Top US officials have said the main reason for shooting down a spy satellite as it slipped from orbit was to protect humans from its hazardous fuel, but analysts say that the military stands to benefit in many other ways by taking out the inoperable spacecraft.

The controversial decision to hit the satellite allows the military to learn how adaptable its sea-based missile-defence system is for destroying enemy satellites, while protecting sensitive technology and thus sending a clear message to Beijing.

China sparked international criticism last year by shooting down one of its old weather satellites with a ballistic missile, but criticised Washington’s plans to hit the spy satellite, which was successfully stuck late Wednesday.

One motivation is ‘to poke the Chinese, to show the Chinese that we can do it too,’ said Philip Coyle, a missile defence expert, who ran the Pentagon’s independent weapons testing office during the Clinton administration.

Launching the interceptor from a ship and carrying out the more difficult task of hitting the satellite in low orbit further shows Beijing that ‘we can do it anyplace we want,’ said Coyle, now an analyst at the Centre for Defence Information and a critic of missile defence system.

The Pentagon played down speculation of ulterior motives for destroying the satellite, saying that the military wants to minimize the risk that the unexpended hydrazine fuel on the spacecraft poses a danger to humans if it survives re-entry and falls to a populated area.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the US demonstrated a capability to take out satellites in the 1980s by launching missiles from fighter jets, and there was no need to test an already successful missile-defence system on the spacecraft.

‘We are taking this step … not to test our anti-satellite capabilities,’ Morrell said. ‘Been there, done that’.

Instead, the action ‘is designed to alleviate a threat to human beings on this planet,’ Morrell said before the launch.

The bus-sized satellite was launched in 2006, and failed within hours and has since lumbered around space, slowly drifting back towards the earth. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), a secretive agency that oversees the spy satellite programme, operated the satellite.

An NRO spokesperson said that the information about the satellite remains classified and refused to provide its cost or name the manufacturer. Analysts believe that because the satellite was recently built, there were worries that the latest US technology could wind up in Russian or Chinese hands if large pieces survived re-entry.

‘They want to make sure this thing doesn’t wind up on Ebay,’ said John Pike, a national security analyst at

The USS Lake Erie launched the Standard Missile-3 at 10.26 p.m. Wednesday and minutes later it struck the satellite. The Pentagon said it was confident that most of the debris would burn up in the atmosphere.

The Pentagon said it would take about 24 hours to confirm whether the fuel tanks had been sufficiently destroyed.

The sea-based Aegis system already had a proven record of hitting much smaller targets. Pike and Coyle agreed that the Pentagon was confident of success. Defence officials would not have risked the political fallout of failure after publicizing their plans.

‘They wouldn’t do it on the off chance that it might work,’ Pike said.

Up Next

Death of former Ill. cop’s third wife ruled homicide

Top US officials have said the main reason for shooting down a spy satellite…