed some threat to people on the ground, it honestly was never really all that dangerous. While I don't have much reason to suspect that the entire issue with USA-193 was falsified, I think the decision to shoot it down probably did have something to do with testing the capacity of the United States to pull off such a feat. It was, as they say, a matter of opportunity.
It remains to be seen what the specific fallout of this situation will be. Russia is still disgruntled about the whole ballistic missile shield project, and China is of course angry about what they see as duplicity on the part of the U.S. on these matters. China and Russia are also two of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the others being Great Britain, France, and the United States), so there's a possibility that they may try and introduce a resolution formally rebuking the U.S. Such a resolution would, however, almost certainly be vetoed.
Regardless of the motivation behind it, the Lake Erie operation was a triumph of technology and it has been incredibly interesting to follow. Congratulations to the crew of the USS Lake Erie for a job well done.
On an interesting side note, it might interest some to know that storing weapons of mass destruction either on satellites, the moon, or any other "celestial body" is illegal due to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, so theoretically none of these anti-satellite operations have anything to do with nuclear deterrence. Nonetheless, missile technology has become one of the key ways in which opposing states try to show, as it were, whose is bigger.