Three More Countries Join Pledge Against Destructive ASAT Tests

Three More Countries Join Pledge Against Destructive ASAT Tests

With little fanfare, three more countries recently joined the U.S.-led pledge not to conduct destructive antisatellite tests in space. The Netherlands, Austria and Italy bring the total to 13 countries who have agreed to avoid ASAT tests that leave hundreds or thousands of pieces of space debris in their wake, threatening not only satellites, but the International Space Station.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaking at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Califonia, April 18, 2022. Screengrab.

Vice President Kamala Harris, as chair of the White House National Space Council, announced the United States would not conduct debris-generating direct-ascent ASAT tests almost exactly one year ago. She urged other countries to join the pledge and nine more did by the end of the year: Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Australia, Switzerland and France.

In the last six weeks, three more joined:

  • The Netherlands on February 27
  • Austria on March 3
  • Italy on April 6

The Secure World Foundation calls it “an excellent step forward in preserving the space environment for all.”

Testing of ASAT weapons may increase the likelihood that governments may actually use those weapons in a conflict situation and thus damage the stability and predictability of space operations in Earth orbit. The continued testing, demonstration, or use of destructive antisatellite capabilities, including the targeting of one own’s space objects, is an unsustainable, irresponsible, and destabilizing activity in space in which no responsible spacefaring state should engage. — Secure World Foundation

Harris’s action last year followed a Russian ASAT test on November 15, 2021 against one of its own satellites, Kosmos 1408, that created more than 1,500 pieces of debris. Not only does debris create risks of collisions that could damage or destroy other satellites and generate yet more debris, but some of the pieces imperiled the seven people aboard the International Space Station, including two Russian cosmonauts. They were required to shelter inside their Soyuz and Crew Dragon spacecraft for about a day in case they had to make an emergency return to Earth.  NASA estimates the debris risk to the ISS doubled because of the Russian ASAT test.

ISS operations continue to be impacted even now when the station’s orbit must be altered to avoid remaining pieces of that debris. The Secure World Foundation maintains a spreadsheet of all ASAT tests, the debris that was created, and how many pieces remain. As of February 22, 2023, 300 of the 1,790 pieces of debris from Kosmos 1408 are still in orbit.

In a February 27 statement to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD), H.E. Wopke Hoekstra, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, said “it’s our duty to preserve outer space as humanity’s common heritage.”

“As a concrete step in this direction, the Netherlands commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests from this moment on.

“If we don’t take action now, future generations will reap the consequences of our inaction.” — H.E. Wopke Hoekstra, The Netherlands

A month later on March 30, Désirée Schweitzer, Austria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva, told the CD that “Safeguarding the safe, responsible and peaceful use of outer space must therefore be of utmost priority for the international community.”

“Austria considers the risks and consequences associated with destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests as unacceptable. Firstly, the creation of space debris hinders space activities and reduces access to space. Secondly, possible threats or irresponsible behaviour regarding such tests could lead to escalation due to misunderstanding, misinterpretation or miscalculation. …

“In light of these considerations, Austria commits not to conduct destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing. Austria has also never developed any capacities to do so.” — Désirée Schweitzer, Austria

Last Thursday, Antonio Tajani, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, said “Italy is committed to not conducting destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests.”

“Italy will continue to work actively and constructively to increase the safety and sustainability of outer space, a common good that is very important for the vital interests of all nations. In this extremely important sector, we stand side by side with our main Atlantic and Western partners to support and strengthen a rules-based and conflict-free international order for space activities.” — Antonio Tajani, Italy

In addition to these specific pledges, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a similar resolution in December 2022 by a vote of 155-9 with 9 abstentions. Of the four countries that have conducted debris-generating direct-ascent ASAT tests — the United States, Russia, China and India — only the United States voted in favor of the resolution, however.

The pledge is very narrow. It does not prohibit development of ASAT systems or testing them, only testing them in a manner that creates space debris. Tests instead can be against a point in space, for example.

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