Thursday, February 21, 2008

Gates: Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!

Twenty-five years after Ronald Reagan first announced his intention to develop a 'Star Wars' missile defence system, it finally became a reality yesterday when a US warship shot down a malfunctioning satellite 130 miles above the Earth. (Incidentally I was disappointed to see that the BBC called it a 'disabled' satellite – surely 'orbitally challenged' is the PC term here?)

The Pentagon had been playing down the significance of yesterday's operation for the past couple of weeks, but no sooner had the remains of USA 193 started to burn up on re-entry than Defense Secretary Robert Gates hailed the shoot-down as proof that the US missile defence system works.

And how it worked. For years critics of the system have claimed that carefully controlled tests proved nothing, and have insisted that system isn't feasible and is a waste of money - and perhaps the US was happy for its enemies to think that too. Well, we now have spectacular evidence to the contrary.

We can't be sure how much of a threat USA 193 really posed – was the missile strike absolutely necessary, or was the US just using the satellite story as cover so it could show off its anti-satellite and anti-missile capability to the world?

Either way, Russia and China are pissed off, which has to be a good thing, and China is demanding the US 'share information' about yesterday's strike. (How about this: you know the ship that launched the missile? Well that ship floats because it’s designed to displace an amount of water equal in weight to its own weight. Give that to your scientists and tell them to knock themselves out.)

Of course, unless either country is thinking about launching a pre-emptive missile strike against the United States, they don't really have any reason to worry. Their objection appears to be the FISA argument writ large - we know that no harm is being done, but we object to the principle. And they're bound to be piqued by another demonstration of American technological superiority.

More pressingly, yesterday could dramatically change the picture as far as Iran is concerned, to the extent that we may not need to worry about striking Iran's nuclear facilities after all. If the US was happy to make yesterday's shoot-down so public, who knows how much more they're keeping classified – by the time Iran gets the bomb and puts it on a delivery system the US will probably be able to intercept the thing, turn it around in orbit and send it back to Tehran.

The mullahs have in the past suggested that they don't care how much damage is inflicted on Iran in the event that it launches a nuke at Israeli and the Israelis retaliate. They figure that Israeli will be annihilated, while Iran will suffer millions of casualties but survive.

But if the US has developed, or is close to developing, the capability to shoot a ballistic missile out of the sky, the picture changes dramatically. If the mullahs decide to launch, they run a real risk of sustaining those millions of casualties while the Israelis escape without a scratch. Many commentators have said the mullahs 'can't be deterred', but maybe that just changed.

Cuffy Meigs and his commenters have some interesting analysis on yesterday's events, although the discussion does get a bit esoteric at times. Cuffy notes that the shoot-down caps the best year yet for the missile defence program. It seems the only thing that can stop it now is the Democrats.

Talking of which, I hope McCain makes a big show of hitching himself to the missile defence bandwagon, while the Democrats fret about an 'arms race in space' and 'sending out the wrong signals'. That said, yesterday's events should raise new concerns about an Obama presidency – if a man with a well-documented Messiah complex gets control of such a weapon there's no telling what he might do.

A final thought… Michael Goldfarb writes:

It is the greatest PR boost the program could have gotten short of actually striking down a North Korean missile inbound to Hollywood.

I disagree. The greatest PR boost the program could get was if they announced that they had the capability to shoot down a North Korean missile that was inbound to Hollywood, but they decided to let it hit. On Oscars night.

No comments: