Indications are that North Korea is moving ahead with its planned launch of a missile with the intent of placing a satellite into orbit. The North Koreans are portraying the launch in purely innocuous, civilian terms even naming the rocket “Unha,” which means “Milky Way” in Korean, to emphasize its space-oriented function. In the West, the rocket is called the Taepodong-2 and is thought to be a long-range (but not truly intercontinental range) ballistic missile.
Even if the rocket launches a satellite, and recent news reports say the payload sections seems to be shaped and sized for a satellite, it would be an important step in their military ballistic missile program. In the early days of the Soviet and American space programs, there was little distinction between military and civilian rocket development and the same would be true of North Korea’s upcoming launch. What I want to discuss in this essay is the question of how much can the outside world learn if the North Korean test goes through, what does it tell us about their ballistic missile capability?
The United States is planning to intercept a dying reconnaissance satellite with a missile launched from a Navy ship. The administration justifies the intercept on the basis of public safety. That is a long stretch, indeed, and thus far in the news coverage that I have seen there is virtually no mention of the political consequences of the United States’ conducting its first anti-satellite test in over two decades.
The United States, along with China, Russia, and other space-faring nations, should be working to ban anti-satellite weapons. Such a ban would work strongly in the best interests of the United States because we depend more, by far, than any other nation on access to space for our economy and security. Any measure that reduces the threats to satellites will enhance American security. The proposed test is a potential public relations bonanza, showing the public how a defensive missile can protect us from a—largely imaginary—danger from above. What follows is a simple analysis of what some of these dangers might be and a description of what might happen. These are questions that should have been asked of the administration.