Why is it so expensive to shoot down a spy satellite?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 21 2008 6:23 PM

The $60 Million Missile

Why is it so expensive to shoot down a spy satellite?

Standard Missile-3. Click image to expand.
Standard Missile-3

A missile fired from a Navy warship on Wednesday night shot down a U.S. spy satellite that had been malfunctioning 130 miles above the Earth. The price tag for the endeavor has been pegged at upward of $30 million and even as high as $60 million, depending on the news report. Why did it cost so much money to shoot one missile?

They needed to reprogram the weapons. Once the orders were given on Jan. 4 to destroy the satellite, the Department of Defense had just a few weeks to outfit two Navy cruisers—the USS Lake Erie and USS Decatur—with rejiggered Aegis defense systems and a total of three SM-3 missiles. Only one missile was fired on Wednesday, but the other two had to be ready, in case a second or third attempt was needed. Since each SM-3 missile costs $9.5 million, the tab for the munitions alone adds up to almost $30 million.

Customizing the Aegis system and missiles for the satellite mission was a major expense. The technologies were originally designed to intercept ballistic missiles using heat sensors, but the spy satellite was cooler in temperature. To account for this difference, the three SM-3's needed new software, hardware, and sensors, and the launching systems had to be given new sensors and software updates. The bulk of this task would have been assigned to high-priced contractors—like Raytheon, the maker of the missile, or Lockheed Martin, maker of the Aegis system. And it would have taken a large crew of engineers to rewrite the code, debug it, and test it over and over again—all within three weeks. The stakes were also higher than they would be for a commercial software release, as the system had to work perfectly in a 10-second window; there was no opportunity to fix problems with software patches later on. (Before this week's launch, the same anti-missile system had been successful on eight of 10 tries.)

Though the cost estimates cited in the press were attributed to Pentagon officials, it's unclear what was actually included in the numbers. The Navy relied on support from NASA and the Air Force to track the satellite. It might not make sense to count the salaries of those government workers or even the basic cost of the SM-3s, however, since the people and missiles would be around even if there weren't a spy satellite teetering in the atmosphere. In any case, the operation would have been a relative bargain even at $60 million. A similar test in 2006 cost the Department of Defense $85 million; in that case, a mock North Korean target had to be sent into space before it was blasted to bits. Another way to look at it: $60 million is about 0.01 percent of the 2009 budget for the Department of Defense.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Gordon Adams of the Henry L. Stimson Center, Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information, and Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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