Thursday, January 18, 2007

Two Tales of an Incipient Arms Race

Times Online has now filed Tim Reid's version of China's "satellite killer" experiment, several hours in the wake of the Al Jazeera English version. This difference is apparent from Reid's lead sentence:

The White House reacted with alarm and anger last night after China successfully destroyed a satellite with a ballistic missile, the first space test of such offensive military technology by any nation in over 20 years.

This sharply contrasts (without being inconsistent) with Al Jazeera describing the experiment as "no surprise to the Bush administration." However, both articles share the disquieting theme that we may be watching the buildup to the next arms race. Reid's account also included the following, which had not appeared in the Al Jazeera version:

The US has been researching “satellite-killing” technology of its own, experimenting with lasers on the ground that could disable, disrupt and destroy spacecraft.

This reminded me of how we were caught off our guard when the Russians launched Sputnik. Our government was quick to remind us that we were about to launch a satellite of our own, called Vanguard. Hopefully, I am not the only one who remembers the dismal failure of the Vanguard launch (just as I hope there are still folks out there who remember that our "Star Wars" experiments have been less than encouraging). Are we really experimenting with ground-based lasers now? Have we equipped them to make the same cool noises they do in the real Star Wars (meaning, of course, the movies)? I suppose this is the best rhetorical response we can make: Aim one of your missiles at one of our satellites, and we can disable that missile before it reaches the satellite! How soon will it be disabled? Will that satellite feel any of the effects of our attack? There was another interesting item from the story that both Al Jazeera and Reid reported. Here is Reid's version:

On the day of the Chinese test, a US defence official said that the US was unable to communicate with an experimental spy satellite launched last year by the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office. But there was no indication that this was a result of Beijing’s test.

So those last two questions are not frivolous. I would not hold my breath for answers, though. By all rights the answers should be classified, and I would hope they are!

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