Why the US should ban kinetic anti-satellite weapons
by Matthew Jenkins
|Through multilateral and multifaceted approaches, the US and the international community of interest could disincentivize the use of kinetic ASAT weapons by leveraging diplomatic and economic capabilities to garner global cooperation.|
After a 20-year respite, no ASAT firing occurred until 2007, when the world was shocked by an unexpected test to challenge American space supremacy. At 5:28 pm EST on January 11, 2007, China conducted a successful missile intercept of a functional meteorological satellite, signaling to America and the rest of the world China that could hold US space capabilities at risk. Through kinetic energy, China was able to strike the space vehicle at a relative velocity of more than 32,000 kilometers per hour. At hypervelocities such as this, there is no need for warheads or munitions: speed alone is sufficient to obliterate. The intercept was successful, and the impact was enduring. In an orbit used by most remote sensing systems and a large percentage of US intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites, the collision produced more than 32,000 small particles. Out of all the debris created, only 3,037 pieces were large enough to be tracked by space surveillance capabilities, making a significant risk of accidental collision. Debris can have a cascading effect whereby orbital debris collides with other space objects, which, in turn, creates new debris, thus initiating a chain reaction of more collisions and more debris. To confound the matter, the angle of intercept created a debris cloud that goes from as low as 175 kilometers to as high as 3,600 kilometers. Current estimates predict 79 percent of the debris will still be in orbit until the year 2108.
The large amounts of debris create navigational challenges and collision risks to all space assets, which have to be actively managed by spacefaring states as they attempt to send objects into orbit. It was not only reckless but provoked reciprocal displays in short order. On February 20, 2008, the US responded by launching a missile to intercept a malfunctioning US spy satellite, USA 193, providing a tangible demonstration of America’s ability to respond in kind. In contrast to China, the US operations team worked to ensure the altitude of the intercept pushed all the debris down into the Earth’s upper atmosphere, where increased atmospheric drag would guarantee most of the debris would reenter within 40 days of intercept.
This demonstration stood as the last major test for more than a decade until another nuclear power, threatened by the increased aggression of expansionist China, took the chance to demonstrate the ability to do the same. On March 27, 2019, India destroyed one of its low Earth-orbiting satellites. Many theories exist on why, but the prevailing one was that India felt the need to demonstrate to both China and Pakistan that it too possesses the capability to hold space assets at risk. Much like the US engagement, India selected a target at a much lower altitude allowing the debris to disintegrate in the Earth’s atmosphere within months.
With four countries now having demonstrated the capability to destroy satellites on-orbit, the next natural question becomes, is it legal? Several international laws prohibit weapons in space, yet none expressly forbid the use of kinetic ASATs. In January 1957, the US Ambassador to the United Nations petitioned to secure space’s peaceful use. Henry Cabot Lodge, addressing the UN General Assembly, implored that outer space’s future development would be devoted exclusively to peaceful and scientific purposes. In September of that year, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 1148(XII), which called for an inspection system that would ensure that “the sending of objects through outer space will be exclusively for peaceful and scientific purposes.” In 1958, the UN adopted Resolution 1348(XIII), “recognizing the common interests of mankind in outer space and recognizing that it is the common aim that outer space should be used for peaceful purposes only”.
|The United States and the world are still not resolved on any international agreement that would ban ASATs, and, as recent testing has proven, it would seem there is little appetite to move in that direction.|
Most importantly, UN Resolution 1348 established the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), laying the groundwork for the first international space treaty. In 1963, COPUOS submitted resolution 1962, named the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activates of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space.” This resolution continued to advocate for peaceful uses for space, but did no more than subsequent legislation to categorize what that term means. In the years that followed, the declaration played a large role in laying out the groundwork for the subsequent Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies. Signed on January 27, 1967, this treaty is widely known as the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967.
