CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
David Hawkes, a sailor aboard the USS Russell, stood near the ship's missile silos yesterday. The Russell was the USS Lake Erie's backup during Wednesday's missile shot.
Gates tells China details of satellite kill
The USS Lake Erie did not have its target in sight, the Navy says
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The intercept of a dying satellite by a Pearl Harbor-based ship is being hailed by Pentagon and Navy officials as a high-tech success while being assailed as an escalation of the space arms race by foreign powers.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Honolulu during Wednesday's missile launch, said the United States has shared information with China to allay its fears about the mission.
But he also said the exercise shows the effectiveness of the United States' expensive missile-defense program.
"The question of whether this capability works has been settled," Gates said at Pearl Harbor. "The question is against what kind of threat, how large a threat, how sophisticated a threat."
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Hitting a dying satellite with a missile from a Pearl Harbor ship was like "shooting at a deer running through the forest before the hunter could see it," said Cmdr. Jeff Weston, skipper of the USS Russell.
Because the missile was launched before the Pearl Harbor-based USS Lake Erie could see the target, the Erie had to help guide the missile -- a revolutionary and complex process that took seconds, said Weston, whose destroyer was a backup to the Lake Erie in Wednesday's satellite intercept.
Weston described the successful missile intercept to Defense Secretary Robert Gates aboard the Russell, which remained in Pearl Harbor and has identical systems as the Lake Erie.
The 567-foot Lake Erie fired the interceptor missile from a spot northwest of Hawaii in the North Pacific. It hit the ailing spy satellite, which was described as being the size of a school bus and weighing about 5,000 pounds. The satellite's fuel tank contained 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine. Government and military officials planned the intercept because they feared lives would be in danger if the satellite fell to Earth in a populated area.
Gates toured the Russell briefly yesterday and got a glimpse of its combat information center and its special spy radar system.
After the visit, Gates was asked about criticism by China and its request for information on the fallout from the missile shoot. He said, "We provided a lot of information ... before it took place."
Gates, with his right arm in a sling because of a slip on an icy pathway to his Washington-area home, added that he is determined to be open about the U.S. operation and that "we are prepared to share whatever appropriately we can."
As for the capabilities of the U.S. missile defense system, Gates said: "The question of whether this capability works has been settled. ... We have had a number of successful tests.
"(That) the Congress pretty much overwhelmingly over the past two and three years has voted for billions of dollars to continue the missile defense program is testimony to the fact that the issue of whether it will work is behind us.
"We just need to keep improving its capability."
Weston said the SM-3 missile did not have a warhead.
"But when it hits it releases an enormous amount of energy," said Weston, who said the satellite was traveling at more than 17,000 mph.
The Russell is one of six Aegis destroyers in the U.S. Pacific Fleet that is capable of intercepting a missile using its spy radar system and SM-3 missiles.
The Lake Erie, the first warship to shoot down a satellite, is one of three Aegis cruisers in the Pacific Fleet with the same capability. Both Lake Erie and the USS Port Royal are home-ported at Pearl Harbor. The third, the USS Shiloh, is stationed in Japan.
The Lake Erie, skippered by Capt. Randall M. Hendrickson, was to return to Pearl Harbor this morning.
During the past six years, the Lake Erie has been the lead warship in the ballistic missile tests conducted at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.
The USS Lake Erie has been able to hit a drone missile nine out of 11 tries. In its most recent attempt, in November, the Navy warship fired two missiles and intercepted two drones.
The Russell also has participated in these tests, but has never fired a missile. There have been 12 missile intercepts in 14 attempts since 2002.
Weston said the SM-3 missile used Wednesday is a variant of one used by Navy ships to ward off aircraft attacks.
"The SM-3 was devised for ballistic missile intercepts," Weston added.
Weston said his crew knew before the launch was announced that the Russell would remain at Pearl Harbor when the missile strike occurred.
"We were the designated hitter," Weston added. "We were ready. We had done our batting practices, and we were ready to go if called. ... We were on the bench."