Japan and Germany Join U.S. Pledge Against KE-ASAT Tests

Japan and Germany Join U.S. Pledge Against KE-ASAT Tests

Japan and Germany are joining the U.S. pledge, announced in April, against conducting direct-ascent kinetic energy antisatellite tests that create orbital debris. Canada and New Zealand are the only other countries to adopt the ban so far, but the Biden Administration is working through the United Nations to convince others to sign on.

Vice President Kamala Harris pledges that the United States will not conduct destructive direct-ascent kinetic-energy antisatellite tests. Vandenberg Space Force Base, April 18, 2022. Screengrab.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the White House National Space Council, made the pledge on behalf of the United States on April 18, five months after Russia’s November 15, 2021 ASAT test against one of its own satellites that produced thousands of pieces of debris.

The International Space Station was among the space objects imperiled by the debris.  Its seven occupants, including two Russian cosmonauts, had to shelter in their Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft for a day in case they had to make an emergency return to Earth. The risk of the ISS encountering space debris has doubled since the test.

During a Space Council meeting on December 1, 2021, DOD Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks said DOD would like to see all countries refrain from debris-generating direct-ascent ASAT tests. Harris’s April 18, 2022 speech made that U.S. policy.

The United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, China and India are the only countries to have conducted these types of debris-generating tests.

ASAT weapons are not prohibited by any of the space treaties and the United States isn’t promising it will not develop, test or use such weapons. The pledge is only not to test direct-ascent kinetic-energy weapons that destroy their targets through impact in a manner that creates space debris.

Direct-ascent kinetic-energy ASATs can be and have been tested against points in space rather than actually hitting a satellite. Several other “counterspace” methods also are available to prevent an adversary’s satellite from functioning, such as jamming it with radio frequencies or blinding it with a ground-based laser. The pledge does not affect any of that.

The problem is space debris, which imperils everyone’s satellites. Ensuring that the space environment does not become so clogged with debris that it is unusable for future generations has been debated for a long time. It took 11 years for the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to negotiate a set of principles on Long Term Sustainability (LTS) of Outer Space Activities that were adopted by consensus in 2019, but that did not deter Russia from conducting its destructive ASAT test in 2021.

The Expedition 66 crew was aboard the ISS when Russia conducted its November 15, 2021 ASAT test: L-R: Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Thomas Marshburn (NASA), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Raja Chari (NASA), Mark Vande Hei (NASA), Kayla Barron (NASA), Matthias Maurer (ESA). They had to take shelter in their Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft in case debris penetrated the ISS and they had to make an emergency return to Earth.

Japan and Germany announced their decision to join the U.S. ban yesterday and today during a meeting of the U.N. Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Reducing Space Threats in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Japanese government made its pledge at the OEWG meeting yesterday and issued a press release today. The German goverment made the commitment today.

Other countries may join during this week’s meeting, which runs through Friday, but the United States also plans to take it up through other U.N. channels.

At a Space Council meeting last Friday, Harris said “later this month, the United States will introduce a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly to call on other nations to make the same commitment.” State Department Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Monica Medina told the Council that her colleague, Mallory Stewart, Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, will have “extensive consultations” to ensure the resolution is “adopted with the broadest possible support.”

The United States wants all countries to join the pledge whether or not they have any plans to develop KE-ASAT weapons. Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Germany do not.

Harris said on April 18: “I call on all nations to join us. Whether a nation is spacefaring or not, we believe this will benefit everyone, just as space benefits everyone.”

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