One Giant Leap: U.S. Limits on Anti-Satellite Tests Can Strengthen Space Security

One Giant Leap: U.S. Limits on Anti-Satellite Tests Can Strengthen Space Security

Since the United States has not carried out any debris-producing anti-satellite activities since 2008, Washington is, in effect, transforming a tacit U.S. policy into a formal one.

During an April 18 visit to Vandenberg Space Force Base, Vice President Kamala Harris unexpectedly announced that the United States “commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing.” Invoking American leadership in establishing responsible norms of behavior in space, she went on to say that the United States is the first country to make such a commitment. This declaration comes only months after Russia conducted an anti-satellite weapons test that involved the destruction of one of its own satellites and generated debris that forced astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station to shelter in place.

The U.S. commitment is narrow in scope, only pledging to not carry out destructive tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite platforms. This ban covers missiles launched from air, land, and sea that physically destroy a satellite. According to the U.S. intelligence community, Russia and China are, however, developing a wide range of weapons aimed at degrading and destroying space systems, including ground- and space-based anti-satellite weapons, electronic warfare, cyber tools, and directed-energy capabilities. Direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles are, therefore, just one category within a much larger group of counter-space systems.

Since the United States and its allies and partners are heavily dependent on space systems, it is only natural to ask why the boundaries of the U.S. pledge are so narrow. Historically, negotiations concerning anti-satellite bans have been unsuccessful due to divergent definitions of what constitutes an anti-satellite weapon, the entanglement between anti-satellite and missile defense technologies, and concerns about verification. Focusing on eliminating destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons testing circumvents these complexities and immediately promotes a more stable and sustainable space environment by limiting debris that is a hazard to all space operators. Importantly, debris created by these tests is detectable and trackable, meaning that a pledge to not carry out such tests is indeed verifiable. 

The vice president’s announcement might appear to be a response to very recent space security developments, but it is rooted in a long history of space arms control negotiations. In 1967, the United States and the Soviet Union, along with many other nations, signed the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space, among other stipulations, but does not limit the deployment of non-nuclear space weapons. The landmark arms control agreements of the détente era that grew out of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks included a provision that the signatories would not interfere with each other’s “national technical means” of verification, which included reconnaissance satellites used to monitor treaty compliance. The now-defunct 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty specifically forbade the testing and deployment of space-based missile defense.

As superpower détente crumbled in the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union intensified its testing of anti-satellite technologies, and President Gerald Ford approved the development of an American anti-satellite program. Ford had concluded that “treating space as a sanctuary” was against the national interest. This shift towards a more militarized space policy was not driven primarily by Soviet anti-satellite actions, but rather was due to the recognition that the Soviet Union would increasingly integrate satellites into tactical operations, largely for precision targeting, and that the United States, therefore, needed to be able to deny Moscow access to space in wartime.

President Jimmy Carter attempted to salvage détente and secure a new nuclear arms control agreement with Moscow. This effort involved discussions with the Soviet Union aimed at eliminating anti-satellite weapons. Negotiators from both sides disagreed on a number of issues; for one example, the Soviets considered the American space shuttle a weapon and wanted it included in a ban, which the United States refused. Due to a lack of progress toward anti-satellite disarmament, Carter modified U.S. objectives to instead focus on securing a moratorium on anti-satellite weapons tests rather than completely banning them. Anti-satellite talks halted, however, after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  

President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a program dedicated to developing land- and space-based missile defense technologies, intensified discussions about the limits of military activities in space. In contrast to the late 1970s, Soviet leaders wanted to ban what they called “space-strike weapons,” which included both anti-satellite weapons and space-based missile defenses. Since anti-satellite weapons and space-based missile defenses were dependent on many of the same technologies, the U.S. government consistently rejected Soviet space arms control proposals. The entanglement of anti-satellite and missile defense technologies would continue to shape space security in the post-Cold War era.  

In the twenty-first century, the United States, China, Russia, and India have demonstrated the ability to attack satellites in orbit. In 2008, the United States carried out Operation Burnt Frost, which entailed the use of a sea-based SM-3 missile defense interceptor to destroy a malfunctioning American satellite shortly before it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. Even though the head of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Admiral John Hill, recently referred to the SM-3 as a “space weapon,” the system is not a dedicated anti-satellite weapons platform. Regardless, any exo-atmospheric missile defense system has latent anti-satellite capabilities. Consequently, a number of other countries could join the anti-satellite weapons club. In 2009, for example, Israeli defense experts alluded to adapting their Arrow 3 missile defense system for an anti-satellite role if needed.

Some might question whether the United States’ move to stop destructive anti-satellite weapons testing somehow hamstrings American national security and defense. The short answer is that it actually enhances U.S. national security. At present, the United States does not maintain dedicated direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons, and this new commitment does not prevent the testing of missile defense interceptors. Since the United States has not carried out any debris-producing anti-satellite activities since 2008, Washington is, in effect, transforming a tacit U.S. policy into a formal one. The American pledge further supports U.S. national security priorities by promoting a behavioral norm aimed at limiting debris that threatens satellites involved in a wide variety of civil, intelligence, and military functions.

The international response to the vice president’s speech has been mostly positive. Many U.S. allies have endorsed it, and even Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said that it is “a step in the right direction.” In contrast, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Weng Wenbin said that Beijing hopes that the United States will “stop the hypocritical practice of expanding its military superiority under the pretext of arms control.” In these circumstances, it is difficult to predict whether substantive progress will be made at the upcoming United Nations Open Ended Working Group on space, but the U.S. announcement adds much-needed urgency to the international conversation concerning responsible norms of behavior in space after decades of unsuccessful talks.

Destructive anti-satellite weapons testing aside, Washington, Beijing, and Moscow should discuss comprehensive constraints on interference with satellites used for nuclear command and control. In addition to physical destruction, cyberattacks, jamming, or using a laser to “dazzle” the optics of a nuclear early warning satellite could all lead to nuclear escalation, especially in times of heightened tensions. The concern about the relationship between attacks on space-based nuclear command and control and nuclear stability was raised by British and American national security officials in the 1970s, but no formal effort has been made to actually define “interference” and create safeguards against it. Especially because of the nuclear-space relationship, there is a need for more communication on space security between Russia, China, and the United States. To this end, establishing a space crisis hotline as a risk-reduction measure would be prudent.

In the meantime, should Beijing, Moscow, or any other spacefaring nation decide not to follow the American example regarding destructive anti-satellite testing, the United States could lead the way in creating costs for this kind of activity. If any state conducts anti-satellite tests that generate debris in the future, the United States can work with other countries to impose economic sanctions on the culprit whether or not there is a formal international agreement prohibiting such tests. Even though it is limited in scope, this new U.S. policy on anti-satellite testing is a giant leap for space security and sustainability.

Beginning this summer, Aaron Bateman will be an assistant professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and an affiliate of the Space Policy Institute. He received his PhD in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University. Prior to graduate school, he served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. You can follow him on Twitter: @aaronbateman22

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the policy or position of any institutions with which he is affiliated.

Image: DVIDS.