An Air Force projectile launched from an F-15 fighter soared more than 300 miles above the Earth on Friday and slammed into a small, orbiting American satellite, flawlessly completing the first test of a U.S. anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon against a target in space, Pentagon officials said.
The controversial test, which began at midday at Edwards Air Force Base and ended high over the Western Pacific missile test range near Vandenberg Air Force Base at 1:42 p.m., shattered the target, a six-year-old military satellite that had studied the solar wind and radio transmissions and had outlived its usefulness.
Air Force and other defense officials were jubilant over the trial. “From everything we can tell, it went absolutely flawlessly,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Bernard P. Randolph, deputy chief of staff for research, development and acquisition.
‘A Great Step Forward’
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger called the test “a great step forward,” according to his spokesman.
However, the timing of the test, barely two months before President Reagan is scheduled to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Geneva, was criticized by some who fear that it may hinder any agreement at the meeting.
Pentagon spokesman Fred Hoffman said the test was necessary so that the United States could proceed with development of the weapon and keep pace with the Soviet Union. He pointed out that the Soviet Union “has long had an operational ASAT system. The United States is developing its ASAT capability to redress this serious imbalance.”
A follow-up test is expected within several months, Randolph said.
In the test, a “miniature homing vehicle” was carried into space by a rocket launched from the underside of the F-15 and then separated from the missile. The test device, he said, was directed by on-board infrared sensors to the 11-foot by 6-foot target orbiting the Earth every 100 to 110 minutes. The target and the homing vehicle were destroyed by the impact, rather than by any explosive device.
Confirmed by Signals
Randolph said the success of the test was confirmed by signals sent by the test device and by the target, which both stopped simultaneously at 1:42 p.m. In addition, ground-based radar confirmed the contact, he said.
The entire test took “a few hours” to complete, he added. The missile and the homing vehicle were fired from the F-15 at an altitude of 35,000 to 40,000 feet (6.63 to 7.57 miles), and the device hit the 2,000-pound target, known as P78-1, at an altitude of about 345 miles.
The target was chosen, said John Pike, a space weapons expert on the staff of the Federation of American Scientists and a frequent critic of the Pentagon’s weapons development program, because it was “the only thing big enough and low enough for them to hit.”
The debris from the satellite and the homing vehicle is expected to remain in orbit or to decay and burn up before reaching the Earth.
The Soviet Union, which has tested--and, the Pentagon says, deployed--an anti-satellite device for more than a decade, depends on a system, weighing more than two tons, that is composed of a liquid-fueled booster rocket and warhead 150 feet tall.
Chasing the Target
Scientists have said the Soviets would have to wait until the target was in proper position over the launching site, rather than carry the missile aloft in a small fighter. The Soviet missile would then chase the target in orbit, circling the Earth until it got close enough to destroy the satellite in an explosion of shrapnel.
While a U.S. anti-satellite program would use much of the same technology being studied for a “Star Wars” space-based defense system, the latter is intended to destroy missiles aimed at the United States. The interest in destroying satellites reflects the crucial role the orbiting systems would play in communications and intelligence gathering during a war.
The test was sharply criticized by Gerard C. Smith, who negotiated the first strategic arms limitation treaty during the Richard M. Nixon Administration.
“In four or five years, if we both have this sort of killer, we, being more dependent on satellites than the Soviets, will be sorry we didn’t choke this thing off. This is like shooting yourself in the foot to show resolve,” he said.
The test, which officials had originally expected to conduct as early as last spring, encountered technical, legal and political delays before it could take place. And the timing of the trial connected it directly to the first U.S.-Soviet summit in six years.
Test Was a Gamble
Indeed, conducting the test, particularly so close to the meeting, was itself a gamble. On the one hand, the successful trial may upset preparations for the summit and, on the other hand, the weapon could have failed, weakening Reagan’s hand at the summit.
Under restrictions imposed by Congress, the test could not take place until Reagan certified that the United States was seeking in good faith a treaty limiting such weapons; that the test was necessary for U.S. security, and that the test would neither harm the chances for a treaty nor violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
Reagan issued that certification Aug. 20. Then, on Tuesday, several members of Congress, including California Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), and the Union of Concerned Scientists, began an unsuccessful court effort to halt the experiment.
Under current law, the Administration is permitted to perform three tests against a target in space. The first ASAT test took place Jan. 21, 1984, when the weapon was fired at a point in space, rather than at a specific target. In the second test, on Nov. 13, 1984, it was aimed at a star. The first test was considered successful; the second, only partially so.
Friday’s test had originally been scheduled to take place against a specially designed target that could send back signals to help the Air Force monitor the experiment. That target was returned to Avco Corp., the manufacturer, after its communications system malfunctioned. It has been repaired and is being returned to the Air Force.
Randolph said hitting the satellite would prove more difficult than striking the test target, known as an instrumented target vehicle.