The OST is the first real attempt to hold stakeholders accountable for what they do in space. However, ambiguous definitions continue to challenge its practical use by nation states. Article VII stipulates that each state party to the treaty “that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space… is internationally liable for damage to another State party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons such object or its component parts on the earth, in air space, or in outer space.” It sets a useful baseline, yet like other attempts to establish norms in space, it still does not define what peaceful means. The OST’s vagueness allows for interpretations that permit military activities that can be defined as non-aggressive or defensive; in fact, except for stationing of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, all other forms of military activity are permitted in outer space.
In September 1972, the United Nations attempted to remedy these deficiencies by adopting the liability convention after fragments from a space object struck a Japanese cargo ship off Siberia’s coast, causing damage to the ship and injuring five sailors. The liability convention provided that a “launching State shall be absolutely liable to pay compensation for damage caused by its space objects on the surface of the earth or to aircraft in flight” and liable for damage in space due to its faults, “or faults of persons for whom it is responsible.” In 1975, COPUOS put forth the registration convention that called for all state parties to the resolution to register the objects they launch to ensure that the damaging party can be traced back to the registration. COPUOS designed the provisions to ease any tensions by requiring states to register the space object’s general function. The resolution was ratified in September of 1976 and included the requirement to disclose the general function but did not require any disclosure of alternate or ulterior functions for which it might be used.
Even with the requisite registration, the world is no closer to having any legal precedence that bans kinetic ASAT weapons. Forty-five years later, no legally binding legislation has followed. The United States and the world are still not resolved on any international agreement that would ban ASATs, and, as recent testing has proven, it would seem there is little appetite to move in that direction. This stagnation, and the fact that the United States has the most space-dependent economy, defense system, and way of life, is why the US must take the lead and ban the use of kinetic ASAT weapons.
The US can take several diplomatic avenues to more effectively advocate for the ban of kinetic ASAT weapons. First, the OST must be amended to include language explicitly banning kinetic ASAT weapons—any weapon that would use kinetic force and therefore create debris. The primary rationale for this distinction is that debris can have a cascading effect that creates more debris. This provision is a reasonable first step as it does not limit the use of ASATs writ large. States could still use non-kinetic ASAT technology, such as lasers or high-power microwave energy to disable a satellite temporarily or permanently. An intact disabled satellite is easy to track and avoid, resulting in a substantially lower risk posture. This distinction allows all spacefaring nations to act in defense while ensuring no indiscriminate collateral damage is caused by debris creation.
Next, states should be required to register all capabilities of a space asset. The Registration Convention, as amended, currently requires the due notification of launching of any space object into orbit or beyond by way of an entry in an appropriate registry maintained by the Secretary General of the UN. As part of this registry, and in accordance with Article IV(1)(e), the state of registry needs to furnish information about the general function of the space object apart from other essential details such as launching state, date, and location of the launch. As a result, states are only required to disclose the “general function” of their system and easily sidestep any conversations on alternative capabilities that might be at odds with the OST’s peaceful use of space provisos.
|The Accords offer a reinvigorated framework to focus America again on attempting to build out a definitional agreement on terms and start the journey to building robust TCBMs that will serve to build, over time, confidence in our cooperative use of the space domain.|
The Registration Convention needs updating to require both the general function and all other functions of objects traveling into or through outer space. With the improved knowledge of satellite uses, the international community is better postured to eliminate weapons that fail to conform to proportionality and discrimination conventions. This additional information would help ease any anxiety states may carry as to space objects’ alternative purposes. The United States has the most to gain in serving as a global leader in solidifying transparency in space operations and deescalating the risk of misinterpretation of space objects and space actions. While it is almost certain that some policy analysts would advise against such disclosures, if adhered to, they would provide states a more comprehensive knowledge of not just the day-to-day use of a satellite but also what it is capable of in the event of a kinetic conflict. Much like a show of force would work, knowing what capabilities a state has to defend itself would serve to temper rational actors and work to ensure the preservation of peaceful space operations. The Registration Convention makes it easier for all signatories to begin negotiations on more meaningful legislation to limit outer space weapons. Fortunately, there are already draft treaties in work.
