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1964 U.S. atomic bomb blast in the Van Allen belts

Posted to Flyby News - 21 December 2000

1964 U.S atomic bomb blast in the Van Allen
Friday, 8 December 2000, 9:37 PM EST
U.S physics blunder almost ended space programs
By Richard Sale, Terrorism Correspondent

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- In 1964, a U.S atomic bomb blast in the Van Allen belts surrounding the earth almost permanently ended the U.S. space program, according to retired Gen. Ken Hannegan of the Defense Nuclear Agency. Hannegan spoke recently with United Press International.

Hannegan acknowledged that during a 1964 test for a new U.S. anti-satellite weapon system, the United States fired an atomic bomb of about 50 KT (or two and a half times the strength of the Nakasaki bomb) in the Van Allen belts -- areas of radiation and charged particles which surround the earth's upper atmosphere and which are held in place by the earth's magnetic field.

According to former Lockheed scientist Maxwell Hunter, who worked on the program, "It was a military idea -- that you might be able to create a weapon by artificially pumping up radiation in the belts by detonating explosions in them and trapping the radiation."

In the 1960s, prodded by concerns over a Soviet orbital bombing threat, the U.S. Air Force had begun work on a nuclear-armed direct ascent anti-satellite system targeted at Soviet low-altitude satellites. The project was based on Kwajalein Island in the Pacific. Another companion effort was based on Johnston Island, which is due east, and a little north of the Marshall Islands. The Johnston Island testing used nuclear-armed Thor intermediate range ballistic missiles, according to Hunter and other former Lockheed officials who asked not to be named.

Richard Freeman, a former vice president of Rockwell International and E-Systems, who was involved in many military "black curtain" or secret U.S. space programs, said that Johnston was picked because its location was excellent for interception Soviet satellites on their first orbital passes.

In a test that was part of a program called Project Century, the atomic bomb was exploded at an altitude of between 300 to 400 miles, "not a high shot," said Hunter. "We wanted to fill up the belts at the point where they were closest to earth."

But the effect was totally unplanned for.

"It unexpectedly disabled U.S. and Soviet satellites," Hunter said, adding, "You have to remember that we had very primitive satellites in those days that lacked any protective shields."

But another effect became extremely disconcerting. Hunter said that the bomb blast loaded the belts longitudinally in a pie shape from pole to pole. But where the Air Force had expected the radiation from the blast to remain in the belts for only two days, "There was a trapped radiation phenomena" -- in other words, the extraordinarily high radiation levels refused to disperse. In fact, Hunter said, the energy from the A-bomb blast stayed in the belts "for over a year, maybe more." Hannegan said that the trapped radiation knocked out all American and Soviet equipment that passed through it. "The area was militarily neutral," said Hannegan.

Hunter said a dispute then broke out within the military and scientific community. "There were discussions about us having poisoned space for good, about having destroyed all satellites. An equal number of scientists disagreed, but everyone agreed that such a weapon would only end up blinding ourselves," he said.

One effect of the panic was the strengthening of U.S. satellites against radiation that in the end would help shield them from ground-based laser attacks. According to U.S. intelligence sources, who asked not to be named, such attacks damaged super-sophisticated American spy satellites deployed to monitor missile and spacecraft
launches at the major Russian space center.

These sources said that the Soviets fired ground-based lasers to cripple sensitive optical equipment attempting to scan launches at Tyuratam to obtain a variety of sensitive military information including payloads and throw weights. The Soviet laser "hosings" of costly satellites, details of which remain classified, occurred throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, and sent U.S. scientists scrambling to shield the space surveillance system.

According to a former Senate Intelligence Committee chief of staff, Angelo Codevilla, the Soviets regularly "pulsed" or targeted lasers on U.S. satellites. A senior Air Force official said that the U.S. had decided to keep evidence of the laser attacks hushed up for a variety of reasons.

The official said that first, it makes our equipment "look bad" but more important, the United States has used the collective evidence as a bargaining chip in strategic arms limitation talks. "U.S. negotiators say, look, we know this is happening and we are willing to make it public if you don't give us this or that concession," said the official.

