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To Slow an Anti-Satellite Arms Race, White House Bans U.S. Tests of Space Weapons

7 minute read

Seeking to slow the emerging space arms race among world powers, the Biden Administration on Monday announced a unilateral moratorium on anti-satellite missile tests, calling on other space-faring nations to follow suit.

Vice President Kamala Harris announced the U.S. prohibition after high-profile tests in recent years by Russia, China and India that obliterated orbiting satellites and created hazardous clouds of debris that will linger in outer space for decades. “Simply put, these tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them,” she said during a speech from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. “We are the first nation to make such a commitment.”

The risk of human conflict extending into the cosmos is on the rise as the world has become ever more reliant upon satellites to communicate, navigate, and conduct daily life. More nations, militaries and private companies have taken advantage of novel space technologies in recent years, resulting in more capabilities here on Earth but more competition in the heavens among global powers.

Anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons testing goes back to the earliest days of the Cold War. Over the past decade, however, the U.S., Russia and China have developed sophisticated anti-satellite arsenals designed to render satellites deaf, mute and blind in space. Missiles may be the most widely known space weapon, but several nations have developed other measures including lasers, jamming capabilities, cyber-attacks and maneuverable spacecraft designed to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy other nations’ space systems.

Read more: America Really Does Have a Space Force. We Went Inside to See What It Does.

Despite these advancements, there are few enforceable rules for military action in space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids countries from deploying “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in space. But that language is broad, space experts and arms–control analysts say, and could not foresee the rapid pace of technology now in development. Reining in the proliferation of such weaponry is essential, they say, to avoiding an international catastrophe—either intentional or accidental.

Unlike during the Cold War, when the U.S. and Russia established numerous treaties and agreements to limit the size and capabilities of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, there has been little movement on space weapon diplomacy. The Biden Administration is hoping that by declaring a self-imposed ban on debris-generating ASAT missile tests, other nations will follow. “Our commitment today is just one step,” Harris said. “Our administration has already begun to establish a broader and comprehensive set of norms.”

The U.S., Russia and China have at times indicated a willingness to develop norms of behavior and ideas about what are (and what aren’t) responsible actions in orbit, but there are challenges. Defining a “space weapon” under law is difficult and verifying that an object is or is not a weapon is even harder once it has been launched into space.

The U.S. has tried for years to advance the so-called “Artemis Accords,” which aim to establish standards for safe behavior in space. Thus far, just 18 countries, all of which are U.S.-allies, have signed on. “We will remain focused on writing new rules of the road to ensure all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful and sustainable manner,” Harris said.

Victoria Samson, a space security expert with the Secure World Foundation, says the U.S. declaration of a self-imposed ban on testing such weapons should boost next month’s United Nations-led discussions in Geneva on space issues. “This is a first step but a very positive one, as it indicates that the U.S. recognizes that there is a need for restricted freedom of action in space as part of a cost-benefit analysis of what we will get in return—increased stability and predictability, particularly if other countries join the U.S. in this commitment,” she said.

The Defense Intelligence Agency released an unclassified report last week that detailed China and Russia’s increased number of satellite launches as well as improvements to their military space capabilities.

On Nov. 15, 2021, the Russian military conducted an ASAT test that underscored the vulnerability of objects in space. A ground-launched missile blew apart a Soviet-era intelligence satellite called Cosmos-1408 that had been defunct for years. The explosion scattered more than 1,600 pieces of the satellite. As the cloud of space garbage spread, American, German and Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station were instructed to pull on their space suits and take shelter in preparation for a possible impact.

Luckily, the debris never came close and the astronauts remained safe, but the event highlighted the dangers posed by ASAT tests. Objects in space travel up to 17,500 miles per hour, which means that a fragment as small as a tennis ball could prove catastrophic to the space station and satellites that are vital to the global economy, military infrastructure and modern life.

“Even if international and national guidelines were made legally binding, mitigation thresholds were made more stringent, or if compliance were even close to 100%, there would still be a formidable debris problem from the remnants of the first 63 years of space operations,” the recently released DIA report says.

Space junk is an enduring problem. China demonstrated an ASAT–missile capability in 2007 when it blasted one of its old weather satellites apart, creating a cloud of more than 2,800 pieces of space debris—a tipping point that arguably started the space arms race unfolding today.

The last time the U.S. launched a ground-to-space missile was in 2008, when the Navy launched an interceptor from the USS Lake Erie and blew apart a failing spy satellite that was tumbling back to Earth in an uncontrolled reentry. The satellite, USA-193, had to be destroyed because it was full of toxic chemicals for humans back on Earth, U.S. military officials said.

In March 2019, India tested its ASAT system, destroying its own spacecraft. It proudly proclaimed that it had joined the “elite club of space powers.” Other nations such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan have demonstrated space-weapon capabilities or a desire to expand them.

Until recently, space was seen as a peaceful domain. Many satellites, like the GPS constellation, were thought to be too far away and too costly to target. But growing missile technology and arsenals have brought them in range. This new reality is a prime driver behind the creation of the Space Force as a new uniformed service of the U.S. military in 2019.

And while the U.S.-Russian partnership in space traditionally transcended terrestrial political tensions, even during the Cold War, Russia’s unprovoked invasion into Ukraine has raised tensions between the two countries’ space programs. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space program, has threatened to pull out of the International Space Station and stop supplying rocket engines to U.S. companies.

Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington is giving up very little by banning ASAT tests because the weapons “do more harm than good,” for the United States. “It also takes away a key talking point used by Russia and China to justify their continued development and testing of ASAT weapons,” he said. “This move puts the United States back in the position of leading by example. It demonstrates to our allies, partners, and adversaries alike that we take the sustainability of the space domain seriously and are willing to move first.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com