Perhaps taking civil constructs and expanding them is a creative way to approach an old problem. The recently published Artemis Accords offer a framework for the US to leverage. Signed by nine states, the Artemis Accords are intended to establish a practical set of principles to guide space exploration cooperation among the signatory nations. The US must take the lead in working to create transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) not just among allied nations but all spacefaring nations. Though it is not a legally binding agreement in its current form, it includes sections that address numerous issues that have long plagued space’s formal normalization. Section three commits the signatories to use space for peaceful purposes and section four follows committing the signatories to transparency. It should go without saying, but transparency is the critical element for any internationally binding legislation for states. The Accords offer a reinvigorated framework to focus America again on attempting to build out a definitional agreement on terms and start the journey to building robust TCBMs that will serve to build, over time, confidence in our cooperative use of the space domain.
Another proposal is for the United States to reinvigorate the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) treaty. This treaty, jointly drafted in 2008 by Russia and China but failed to receive widespread support. The US, among other nations, dismissed it as fundamentally flawed. The primary problem was that it lacks verification methods and does not restrict the stockpiling and development of ASAT weapons on the ground. In 2012, US representatives said they are willing to consider space arms control proposals and concepts that are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the United States, partners, and allies’ national security. That said, and keeping in mind that the overarching objective of the PPWT is to ban weapons in space—includes space-based ASATs but not direct-ascent ones—it can provide a framework to begin the conversation anew. The elimination of kinetic ASATs would unequivocally enhance the United States’ national security, which should be motivation enough to reinvigorate serious discussions about a treaty that would be in the United States’ best interest. Assuming verification is possible, ratification of the PPWT is a tangible way for the US and all signatories to progress towards banning kinetic ASAT weapons.
The final consideration for diplomatic initiatives is a managing body for the effort to enforce and verify the restriction against kinetic ASATs. While the US should lead the way, an international, non-partisan body should play the governing role. The UN has a long history of facilitating space legislation and a wealth of knowledge from which to draw. Additionally, all states who possess ASATs are already members of the international organization, making arbitration much easier. An outer space council or something analogous would oversee the registry, litigate discrepancies for damages/liabilities, and work with all states to provide legal avenues for space-based disagreements. This body could also work to garner new diplomatic agreements that would further guard all parties’ interests. The council could reconsider the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty that once existed before the US unilaterally withdrew in 2002. Even if not the ABM treaty specifically, a non-partisan organization that works to prevent the placement or use of kinetic ASAT weapons in space not only is in the best interest of the United States but all states who have a vested interest in using space-based capabilities for their economies and terrestrial military operations.
The United States is uniquely suited to leverage economic incentives to increase participation in any treaty that eliminates kinetic ASAT weapons. The US possesses the second-largest export economy globally, moving just over $1.6 trillion in 2019. In 2020, two of the other three ASAT nations are in the top 15 for import/export relationships with the United States. The fact that the US already has strong economic ties forms a foundation for potential growth in economic cooperation between existing ASAT possessing states. Further, it offers a healthy balance of economic influence for remaining states who would seek access to the same financial resources. Alternatively, withholding trade would be an economic tool the US and other state signatories to the treaty could leverage to ensure responsible space use by all states. Though trade may be a useful tool, it is not the only economic one available for parties to the treaty.
|With more than 2,000 active and over 3,000 non-active satellites in orbit today, the time is right to truly focus on how best to remove junk from valuable orbital space.|
The current global space economy is valued at $423.8 billion and is estimated to grow to more than $1 trillion by 2040; providing states access to this market could serve as another incentive to eliminate kinetic ASAT weapons. The proliferation of low-cost launch options may spur new states to access space-based capabilities they had not previously thought possible. Through cooperative agreements, the United States could offer rideshare opportunities to countries looking to obtain the prestige of “spacefaring states” by launching smaller satellites along with US satellites. By removing what has historically been a barrier to entry, the United States and other launch service providers afford more nations equity in the space game. This option should be encouraged by the United States and all parties to the amended treaties to inspire responsible use of space by more nations who will bear a personal interest in its continued tranquility.
