Time for a Unilateral U.S. Moratorium on Debris-Generating KE-ASAT Tests?

Time for a Unilateral U.S. Moratorium on Debris-Generating KE-ASAT Tests?

On the 15th anniversary of the Chinese antisatellite test that cluttered Earth orbit with debris, a group of national security space experts is proposing that the United States unilaterally declare a moratorium on such testing. Narrowly tailored to limit only debris-generating kinetic-energy tests against space objects, the goal is to ensure the sustainability of Earth orbit, not arms control in space.

Douglas Loverro. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

The authors are Doug Loverro, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy (and a former head of NASA’s human spaceflight program), Brian Chow, an independent policy analyst (retired from RAND), Robert Cardillo, former Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for the Secure World Foundation, and Brandon Kelley, Director of Debate at Georgetown University.

The Soviet Union and the United States conducted ASAT tests almost from the beginning of the space program until the end of the Cold War, but that type of counterspace operations temporarily stopped thereafter. On January 11, 2007, however, China launched a missile against one of its old weather satellites in the first of the modern-era kinetic-energy (KE) ASAT operations. The impact created more than 3,000 pieces of debris that continue to imperil operations in orbit. In 2019, India conducted such a test and just two months ago, Russia did as well. The United States destroyed a malfunctioning U.S. satellite in 2008 that some consider to have been an ASAT test, but others insist was a necessary action to protect the world’s populace from dangerous chemicals during an uncontrolled reentry.

The point is that destroying satellites by hitting them with missiles creates a lot of debris.  In their commentary, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Loverro and his colleagues liken the situation to a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” where “two perfectly rational actors, ignorant of the decisions of the other, will wisely pursue their own self-interest, but ultimately suffer a worse fate than if they had cooperated.”

In this case, countries are creating debris that can wreak havoc for all, while at the same time calling for international agreements to stop doing just that.

At the National Space Council meeting on December 1, 2021, Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense, said DOD would like “to see all nations agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris, which pollutes the space environment, risks damaging space objects and threatens the lives of current and future space explorers.”

Loverro and his colleagues want the United States to take the first step.

“The United States – as both a global superpower and a nation with strong civil, commercial, and military stake in the future of the space environment – must take a leadership role in solving this problem. The United States should immediately declare a unilateral moratorium on debris-producing kinetic-energy anti-satellite (KE-ASAT) testing against orbital objects, and actively promote international agreement(s) prohibiting such tests.”

The authors stress that this is not aimed at arms control in space and would not affect any ASAT tests that do not generate debris.  “The goal here is to eliminate the most detrimental outcome of such testing, not to constrain any nation’s right to defend itself.”

“Therefore, this ban may be better understood as an environment sustainability measure than as an “arms control” measure per se – but, for exactly that reason, is in the clear self-interest of all parties. Because it does not prevent development, testing, or use of KE-ASATs, there is nearly zero cost to adopters, even those who may favor new KE systems.”

By imposing its own moratorium, the authors argue the United States “can pursue its interests in space sustainability and security” and lead other nations to follow suit. Otherwise, more countries may launch their own debris-generating tests, with “catastrophic” consequences.

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