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Harris at Vandenberg
Vice President Kamala Harris announced the ban on ASAT testing in an April 18 speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base. (credit: US Space Force photo by Michael Peterson)

A small ban of ASATs, a giant leap for space security?

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When the office of Vice President Kamala Harris announced earlier this month she would visit Vandenberg Space Force Base in California and given remarks there, it appeared at first to be a routine visit, an opportunity to visit the base while in her home state. It might also be a reminder of her role as chair of the National Space Council, which has kept a low profile in the current administration since a public meeting in early December (see “A Biden space policy takes shape”, The Space Review, December 6, 2021).

“We are the first nation to make such a commitment. And today, on behalf of the United States of America, I call on all nations to join us,” Harris said.

However, Harris did use the brief speech last Monday at Vandenberg to make a policy announcement. She couched the announcement in a broader discussion of international norms and rules that she said Russia had “completely violated” with its invasion of Ukraine. “In the face of Russian brutality, the world has come together to say these roles and these rules and norms must be upheld,” she said.

Those norms, she said, should be extended to space. “I believe without clear norms, we face unnecessary risks in space,” she said. “We must write the new rules of road. And we will lead by example.”

She then offered that example. “I am pleased to announce that as of today, the United States commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing. Simply put: These tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them.”

The announcement, at one level, was not particularly surprising. At the National Space Council meeting in December, Harris criticized Russia for its ASAT test the previous month that created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, criticism she reiterated in the Vandenberg speech. At that council meeting, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said that the Pentagon “would like to see all nations agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris.”

For the US, the ban has little practical impact. The US last tested a direct-ascent ASAT in 2008, when a converted ship-based missile hit USA 193, a spy satellite that apparently malfunctioned after its launch more than a year earlier (see “Burning Frost, the view from the ground: shooting down a spy satellite in 2008”, The Space Review, June 21, 2021.) There were no announced plans by the US for similar tests, and certainly none that would create hazardous debris.

Why, then, ban the testing of a weapon you have no plans to test? To set an example for others to follow, Harris argued. “We are the first nation to make such a commitment. And today, on behalf of the United States of America, I call on all nations to join us,” she said. “In the days and months ahead, we will work with other nations to establish this as a new international norm for responsible behavior in space.”

In the administration and among some in Congress, the ASAT testing ban won praise. “There is no doubt that human spaceflight and the future of the space environment are incompatible with destructive direct-ascent ASAT missile tests,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the day after the vice president’s speech. “Vice President Harris and the Biden Administration’s leadership to address these threats and reduce risk is an important step forward to foster a safe, sustainable space environment—now and into the future. I encourage the world to join us in making this important commitment.”

“An American commitment to not conduct ASAT tests creates a false equivalence between our carefully calibrated behavior in space and the reckless actions of China and Russia,” said Lamborn.

“Ensuring the safety of the space environment must be a shared commitment,” said Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Don Beyer (D-VA), chairs of the House Science Committee and its space subcommittee respectively, in a statement. “Being a leader is modeling the behavior we seek others to emulate, and we commend the Biden-Harris Administration’s leadership in working toward establishing international norms for responsible and peaceful behavior in space.”

Not everyone in Congress agreed, though. “The unilateral, voluntary, and completely unnecessary commitment to not conduct antisatellite missile tests does nothing to secure American interests in space,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee. “An American commitment to not conduct ASAT tests creates a false equivalence between our carefully calibrated behavior in space and the reckless actions of China and Russia.”

His views, though, were in the minority among experts in the space security community. They saw any commitment by a country not to conduct destructive ASAT testing as a key step forward, especially when that comes from a country whose decision may help get the ball rolling on a broader norm of behavior.

“In the past few years, it’s been interesting to see the US position evolve, really,” said Bleddyn Bowen of the University of Leicester during a panel discussion last Thursday by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). He noted that, in the past, the US had objected to proposals by China and Russia for a treaty known as PPWT that would prohibit the placement of weapons in outer space, but had done little to offer an alternative.

“It seems like the United States has realized that it can’t not engage with the PPWT in the Conference on Disarmament, but not do anything, or not be seen to be doing anything, regarding norms or soft law or trying to do something else in terms of space governance and addressing space security issues,” he said. He approved of the US announcement, but called it “quite a modest move.”