Another aspect that can be appealing and should be an incentive to participate in the ban is the proliferation of space-based, low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity that will provide Internet access to underserved markets worldwide. SpaceX hopes to generate $30–50 billion annually through the launch of more than 42,000 satellites in their Starlink service, while Amazon’s Project Kuiper will place 3,236 satellites into orbit with the opportunity to generate more than $100 billion in revenue. These are just two real initiatives that, if harnessed, represent employment, supply chain, and logistics opportunities for all partner nations who would choose to engage in space commerce. However, it presents another unique challenge. We are talking about more than 45,000 new (and relatively small) satellites between the two satellite constellations. This increase in numbers will create an even more congested operating environment and represent an increased risk of collateral damage should a state resort to kinetic ASAT weapons. The global space economy is uniquely postured to bring all nations’ collective scientific communities together to address this problem. The US must lead the way to ensure we can identify, collect, and dispose of orbital space debris to protect the United States’ national security interests.
With more than 2,000 active and over 3,000 non-active satellites in orbit today, the time is right to truly focus on how best to remove junk from valuable orbital space. Though dated, advanced modeling in 2013 suggested that even if every state correctly complied with stationkeeping regulations and no explosions happened, eventually there would be an expected collision every five to nine years. Through international cooperation with other nations’s space agencies, the US should champion the development and fielding of technological capabilities that would reduce debris in critical orbital regimes and ensure the utility of them for years to come.
Other space agencies have recognized the urgency and are taking action. In 2019, the European Space Agency commissioned the first mission with the sole purpose of space debris removal, ClearSpace-1. Banning kinetic ASAT weapons and championing debris removal represent two tangible ways the United States can show its commitment to a safer space operating environment. If enough debris is left in orbit, it would create a cascading effect of more collisions, ultimately rendering many orbital regimes unusable. If this should happen, one cannot overstate the socio-economic impacts.
There is an imperative that offers a unique opportunity for all of humanity to stand behind this initiative as the right thing, regardless of nationality. Debris removal initiatives benefit all spacefaring nations by ensuring that debris can be removed safely without risk to other satellites. A globally developed debris removal concept of operations would serve as a useful housekeeping capability that the world desperately needs if we are to continue to leverage space for the global economy, precision timing and navigation, space communications, and military intelligence purposes.
The use of kinetic ASATs is not a threat to the American way of life but rather to the entire world. The fact that the US enjoys a particular advantage with space-based capabilities is the precise reason the United States should champion the elimination of these weapons to protect our military capabilities and our way of life. By advocating for amendments to existing legislation, the US can show it is committed to this cause and willing to do what is necessary to ensure the continued peaceful use of space. By being more transparent through registration, all parties stand to be more informed and less anxious about what a specific launch might mean for their security.
The global space economy is growing and provides potential employment in manufacturing, logistics, and science from which all parties can collectively benefit. In particular, the opportunity to bolster the nascent space debris removal field is ripe for cooperation and practically demands the United States’ attention. If the US is a liberal hegemon, it must set an example of a responsible spacefaring nation. This responsibility begins by ensuring the United States will minimize debris to the maximum extent possible. If debris is created, the US must be committed to its removal. Other states are not likely to participate if we use words alone; we must use our actions. While kinetic ASATs might provide a deterrent, it has not been proven to be an effective one. Instead, kinetic ASATs create an unnecessary risk to not only our allied capabilities but our own. The United States is in the best position to lead this effort, and it is, without question, in our national interest to ensure we can continue to use space peacefully.Endnotes
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