“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Star Wars Begin? Not Necessarily.

Sometimes it is just time to go

Comment by James A. Lewis, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Satellite Shootdown Comments

People are looking for ulterior motives for the shootdown because the official explanation – preventing a thousand pounds of hydrazine falling from the sky – seems a bit thin.

Hydrazine is highly dangerous stuff. It’s unstable, corrosive and explodes easily. That means that the fuel tanks for hydrazine are made extra tough. Unfortunately, the strength that lets the fuel tank carry hydrazine safely into space also means that the tank is tough enough to survive catastrophic reentry. When the shuttle broke apart on reentry a few years ago, the hydrazine tank was one of the few items to survive the fall unscathed. In that case, however, the tank contained only a few pounds of hydrazine. In this case, the tank is full. The risk is that the equivalent of a 1000-pound bomb could end up crashing down into a populated area.

Lots of debris falls from space every year – the boosters that carry satellite up come down pretty quickly. Elderly satellites are deorbited without much notice. The difference is that these are usually controlled reentries, where the impact point is planned (usually in water) and there is a degree of control as to the timing. This is an uncontrolled reentry. It’s possible to predict where impact will occur with some accuracy, but a number of factors can through the prediction off. Presumably, the U.S. predicts it will fall near or close to a populated area. Usually these things fall into water – it covers ¾ of the planet’s surface – or an unpopulated area. I know of only one reported case where someone was hit by a piece of a falling satellite, when a 20 pound chunk of aluminum from a Chinese CBERS satellite hit a boy in Shaanxi province – the press reported that he suffered a “fractured toe.”

The hydrazine explanation seems far-fetched, but the alternative explanations make even less sense. The U.S. doesn’t need to do this to impress the Chinese. They were already impressed by earlier successful tests, including the last one where an SM-3 missile launched from an Aegis cruiser hit a warhead 87 miles above the Pacific Ocean. This didn’t get a lot of public attention, but the Chinese military was sure to have followed it closely, if only because the U.S. has a cooperative missile defense program using Aegis with Japan, which the Chinese think could be used to defend Taiwan.

This test and China’s ASAT test really aren’t comparable. This is a ballistic missile defense test rather than an anti-satellite test. An anti-satellite test would have attacked the target while it was in orbit. A BMD test attacks when the target is in reentry. Hitting the target at a lower altitude reduces the risk of debris. One of the problems with the China ASAT test (aside from not telling anyone in advance) is that it left a large debris cloud orbiting the earth. The debris from this Aegis test will be at a lower altitude and be more quickly drawn into the earth's atmosphere, where they will burn up.

Success is likely in this effort, but not assured. Of the ten Aegis tests, eight resulted in hits. There is also the possibility that the satellite will behave erratically as it hits the atmosphere, making it a more difficult target. Variants of the SM-3 missile can be used against aircraft or ships, but these variants carry explosive warheads with proximity fuses (meaning the warhead only as to get near the target, not actually hit it). The missile defense variant uses a ‘kinetic’ warhead, basically a large lump of metal that crashed into the target. It will be moderately embarrassing if it misses.

The notion that secret high tech gizmos would fall into the wrong hands has some merit, but not enough to justify a shoot-down. There are always pieces of wreckage when a satellite falls to the ground. When they fall in the Canadian Arctic, the U.S. and Canada collect the pieces. When a nuclear powered satellite built by the Soviet Union crashed in Canada in the 1970s, the Soviets said they didn’t want the pieces back. When a Chinese rocket carrying a Western-owned communications satellite blew up shortly after launch, the Chinese carefully collected all the pieces and tried to examine them before turning them back, but the most sensitive items were charred and cracked beyond recognition. The probability of gaining useful information from the crash is low, as the best technology would have to survive reentry and the debris would have to fall in an opponent-controlled area. The probability of surviving reentry and landing in a hostile controlled area are too low to explain the decision to shoot down.

The one scenario that doesn’t get as much attention is planetary defence, possibly because it sounds silly. The notion that the U.S. should add intercepting meteorites or asteroids before they strike the earth to its defense missions seems pretty far-fetched. These events are so rare as to be improbable. On the other hand, supporters say, an asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs, drastically changed the environment, created a year-long winter and so on. It still sounds far-fetched. On the other hand, a 200-foot wide meteorite that struck Tunguska Siberia in 1908 had the effect of a nuclear explosion (without the radiation aftereffects). If there was warning that a similar event was about to occur over a populated area, it would be nice to have the ability to stop it. It's not worth spending much time worrying about being hit by asteroids, however, or even by satellites, but having spent all that money on missile defense, it’s nice that it finally has some practical use.


  1. Cody! That's Cody! Allah's truth! Cody, the horse my wife's tenants buried in her back yard, a little ways from the trees! Pissing her off(my wife) no end.

  2. She woulda called that Encino Meatpacking Plant to come pick it up.
    Too late now, both for the horse and the plant.

  3. Success on the first shot, btw.

  4. Yesterday I had a long conversation with my mother, who is recovering from a second round of breast cancer surgery. A life-long Democrat and, by turns, liberal, libertarian and conservative, she's truly looking forward to beating the GOP nominee come November in what she anticipates will nevertheless be a close contest. What a world of difference four years has made.

    Four years ago, she voted for GWB, her sole, symbolic intent being to keep any and all distance possible between her party and the Iraq war. Disaffected and disgusted by the Democrats' factionalism and inability to get their shit together and move a unifying agenda, she was reduced to the negative gesture. She's not regretted it.

    Hillary or Obama, it would have made no difference. She's pleased to vote for either, and pleased for the first time since '92. Meanwhile, she knows, Republicans are right where she and tens of millions of others were in 04. Gloomy, angry, fragmented, directionless, and saddled with a nominee who could override none of these. If Obama seems to be marketing hope-on-a-rope, its a brisk seller nonetheless, and Republicans seem determined to counter with a campaign of "Eat Your Peas."

    It's not a bold prediction by any means: Republicans are going to lose the WH. But in four years, who knows. Four years is a long time, after all.

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