The timing of the ASAT ban is not accidental. It comes just a few weeks before first meeting of a UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) established by the General Assembly last year to examine ways to reduce space threats, like debris from ASAT tests. The meeting, scheduled for the week of May 9 in Geneva, is the first of four planned through next year where nations and other organizations will meet to offer their perspectives on key issues and approaches that could lead to norms and rules of behavior.

“The timing of our announcement by the vice president on Monday is meant to spur a meaningful discussion in the Open-Ended Working Group, as we view this as an important tool in our efforts to multilateralize this commitment,” said Eric Desautels, acting assistant deputy of state for arms control, verification and compliance, during the BASIC webinar. “Having our own proposal at the OEWG of a norm of responsible behavior will allow the United States to demonstrate our leadership in this area and to drive a conversation in a way that supports our position and doesn’t undermine US and allied security in the face of what surely will be competing proposals.”

Others at the event agreed. “Hopefully, with the US announcement, this may give some shape and some consideration and give the delegates a starting point for discussion” at the OEWG, said Victoria Samson, Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation. “Whether or not there is consensus out of the OEWG, I think it’s very helpful to have these discussions to get the international community on the same page for what they see as responsible behavior.”

A key factor will be the ability achieve consensus on destructive ASAT testing or anything else. “A challenge for everyone involved in the process is to try to keep it inclusive and multilateral as much as possible,” Bowen said. “Phrases like ‘US leadership’ has to be quite carefully managed because it is meant to be a multilateral effort.”

“I think we still need to aim for consensus at the working group,” said West. “I think we have to hold ourselves to a high standard, because if we’re not aiming for it, we certainly won’t get there.”

An example of that problem, he said, was the failed efforts by the European Union to develop a “code of conduct” for space activities in the 2010s. The EU put the document forward but with little advance coordination, and the document failed to win widespread support. “The EU’s proposals had a lot of good stuff in there, but it wasn’t presented and handled in diplomatically the right way.”

Consensus has been a challenge at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the forum previously used for space security discussions, Samson noted. “It has not been able to reach consensus on an agenda, much less the topics being discussed, for decades now,” she said.

But for many outside the West, though, the CD and the need for consensus still hold strong, argued Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation in India. “This could continue to impede progress on all arms control initiatives, including space security,” she said.

Non-Western countries, she added, also tended to prefer legally binding treaties versus non-binding agreements, like rules of the road and norms of behavior. “Somehow, the whole assumption is that, once you have a legally binding mechanism, it’s a magic mantra that’s going to solve all your problems,” she said.

The need for consensus “has been used to block progress in other forums,” said Jessica West, senior researcher at Ploughshares Canada. “But I think we still need to aim for consensus at the working group. I think we have to hold ourselves to a high standard, because if we’re not aiming for it, we certainly won’t get there.”

She said the UN working group should build on existing norms and laws, something that would accommodate something like an ASAT testing ban. “You see the value of that approach when you see the positive reactions to efforts to ban destructive antisatellite tests, because it builds on, resonates, with the prevailing principle of sustainability in space and it builds on existing commitments.”

A ban on destructive direct-ascent ASAT testing is unlikely to be the only topic at the first OEWG meeting. “While we think it is important to take a first step to address the most pressing threat, we think the OEWG is an excellent forum for developing concepts to address some of these other threats,” Desautels said. Issues he specifically mentioned include enhancing communications among space actors, developing best practices for “safe and professional” operations of national security spacecraft to avoid collisions or harmful interference, avoiding “purposeful interference” with satellite command and control systems, and avoiding simulating ASAT tests “in the direction of, or in close proximity to, another state’s satellites.”

That’s a lot for a forum known for deliberative activities to take up over two years. However, there’s nothing stopping other nations now from making similar commitments to the United States to ban ASAT tests, creating norms of behavior outside the UN framework that might gain momentum, or even help support the UN process.

Meanwhile, companies and governments continue to deal with the aftereffects of past ASAT tests. On Saturday, a Progress cargo spacecraft fired its thrusters for more than 10 minutes, boosting the International Space Station’s orbit by about two kilometers. While NASA said this was a maneuver to set up the station for future spacecraft arrivals, the timing was linked by a potential close approach by a piece of debris. While the conjunction went “green,” a NASA spokesperson said, meaning it no longer posed a threat, controllers went ahead with the maneuver.

The object in question, with the NORAD ID of 51157, was a piece of debris from November’s Russian ASAT demonstration that destroyed the Cosmos 1408 satellite.

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