In 1976, a KH-11 or Code 1010 satellite was "painted" by a Soviet laser and sustained "permanent damage," according to a senior Air Force official. This source said that such paintings continued into the late 1980s.

According to U.S. intelligence sources, the attempt to use U.S. satellites to view launches at Tyuratem, stemmed from concern over the Soviet launch of "killer satellites" that would be used in the event of war.
Although U.S. air defense radar is capable of tracking the smallest objects orbiting Earth, if a satellite is inactive or "dark" the Pentagon does not become aware of its mission until it becomes activated, and by then it's too late.

These Pentagon sources said it was common practice for the Soviets to launch satellites three at a time with only two becoming immediately active. Such dark satellites are highly unlikely to be identified as a threat, these U.S. analysts said.

Air Force officials told UPI that for years the Soviets had a "battle-ready" ground-based laser at Saryshagan that they said they believed had been involved in past blindings of U.S. spacecraft.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, it was in the process of building a new battle-ready laser at Nurek in Tadzhikstan and a second 500 miles away at Khazakstan in the Caucasus Mountains. Four more ground laser battle stations were planned, one begun on mountains near Dushanbe and another between Nruek and Dushambe and two more at unidentified areas. A Pentagon source said the collapse of the Soviet Union prevented their being completed.

But the result of the "hosings" of U.S. equipment was positive. The United States moved quickly to install laser warning receivers on its newest generation of low-orbit spacecraft, U.S. intelligence sources said. The receivers have allowed time for evasive action and have assisted ground controllers seeking to prove the Soviets had inflicted the damage.

One State Dept. analyst said that the whole Star Wars system of the Reagan presidency was the result of Soviets "messing around with our satellites."

And although official U.S. policy was not to interfere with Soviet satellites, the U.S. scientists often targeted Soviet spacecraft trying to observe the launch of U.S. missiles involved in a Defense Research Projects Agency program at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. U.S. scientists targeted the Soviet satellites with beams from ground-based facilities in Maui and Oahu, Hawaii and San Juan Capistrano, Calif., according to former Air Force officials.

Although most "hosings" of Soviet craft were used for "range finding purposes," Richard Freeman said that the Capistrano facility, which has since moved to Cloud Croft, N.M. "possessed "a full anti-satellite capability."

Freeman added: "If we didn't damage Soviet equipment, it wasn't because we weren't trying." The U.S. has since moved to jam Russian satellite radio communications to ground stations, he said.

So why did the earlier Starfish blunder occur? "We didn't know enough yet about plasma physics," said Hannegan. "We just didn't understand it yet."

But former military space expert, Clarence Robinson said that the reason the United States probably stopped such testing was because it discovered "that there isn't anything you do to the enemy that you don't end up doing to yourself."

Copyright 2000 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

[Note that a comment on the wordpress page by Flyby News for this article includes a memorandum from Stephen Schwartz, Publisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists regarding the article by Richard Sale, which was posted in NucNews archive.]

Pro Missile Defense (Washington Post) Editorial
Washington Post

Why Bush's Missile Plan Might Bomb
By Robert Kagan
Monday, December 18, 2000; Page A27

People who thought a vote for George W. Bush was a vote for rapid deployment of a stronger national missile defense may be disappointed. Missile defense could be the first casualty of the 2000 election fracas.

In the effort to reach out to Democrats, Bush's advisers are scouting around for nice little bipartisan policies to push through Congress this year. Missile defense doesn't fit the bill. As with his big tax cut proposal, Bush made missile defense one of the centerpieces of his campaign. He said he favored a more ambitious system than the one proposed by President Clinton, and he promised to deploy his more robust system "at the earliest possible date."

But that was then and this is now. Senior Bush advisers are now talking about conducting a thorough "review" of the whole issue. Fair enough, except that the review may prove interminable. Stephen Hadley, slated for one of the top posts in the new administration, has suggested it may take as long as a year.

The truth is, there was always reason to wonder whether Bush's tough campaign talk would translate into tough policies. Even if Bush had won the election handily, building domestic support for his more robust missile defense system would have been difficult. For the past few years, Democrats in the House and Senate reluctantly supported President Clinton's missile defense apostasy out of political necessity -- to shield Clinton and Gore from Republican attack.

