Anti-Satellite Shot Described
By ZACHARY M. PETERSON
Published: 22 Feb 17:31 EST (12:31 GMT)
Print | Email
Only a small group of sailors and a small team of government and industry experts knew the nature of the U.S. Navy cruiser Lake Erie's mission when the ship left port in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Feb. 14.
A single modified tactical SM-3 launches from the U.S. Navy AEGIS cruiser Lake Erie. (U.S. Navy)
As the ship began steaming northwest, the news that a Navy ship would attempt to shoot down an errant spy satellite was breaking at the Pentagon. Capt. Randy Hendrickson, the skipper of Lake Erie, told Navy Times via telephone that he waited until the ship was at sea to call an all-hands meeting and inform his crew of 360 sailors what they were about to attempt. Until then, all the crew knew was that it was training for an unspecified mission, the captain said.
The ship spent four days conducting rehearsals, Hendrickson said, prior to steaming to its launch site in the ocean. The ship arrived on station northwest of Hawaii a "few hours prior to launch" Feb. 20, the skipper said.
"[We] were granted weapons release authority, and the crew performed superbly," he said. "They were very calm."
The SM-3 was launched, and there were cheers in the control room as the missile hit "dead center to the basket," Hendrickson said. "We could see the radar as filled with debris."
After the shot, the crew and a team of about 30 government and industry experts began conducting the lethality analysis, Hendrickson said. As the civilian team did the analysis and advised the crew, the sailors manned all the equipment, Hendrickson explained.
"The crew was very astute to what they were doing," he said.
The missile launch was the fifth SM-3 the ship had launched since April 2007. The other four missiles were launched as part of the Missile Defense Agency's sea-based ballistic missile defense tests.
Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Robert Willard called Hendrickson on the radio to congratulate the Lake Erie on what appeared to be a successful shot, the skipper said. Hendrickson also received e-mails from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Strategic Command chief Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave the final go-ahead for the launch after receiving information from Chilton about eight hours prior to the launch, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice Joint Chiefs chairman, told reporters at the Pentagon the morning after the shot.
The satellite carried hydrazine, a toxic fuel, which Pentagon officials said would make its re-entry dangerous. The satellite, known as USA 193, experienced problems upon launch in 2006 and was roughly the size of school bus.
As the Lake Erie steamed back toward Pearl Harbor, Hendrickson said the crew plans a "little celebration" of the first-of-its-kind shot. The party will be conducted "moderately and modestly," he added.
It took the Navy about six weeks to make the necessary modifications to the missiles and radars to "take it to sea with some degree of confidence," a Navy official said Feb. 19 at a press briefing.
The Navy had no prior capability to shoot down satellites and had previously "not explored that," the source added.
Cartwright called the shot a "one-time thing" the morning after the missile hit. He said he does not anticipate satellite shoots becoming a regular mission for the military. Because of the hazardous nature of the fuel carried aboard USA 193, Cartwright said "it would have been irresponsible" not to reduce some of the risk of harmful materials hitting land.
In response to suggestions that the satellite shot would be a boon to the Pentagon's nascent missile-defense capabilities, Cartwright said the only "elements of missile defense" involved in the shot were in the sensors, instrumentation and software used in the test.
"This was a one-time modification," he said.
Hendrickson said his crew returned from a Pacific deployment last summer and is "well-versed" in many forms of operations. Nonetheless, he admitted the satellite shot "pushed its limits."