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February 22, 2008— US Strategic Command will probably know within a day or so if the missile it sent against a decaying spy satellite succeeded in destroying the biggest hazard onboard—its full hydrazine propellant tank. The hydrazine tank was the only reason the shot was even attempted; there was high confidence the satellite would cause little damage, STRATCOM boss Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton reported Feb. 21 at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando.

The shootdown of a derelict spy satellite was “historic” because it marked the first time that such an operation was conducted by the relatively young US Strategic Command, which orchestrated work by a bevy of supporting commands and agencies, according to Chilton.

The Navy on Feb. 20 at about 10:26 p.m. EST fired a Standard Missile-3 from the USS Lake Erie at the non-functioning intelligence satellite, after an early delay because of rough seas. The SM-3 impacted the satellite as it traveled in space about 133 nautical miles above the Pacific Ocean, according to a DOD statement. President Bush elected to attempt a shootdown because the satellite still had a full load of fuel. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., confirmed that the SM-3 had intercepted the satellite, which broke into pieces.

Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday told reporters that the Pentagon has “a high degree of confidence that we got the tank.” He added that the debris field showed nothing larger than a football.

Operation Burnt Frost required the coordinated efforts “of the NRO, DARPA, MDA, PACOM … the US Navy, and Air Force Space Command,” Chilton said in Orlando. The operation was set in motion in early December, and executed with astonishing speed, he noted. Experts worked around the clock, even through the December holidays, to make the shot a success, he said. “I’m very proud of what has happened here,” Chilton beamed.

Even though three missiles were readied for the shot, the other two were on hand only if there was a miss or a launch problem, he said. Having hit the satellite, the pieces are behaving too erratically for a second shot. Ground based sensors will be watching the decaying debris and scanning for something the size of the hydrazine tank, but confidence is high the shot worked as intended, Chilton said.

Chilton also called criticism from China ludicrous. Beijing on Thursday declared the US as hypocritical, saying the US condemned China’s anti-satellite test last year, but then conducted its own in Wednesday’s shootdown of the spy satellite. Chilton said, “There’s no comparison” of the two events.

China’s act was a “test shot to complete an ASAT development” program, which left debris in orbit that will pose a hazard to manned spacecraft and satellites for decades, explained Chilton, adding that it was done with “no warning.” 

The US shot, though, was conducted in “full transparency,” with notifications made around the world, said the STRATCOM chief. Chilton also noted that the US made it strike “as low as we thought prudent” to help ensure that the debris would have fallen to Earth within a year. And, he said, the slightly increased risk to satellites will have passed within 48 hours.