Thursday, February 21, 2008

Navy's Unspoken Reasons for ASAT Shot

clipped from news.yahoo.com

The size of the debris is smaller than the Pentagon had forecast and most of the satellite's intelligence value was likely destroyed, Cartwright said. Though the Pentagon has played down that aspect of the shootdown, analysts had said one of the reasons for the operation was that officials worried that without it, larger chunks of the satellite could fall and be recovered, opening the possibility of secret technology falling into the hands of the Chinese or others.


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Maintaining secrets is a good reason for shooting down a surveillance satellite, even if the only secret is that the intelligence it provides is no better than commercially-sourced data. (Let's hope that's not true, but given the fierce drive for privatization under Regan and both Bushes, it may be closer to the truth than many expect.)

But surely the other point to the shot was the shot itself. It seems to me that the odds that a tank of hydrazine could survive re-entry is a remote risk indeed. But even chunks of satellites can give very useful insights to people who should have to work harder for them.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal going on here that remains unsaid, possibly with the hope that the taxpayers of various nations don't quite realize what's really going on.

But the facts on the table are this: The chinese have demonstrated an anti-satellite capability, using tiny maneuverable explosive satellites that must already be in orbit to attack.

The obvious unspoken message is to the Chinese - "We can do it from the ground, and we don't need no damned explosives to send out clouds of shrapnel. We can just hit it with a goddam brick."

And all of this is very compelling, so compelling that it might well cause us to forget the fact that was used to contrive the excuse for shooting down the satellite.... that it might fall down and (gasp) HARM people!

That inconvenient kinetic truth is something that was first underlined by the Soviets, as they orbited first sputnik, and then demonstrated a capability to launch and parachute land a manned capsule that, unless I'm very mistaken, was the shape and roughly the size of the Trinity device.

Speaking of unspoken messages - inasmuch as the technology of the day required parachutes to ensure detonation at the correct altitude.

The mercury program responded using ICBM technology of the day to demonstrate first suborbital and later fully orbital capability with a manned space-capsule that bore an uncanny resemblance to the aeroshells we used for our own atomic weapons - but on a scale that would have held a weapon large enough to pave metropolitan Moscow in kimberlite.

If you want to know why we used disintegrating telephone poles instead of the far more elegant drop-launch technique with X-15 technology to put a man in orbit - that's why. We were waving our big sticks at each other.

So, the fact that things can fall out of orbital space with a loud bang has been pretty much the point to the entire enterprise for the last fifty years. The hard part is NOT making a smoking hole. And of course, not making a smoking hole within a relative degree of precision is also a desirable point to be made. If you can AVOID making a hole in the steppes or the Pacific ocean and recover the payload intact - well, you can put it into the same target zone and achieve a disturbing energy release.

Even without an atomic payload.

The term "smart crowbar" has been around since the early eighties, nutshelling the idea that a crowbar in space equaled at least one tank on the ground. And while delivering that crowbar with precision to take out a tank might have been iffy at the time - putting it within the "strike zone" required to turn an aircraft carrier into something that had formally been an aircraft carrier probably was a reasonable objective.

Given our current capabilities, I have little reason to doubt that we could deliver a smart slug from orbit through any particular compartment within a destroyer. It might even be possible with off-the shelf systems.

This capability, while unstated, is unavoidably available in a crude way with any satellite that has a sufficiently dense component and which can be de-orbited on command. As dense as, say, a thermionic plutonium battery. At least, were I designing a satellite that might have to be de-orbited, and which required such a power source, I would certainly try design it so that if it did de-orbit, I could ensure that component landed within as small a radius as possible and survived the impact without dispersing radioactivity.

And that is pretty much the design requirement of a dense slug penetrator.

Oddly enough, such batteries are designed in exactly such a way; whether they could be so exactly targeted is an open question, but the physics of the matter are pretty obvious to those who think about it.

And so the unspoken message by those interested in controlling the High Frontier - the Air Force - has been that of all the targets on the face of the globe for such a device, the highest value target has to belong to the Navy. For, while other nations do operate carriers, the US is the only one that maintains significant numbers.

One of the obvious implications of Star Wars tech was that anyone with the technology to launch and precisely control orbital payloads - the Air Force, for example - could take out any aircraft carrier in the world, any time it liked.

And the Navy just demonstrated (for the first time) that they could actually protect a carrier battle fleet with a deployed asset, rather than a theoretical capability.

Now while it's never wise to ignore the geopolitics of such capabilities, all politics are local, and there is no more dense locality than the Pentagon. This launch had many messages, and no doubt many intended recipients, but I'd be absolutely stunned if the primary intended recipient of this unspoken message on Navy stationary didn't have an office in the same building, on the same floor, with a parking spot within pissing distance.

SecNav just saw SecAir's smart crowbar and raised him an intelligent tomato can. I'm wondering now what the Air Force has in the hole.

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