February 21, 2008

A Direct Hit

UPDATE & BUMP: Eyeblast has the video of the actual hit and a portion of the Pentagon's briefing:

Original post follows ...

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Does missile defense actually work? An impromptu mission to destroy a potentially hazardous failing satellite has proven that the system in place can make a direct hit on a fast-moving target. The USS Lake Erie scored a direct hit on a spy satellite traveling in polar orbit at 17,000 mile per hour, eliminating the fuel tank that had worried the US (via Worldwide Standard):

A Navy missile soaring 130 miles above the Pacific smashed a dying and potentially deadly U.S. spy satellite Wednesday and probably destroyed a tank carrying 1,000 pounds of toxic fuel, officials said.

Officials had expressed cautious optimism that the missile would hit the satellite, which was the size of a school bus. But they were less certain of hitting the smaller, more problematic fuel tank, whose contents posed what Bush administration officials deemed a potential health hazard to humans if it landed intact.

In a statement announcing that the Navy missile struck the satellite, the Pentagon said, "Confirmation that the fuel tank has been fragmented should be available within 24 hours." It made no mention of early indications, but a defense official close to the situation said later that officials monitoring the collision saw what appeared to be an explosion, indicating that the fuel tank was hit.

Over the last twenty years and more, we have heard from a variety of experts explaining how this is impossible. A rocket, they claimed, could not reliably be expected to target another rocket. They derided missile defense systems as "Star Wars" fantasy and demanded that we stop pursuing destabilizing efforts to actually defend ourselves from potential missile attack.

The Patriot missile systems began proving their abilities against Scud attacks in the Gulf War. They didn't have a perfect record, but they did have an impressive run of mid-air intercepts -- so impressive that the Israelis bought Patriot batteries from us. In the last seven years, we have continued to develop these defense systems, after the Clinton administration tried to mothball it.

Now we see that we can precisely target moving objects that aren't specifically intended as tests. The missile and the satellite had a closing velocity of 22,000 miles per hour, and yet the Navy hit a bullseye on the first try. It sends a message to people like Kim Jong-Il and Ali Khameini that their ballistic missile systems have just been made obsolete. It also sends a message to the defeatists and naysayers from the last quarter-century that, like so many other times, they have been proven wrong in their defeatism.

Eventually, this could end the ballistic missile era. If effective defenses become widely available, there will not be much point in maintaining ballistic missile inventories at all. Ronald Reagan had that very vision when he first proposed SDI and tried to get the Soviets to partner with him on it.

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