But come Jan. 21, 2001, most will flip back to their accustomed roles as crusaders against Republican "Star Wars."

Then there is another small problem: the rest of the world. Thanks to the way Clinton mishandled the process of consulting with Europe, even close allies view American plans as harebrained and dangerous. This past year Russia's Vladimir Putin played on those European fears and successfully rebuffed overeager Clinton diplomatists trying to modify the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow Clinton's limited program. Putin will try to play the same game with Bush.

The Chinese, meanwhile, may decide to make missile defense the chief obstacle to improved Sino-American relations. They are petrified that a successfully deployed system would undermine their ability to threaten or attack Taiwan.

The Chinese have a history of testing U.S. presidents early to see what they're made of. In 1994 they put the heat on Clinton and discovered that his tough 1992 campaign rhetoric about the "butchers of Beijing" was empty. They will put Bush to a similar test, and on what better issue than missile defense, where the rest of the world is already lined up against Washington?

So even in the best of circumstances, Bush would have had to spend a lot of political capital at home and abroad. If he stuck by his guns, there was a chance that the allies would eventually come to accept the inevitable. And once the Europeans accepted it, the Russians would be more amenable to cutting a deal on the ABM treaty. The waning opposition in Europe and Moscow would in turn undermine some of the opposition at home.

But for this strategy to work, Bush had to be the man of steel. Bush's supporters like to compare him to Ronald Reagan. It was going to take a Reaganesque commitment--and Reagan's devotion to missile defense was almost literally religious--to get a robust system over all the hurdles. This was true even before this past month's electoral fiasco, even before the Democrats picked up seats in the House and pulled even in the Senate. Now the missile defense mountain will be an even steeper climb.

Will Bush want to take it on? It is understandable that Bush officials want to wait. The allies do need to be consulted. The Russians ought to get a glimpse at what Bush has to offer. The restive Congress will need massaging. And the new team will need some time to figure out what technologies are actually available, since Clinton long ago killed a number of the most promising missile defense programs. But unfortunately this is one of those times when sweet reason, careful diplomacy, and lengthy deliberation are likely to produce failure.

Contrary to what many Bush officials may think, it will be harder, not easier, to gain support for missile defense if Bush waits until 2002. Bush politicos think missile defense is unappetizing this year. But guess what? They won't find it any tastier next year. Meanwhile, once the world figures out that Bush is reluctant to press the issue at home, the aura of inevitability will vanish, and Bush officials such as Hadley will have a harder time convincing the Europeans and Russians that they have to make a deal. Persistent international opposition will strengthen the hand of opponents in Congress.

If Bush waits until next year to put missile defense high on his agenda, the result could be a political death spiral.

Candidate Bush made the case that the growing ballistic missile threat from Iraq, Iran, China and, yes, North Korea, would soon undermine America's capacity to maintain international peace by opening us up to blackmail by the likes of Saddam Hussein. He understood, too, that time was a-wasting. If Bush is really committed to missile defense, and he seems to be, then the time to make his stand is now.

The writer, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.

2000 The Washington Post

NYTimes Editorial: Reason and Restraint regarding NMD
December 19, 2000

Prelude to a Missile Defense

New York Times editorial

The incoming Bush administration risks making an early mistake if it rushes to build a national missile defense. A hasty move in this area could quickly deplete the good will generally accorded a new president by foreign leaders, especially those of Russia, China and Washington's main European allies.

George W. Bush should instead expand research and testing to determine what kind of defensive shield can best meet America's security needs.

A reliable antimissile system could protect the country against the future threat of nuclear missile attack from unpredictable nations like North Korea, Iraq and Iran. American intelligence agencies predict that North Korea could have the capacity to launch a handful of nuclear-tipped long-range missiles within five years and that Iraq and Iran could reach that point within a decade.

