JUST IN: Officials Hope China, Russia Answer Call to Ban Anti-Satellite Tests

By Shreeya Aranake

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Space is an increasingly contested and weaponized domain, which is why the United States is seeking to establish international norms through a recent decision not to conduct anti-satellite tests, according to a senior Defense Department official.

Two recent studies  — the Center for Strategic and International Studies' "Space Threat Assessment 2022," and the Secure World Foundation's "Global Counterspace Capabilities Report"  — warn that growing counterspace capabilities, particularly by China and Russia, threaten U.S. national security.

“Given the increased tension with Russia and China, we hope that advancing shared understandings of norms and responsible behaviors can also enable risk reduction measures and enhance stability and reduce uncertainty,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space and Missile Defense Policy John Hill during a discussion hosted by CSIS April 20.

Vice President Kamala Harris April 18 announced the Biden administration’s decision to not conduct kinetic anti-satellite tests that create debris fields. The United States is seeking to establish international norms to reduce chances of conflict in orbit, she said.

The Biden administration policy has several aims, said Hill: limit the creation of new orbital debris beyond what is generated through normal operations; align with existing U.S. space arms policy; communicate clear expectations to the international community; and preserve U.S. national security interests.

The United States will continue its commitment to banning kinetic anti-satellite tests in part through an “open ended working group” to make recommendations on norms and rules relating to space threats and prevent an arms race in outer space, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Emerging Security Challenges Eric Desautels said.

Russia conducted the most recent kinetic anti-satellite test on Nov. 15 when it destroyed one of its own defunct spacecraft, and left some 1,500 trackable pieces of debris in low-Earth orbit. China conducted a similar test in 2007, which left a debris field that is still circling the globe today.

The United States brought down one of its own non-functioning satellites the following year, although it was in a lower orbit and the missile’s trajectory pushed the resulting debris field downwards where it burned up in the atmosphere. Defense Department officials at the time denied that it was a test and stated that it was destroyed for safety reasons. It carried a toxic chemical onboard.

There are two approaches the U.S. can take to “multilateralize” the commitment, Desautels continued.

The first would be through a non-binding UN resolution calling on states to refrain from destructive anti-satellite tests, he said. “Such a UN resolution would allow countries to go on record regarding their support, creating that shared agreement among the majority of UN member states, while increasing political pressure on plans for future destructive ASAT missile tests.”

“We could also consider making this into a legally binding arms control agreement, though I view that as a much longer term effort,” Hill said.

Panelists respresenting the Secure World Foundation and the CSIS' Aerospace Security Project also expressed concerns about China’s “ascension” in space and supported the administration’s decision to refrain from conducting the tests.

“The ASAT test ban is a wonderful place to start; there are kind of these low hanging fruit policy choices that we can say ourselves and get some attention on,” said Makena Young, an associate fellow at CSIS' Aerospace Security Project. China and Russia are both aware that such tests create debris fields and that the U.S. military has the same anti-satellite capabilities, she said.

“They want to steer away from an eye for an eye situation,” she added.

Topics: Space

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