Both the Russians and Chinese have long excelled at the art of deception, and those skills are evident in rhetoric regarding U.S. plans to shoot down a defunct spy satellite.
In recent days, both Moscow and Beijing have warned that the planned intercept is little more than a thinly-veiled test of U.S. missile defenses, or anti-satellite weapons. The latest verbal blast came Saturday from the Russian Defense Ministry, which warned that the U.S. had "failed to provide enough arguments" to justify shooting down the satellite. As the AP reports:
"There is an impression that the United States is trying to use the accident with its satellite to test its national anti-missile defense system's capability to destroy other countries' satellites," the ministry said.
As with any viable deception effort, there appears to be an element of truth in claims from the Russias and Chinese. The AEGIS cruisers and SM-3 missiles (which will be used in the attempted intercept) form the sea-based leg of U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts. And the dead satellite is the type of space vehicle that would be targeted by ASAT weapons, a spy platform in low earth orbit.
Still, there are obvious differences between the planned shootdown and dedicated ASAT programs, being pursued by both Moscow and Beijing. A little over a year ago, China conducted a controversial test of a "killer" satellite, which maneuvered close to an obsolete weather bird and destroyed it, creating a large "cloud" of space debris. Not only was the killer vehicle specifically designed for that purpose, the intercept took place at a much higher altitude than the planned U.S. intercept.
By comparison, the attempted shootdown of our dead spy satellite will occur at the upper reaches of the SM-3's engagement envelope. And, both the missile and the launch vessel's AEGIS radar have been specially modified for the intercept. At the present time, there are only three Navy cruisers with this (limited) capability, and those ships have only a handful of SM-3 SAMs capable of engaging the dead satellite. Transforming the AEGIS/SM-3 combination into a dedicated ASAT platform would require extensive, additional modifications, including a larger missile that could actually reach LEO satellites.
With their "attack satellite," Beijing already has a weapon for the ASAT mission. The Chinese are also working feverishly on high-powered, ground-based lasers that could blind sensors on spy satellites operating in low orbit. Months before last year's ASAT test, U.S. imagery analysts noticed an experimental PRC laser "tracking" an American satellite as it passed overhead.
While the laser was never fired, the message sent a clear message: China is matching its military doctrine with action. Various PRC military analysts have written extensively about the need to challenge U.S. capabilities in space, and various ASAT programs pose a direct threat to our spy satellites (and other platforms) in low orbits around the earth.
As for the Russians, their opposition to American missile defense is well-known. But Moscow rarely mentions its own efforts to counter our BMD systems, most notably the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) program. Moscow's HGV has been tested on several occasions and has received personal support from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Launched from an ICBM, the hypersonic vehicle maneuvers to its target at a relatively shallow angle (compared to a missile warhead), making it difficult to detect--and almost impossible to shootdown.
For public consumption, both Moscow and Beijing have pressed for new treaties on space weapons, casting U.S. programs as provocative and dangerous. But, the Russian and Chinese proposals make no mention of systems like Russia's HGV, or Beijing's anti-satellite lasers. In other words, negotiators from the two countries want to limit U.S. capabilities in the BMD and ASAT arenas, while severely limiting their own concessions.
The Bush Administration has (rightly) ignored Russian and Chinese claims about our missile defense programs and the pending satellite intercept. But, the position of a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama administration is less clear. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who is key member of Obama's foreign policy team, paid a visit to Syria this week--and a member of Ms. Clinton's staff was a part of that delegation.
That little trip suggests that the leading Democratic presidential candidates are willing to negotiate with just about anyone--even America's sworn enemies. With the advice of someone like Mr. Brzezinski (best remembered for Jimmy Carter's foreign policy debacles) we can only imagine how our BMD programs will fare.
As for an ASAT effort, forget it. The U.S. officially shuttered its anti-satellite program in the mid-1980s, and succesive administrations have shown little inclination to resurrect it. Unlike its counterparts in Moscow and Beijing, the United States is actually serious about preventing the militarization of space. Russian and Chinese claims are little more than self-serving rhetoric--disinformation at its best.