But no workable shield now exists. The prototype interceptor missile developed by the Clinton administration has so far proved highly unreliable in tests. Mr. Bush and his advisers made clear during the presidential campaign that they considered the Clinton system flawed and inadequate. They promised to consider a variety of other technologies, including sea-based and space-based systems as well as the current land-based model.

Any of those alternative approaches would require rigorous study and testing before construction commences. While that evaluation proceeds, Mr. Bush's new foreign policy team should try to persuade skeptical countries that a limited defensive system can be built without wrecking existing arms control treaties or setting off a destructive new arms race.

Their biggest hurdle will be overcoming Russia's current refusal to modify the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty to permit limited national missile defenses. The ABM treaty has been a keystone of the arms control efforts of the last three decades. If America abruptly withdraws from that treaty to build a defensive system, other agreements might begin to unravel, including the two primary nuclear arms reduction treaties signed by Mr. Bush's father at the end of the cold war.

Those two treaties provide for a two-thirds reduction in both sides' nuclear arsenals from their mid-1980's peak and for a total elimination of Russia's land-based, multiple-warhead missiles, Moscow's most dangerous weapons. Already progress in carrying out the second of these treaties has been held up by disputes over missile defense rules.

China fears that even a limited United States missile shield might be able to deflect Beijing's small force of long-range nuclear missiles. In response, China, which is not bound by any nuclear arms limitation agreement with Washington, could be tempted to build hundreds of new intercontinental missiles. America's European allies do not wish to see the revival of a costly arms race.

Mr. Bush's foreign policy advisers have been around Washington long enough to know that few initial steps would be more divisive abroad than a decision to move ahead with installation of a missile defense system. Colin Powell, the prospective secretary of state, and Condoleezza Rice, the future national security adviser, also recognize that construction of even a limited system would cost tens of billions of dollars. Until the technology is perfected, there is no point in incurring these diplomatic and financial costs.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

Powell insists defence rests on 'Star Wars'
December 18, 2000
From Ian Brodie in Washington

GENERAL Colin Powell, America's new Secretary of State, has said that the Bush Administration would make national missile defence (NMD) an essential part of US strategic policy.

Russia, China and America's allies have all been alarmed at the idea of NMD. General Powell made the comment after being invited at the weekend to take up the role by George W. Bush, the President-elect.

Critics have said that building an NMD system would risk a new arms race with Russia and China. Britain and other Nato allies have expressed reservations, although Mr Bush has spoken of the need for ballistic missile defences to include America's allies.

General Powell offered the rationale for NMD first given by Ronald Reagan, for whom he worked as National Security Adviser. He said: "I harken back to the original purpose of such a defence, to start diminishing the value of offensive weapons." It was time to take away the blackmail inherent in some regimes having such weapons and "thinking they can hold us hostage", he said.

Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, is known to be worried by the US plan because it would mean breaching the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and could damage relations with Russia. During the election campaign Mr Bush called for deployment of a more expansive missile system than the limited "Son of Star Wars" pursued under Mr Clinton, who put off making a final decision after a string of failed tests.

Mr. Bush said that ballistic missile defences should also protect America's allies. The Republican platform promised that a Bush Administration would spend billions of dollars to research and deploy a robust missile defence system, including sea-based missiles, that would extend a shield around Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Mr. Bush's advisers argue that the rise of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as potential missile-building states has changed the strategic balance. General Powell described Russia and China as countries the US would attempt to work with "not as potential enemies or adversaries, but not yet as strategic partners".

He also said that the new Administration will undertake a review ofthe role of US troops in Bosnia and Kosovo.

As well as reaching out to the black community with the appointment of General Powell, and of Condoleezza Rice as National Security Adviser, Mr Bush sought to include the Hispanic community by choosing Al Gonzales, a judge on the Texas Supreme Court, as his chief White House lawyer.

Mr. Bush flew from Texas to Washington last night for meetings with Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, President Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore and members of Congress. He will also interview potential Cabinet members.

In state capitals across the United States today, 538 members of the Electoral College will be meeting to cast their votes for President: 271 for Mr Bush and 267 for Mr Gore.

Despite speculation, no "faithless electors" have come forward to say that they will switch votes.

Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.,,15-52851,00.html

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