Well, golly, who knew we could use those missiles for that?

This morning the US succeeded in destroying a broken satellite with a “jury-rigged” antimissile interceptor. This now leaves exactly zero places where one can put something we can’t blow up. (Assuming you tell us where it is, which has recently been our biggest problem in the blowing things up business.)

This is a pretty impressive accomplishment. Maybe too, impressive, especially considering the circumstances. According to the government, a missile was reprogrammed in a period of a few weeks to intercept a cold satellite that bears little resemblance to the inbound ICBMs that it was originally intended to strike.

Anybody who has ever worked with the government or a defense contractor knows that there is no way in hell that they could reprogram a microwave oven in anything less than a month, let alone a sophisticated missile targeting system. First of all, nobody in the Navy could do that. It would have to be done by the contractor that built the missile. And it would take months to even get the paperwork ready to allocate the funds to pay the contractor. When I worked for the Navy one summer, it took them two months just to requisition a computer for me to use. Heck, the federally mandated contractor diversity audit and harassment sensitivity training alone would take weeks.

From the Times story:

During a Pentagon news conference Thursday morning, General Cartwright rebuffed those who said the mission was, at least in part, organized to showcase American missile defense or anti-satellite capabilities.

He said the missile itself had to be reconfigured from its task of tracking and hitting an adversary’s warhead to instead find a cold, tumbling satellite. “This was a one-time modification,” General Cartwright said.

So, we’re supposed to believe that the US let the Chinese jump ahead of us in military technology? They’ve had the ability to strike down satellites since at least January of last year, when they took down one of their own weather satellites in an apparent test of their systems.

The most plausible explanation is that the DoD has had the ability to knock down satellites for a long time, and that this is just the first public use of the technology. The whole line about them retasking an existing missile is just cover. The missile they used, whatever it was, was designed to be able to target satellites.

10 thoughts on “Well, golly, who knew we could use those missiles for that?

  1. Alain DeWitt


    I am sure you are right that we have had this ability for a long time and, after the successful Chinese demonstration (last year?), I’m sure our boys had been casting about for an opportunity to show our capabilities in this area.

  2. Jonathan Post author

    Alain: That’s a good point. Given that (a) we’ve probably been able to do this for decades and (b) this isn’t the first bad satellite we’ve had go down, I bet you’re right. The timing is too coincidental with the Chinese “weather” satellite take-down.

    Speaking of government subterfuge, at least the US comes up with plausible lies (public health scare). Did the Chinese really expect anyone to believe that they would spend millions of dollars just to cleanly disable a weather satellite? I guess the problem they have is that if they claimed to be worried about public health, everybody would double over laughing.

  3. Michael

    These missiles have been around for at leaast 5 years. They are based off of an earlier platform and modified to keep them relatively cheap. They just needed targeting coordinates to go ahead.

  4. joe smith

    Wow, you guys are idiots… read wikipedia… hyrazine is a toxic fuel that is used for satellites.


    read a janes manual if you want concrete proof of this or other things,


    second its not hard to reprogram a missle that was allready intended to shoot down incomming balistic missles…


    you guys are moron’s… fear uncle sam… instead of the 16 year old jihadist, whose been raised since birth to cut off your head with a dull kitchen knife… I’m sure you guys don’t need links to find videos of this on the web. Is it a stab back at china to say woo hoo like what you did i can do it better than you, yeah probably… but as the world sees us as cowboys, isint that the cowboy way? I wish i could live in the sheltered I only care about me world it seams you live in Jon… but unfortunatley i don’t, do some reading educate yourself on the facts. (facts are something you can touch, truth is simply what you can justify)

  5. Jonathan Post author

    Michael: Thanks for the comment. How do we know which missile they used? Even if they did use the interceptor they say they used, which I don’t think they did, my point is that it was not a matter of reprogramming them to hit a satellite. Either those missiles were always designed to kill sats in addition to their role as a missile interceptor, or they didn’t even use the missile they said they were going to use. My money is on the latter. The missile was launched from the middle of the ocean aboard a Naval vessel. It’s now in a million pieces about to burn up in the atmosphere. Nobody has any way to figure out what they really launched and they know that. They just need a plausible story, and apparently they found one.

  6. Jonathan Post author

    Joe: First of all, you’re overreacting. What makes you think I disagree with what they did? I think it’s the right move. I just think it’s obvious what they did and why and that it’s pointless to lie. I never said there wasn’t hydrazine on it, I said they were falsely using that as cover. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t any. Do you have any idea what propulsion is used on top secret NRO satellites? For all we know, they are using next generation plasma thrusters. At any rate, I think you’re mistaking me for another guy. I wrote this article because I think it’s an interesting peak into the new cold war we’ve got going on. It wasn’t meant as an objection or protest piece.

    Finally, I will admit that I’m just speculating, but I don’t think I’m off the mark to suggest that reprogramming a complex missile targeting system is not a two week job. Even the Pentagon admitted that there were significant differences between this satellite and the targets for which the system was normally intended. Nothing in aerospace is simple, and nothing significant is done in two weeks. A research article written by a member of the NASA Mars pathfinder team claimed that they were able to write 28 lines of flight control code per day per person, and that that was probably a record of some sort.

  7. joe smith

    Jon, not overreacting… i worked on the missle you so speak of, as not being the one that shot the satty down… and again… you are wrong i will point you again to janes defense weekly… plasma thrusters are a ways off bro… they don’t work 100 percent in a lab… again do research… yes there are differences, but its a simple matter of telling the missle what to look for, not a reprogram like you might think… kind of like a patch for the worst OS on the planet – Windows – falsley using it as a cover… hmm… do you know what an amonia chroline or hyrdazine cloud will do, to your body? again do research… also this satty was built by someone (boeing) that never built a satellite before… read a book do some reaearch…

  8. Jonathan Post author

    Joe: I believe NASA tested a satellite in 2000 using plasma thrusters. I assumed the NRO would be ahead of NASA, but I am perfectly willing to admit I may be way off on that speculation. I also don’t doubt that Hydrazine is nasty stuff, which is why it was a good story to tell. It’s not that it would be unreasonable for them to shoot it down for that reason alone, I just don’t think they did.

    Back to the missile: I don’t think either one of us is a missile engineer, Joe. I know from your IP address (which I’ll keep private) that you’re not at Raytheon, nor at a government agency intimately involved in the development of missiles. Unless you provide me with more substantial information, I can only assume you and I are both guessing, for the most part. But I do know from my brief experience working in robotics that the most robust sensor systems are those which make a great deal of assumptions about their target. I’m pretty sure you are grossly trivializing the ease with which a real time embedded system like this can be reprogrammed. It’s nothing like patching a general purpose consumer operating system, which is a very poor analogy. (And yet even a Windows patch takes longer than two weeks!) Even a small tweak to a parameter here and there would require simulation to determine the right values. I just don’t see it happening as quickly as they said it did.

    Also, the SM-3 has failed on numerous occasions during testing on the exact targets (incoming ICBMs) for which it was designed. It failed in June 2003, and they weren’t ready to try again until December 2003. It took them until 2006 to be ready for the next test. Are you telling me that the first time they go for a satellite, it takes them only weeks to reprogram and they are able to hit it the first try?

    If you’ve got specific information otherwise, fine. I would honestly love to be wrong about this, because if this happened they way they claim, it’s quite a coup for the Navy to be able to pull this off so quickly. I’d rather be a little bit prouder of my country than right about a stupid blog post. (And for the record, I’m still proud of the accomplishment even if it didn’t happen the way they said it did.)


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