US Missile Test–Sign of an Arms Race in Space?

The United States military has shot down a stray satellite via sea-launched missile. While the Pentagon insists that the episode was meant to prevent the falling satellite from becoming a potential hazard upon its descent to earth, military analysts are not persuaded. It will be difficult to disabuse those with a realist mindset that the exercise was not in response to China’s similar missile exercise in January 2007. Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger writes:

sm3_missle_0220.jpgThis week, the Pentagon tried something different. On Wednesday evening, it announced that it successfully launched a sea-based missile and shot down a crippled satellite gliding 150 miles overhead, in a $60 million effort to blast it out of the sky before it could tumble home and hurt someone. It’s been a neat little feat on the part of the military planners — but that doesn’t mean they’re telling the whole truth about why they bothered in the first place.

The clay pigeon in the military’s cross hairs was an unnamed, 5,000-lb. spy satellite that was launched in 2006 and never quite got its purchase in space, suffering a malfunction almost immediately upon its arrival in orbit. Comparatively low-orbiting craft like this one tumble back to Earth faster than high-orbiting ones, as the upper wisps of the planet’s atmosphere produce increasing amounts of drag, pulling the object lower and lower. This one was on a trajectory that would have caused it to begin its terminal plunge sometime in March, sending it on a fiery descent that should have entirely — or at least mostly — incinerated it.

So why make the effort at such a complicated bit of sharpshooting just to bag a target that was coming down anyway? The Pentagon says it’s all about safety. Five thousand pounds of out-of-control satellite can do an awful lot of damage if it drops on the wrong spot. What’s more, this particular satellite is carrying a 500-lb. tank of frozen hydrazine fuel — nasty stuff if you’re unlucky enough to inhale it. Striking the ground at reentry speed, the gas could immediately disperse over a patch of ground as big as two football fields…

The more believable explanation for the duck hunt is that it’s been an exercise in politics rather than safety. Washington was none too pleased in January of 2007 when China shot down one of its own weather satellites after it had outlived its usefulness, a bit of technological sword-rattling that proved it could target any other nation’s orbiting hardware with equal ease. Beijing too made vague claims of worrying about the public weal, but Washington saw the act more as the political statement it probably was, and concluded — correctly — that American spy satellites are not quite as safe as they once were. An American shootdown would be one way to return the gesture. The timing is particularly suspicious since Russia and China issued a joint condemnation of the militarization of space only days before the Pentagon went public with its plans. While Beijing’s sudden pacifism is hardly credible after it own exercise in cosmic skeet-shooting, neither is the Washington’s insistence that there is no linkage between the two events.

Another possibility is that the Pentagon was indeed nervous about something aboard the satellite, but not the tank of fuel. Spy satellites are, by definition, made of secret hardware, and nothing so pleases one military power as the chance to seize and pick over the technology of another. Should American camera and communications components fall into the wrong hands, whatever tactical advantage was gained in developing them would be lost.

The USA’s Place in the World in 2016?

I posted earlier some excerpts from Daniel Drezner’s article envisioning what a post-Bush administration American foreign policy may look like, In a similar vein, here are some snippets from a piece in the New York Times Magazine written by Parag Khanna* that try to predict the nature of US power and authority at the end of 2016. The article is entitled “Waving Goodbye to Hegemony.” Do you think that the United States will lose its hegemonic status by 2016? What about the challenges from an integrated Europe and a rising China? I encourage you to read the whole article. If we have time, we will read this at the end of the semester.

But the distribution of power in the world has fundamentally altered over the two presidential terms of George W. Bush, both because of his policies and, more significant, despite them. Maybe the best way to understand how quickly history happens is to look just a bit ahead.

It is 2016, and the Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama administration is nearing the end of its second term. America has pulled out of Iraq but has about 20,000 troops in the independent state of Kurdistan, as well as warships anchored at Bahrain and an Air Force presence in Qatar. Afghanistan is stable; Iran is nuclear. China has absorbed Taiwan and is steadily increasing its naval presence around the Pacific Rim and, from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The European Union has expanded to well over 30 members and has secure oil and gas flows from 27world3-450.jpgNorth Africa, Russia and the Caspian Sea, as well as substantial nuclear energy. America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline.

Why? Weren’t we supposed to reconnect with the United Nations and reaffirm to the world that America can, and should, lead it to collective security and prosperity? Indeed, improvements to America’s image may or may not occur, but either way, they mean little. Condoleezza Rice has said America has no “permanent enemies,” but it has no permanent friends either. Many saw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the symbols of a global American imperialism; in fact, they were signs of imperial overstretch. Every expenditure has weakened America’s armed forces, and each assertion of power has awakened resistance in the form of terrorist networks, insurgent groups and “asymmetric” weapons like suicide bombers. America’s unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order. That new global order has arrived, and there is precious little Clinton or McCain or Obama could do to resist its growth.

Remember that when I post snippets from articles, that in no way suggests that I agree with what the author is saying. I alert you to them mostly because they introduce or mention concepts, theories and ideas that we discuss in class and also to show you get you to think critically about claims and assertions made by the author(s). To which theory of international relations do you think the author is an adherent? Why? What evidence in this article can you find to support your assertion?

*Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation. This essay is adapted from his book, “The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order,” to be published by Random House in March.