VP Harris Pledges No U.S. Destructive ASAT Tests, Calls For Others to Join

VP Harris Pledges No U.S. Destructive ASAT Tests, Calls For Others to Join

Vice President Kamala Harris announced today that the United States will not conduct debris-generating direct-ascent antisatellite tests, leading by example to establish international norms of responsible behavior in space. The U.S. is one of four countries that have launched missiles to impact their own satellites to demonstrate they have the ability to destroy others. Russia conducted the most recent such test in November, imperiling the astronauts and cosmonauts in the International Space Station.

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

Harris visited Vandenberg Space Force Base today in California, home to the recently-renamed 18th Space Defense Squadron that tracks objects orbiting Earth. The 18th SDS is part of U.S. Space Command. Its task is tracking the tens of thousands of satellites and pieces of debris in orbit and warning U.S. national security and other satellite operators of potential collisions.

Harris chairs the White House National Space Council. Its first meeting under the Biden-Harris Administration on December 1, 2021 came just two weeks after Russia conducted its first destructive ASAT test in decades, sending debris toward the International Space Station where seven crew members, including two Russians, had to secure in place for almost a day as debris came close by. Harris said today she recently spoke with NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei who just returned from 355 days on the ISS about how he had to “shelter in an escape capsule in case the space station was hit by debris” along with his Russian colleagues. Four U.S. and European astronauts sheltered in their own spacecraft.

Not surprisingly, the need for norms of behavior in space was one of the main topics at the Space Council meeting. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks called for an end to debris-generating tests. 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.”

Harris’s announcement today builds on that. After laying out the importance of space activities not only for national security, but science and everyday life, she said the United States will “continue to be a leader in order to establish, to advance, and demonstrate norms for the responsible and peaceful use of outer space.”

“It is clear there is strong interest among our international partners to develop these norms.  We must write the new rules of the road.  And we will lead by example.”

Calling destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests reckless and irresponsible, she vowed the United States will not conduct any.

“We have consistently condemned these tests and called them reckless. But that is not enough. Today we are going further.

“I am pleased to announce that as of today, the United States commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing.

“Simply put: These tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them.

“We are the first nation to make such a commitment. And today, on behalf of the United States of America, 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.”

The most recent officially acknowledged U.S. direct-ascent ASAT test was in 1985, when an F-15 launched Miniature Homing Vehicle hit the U.S. Solwind satellite. In 2008, the U.S. destroyed the USA-193 satellite with a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser in Operation Burnt Frost after it malfunctioned and could not be controlled. By some accounts, the satellite had to be destroyed to prevent hazardous hydrazine propellant from potentially harming populated regions if it made an uncontrolled reentry. Others consider it an ASAT test in response to China’s infamous 2007 ASAT test that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris.

Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Secure World Foundation tracks how much debris has been created by direct-ascent ASAT tests by the Soviet Union/Russia, the United States, China, and India, and how much is still in orbit. In a press release tonight, SWF published a table with statistics on the 16 debris-generating ASAT tests so far. In total, 6,349 pieces of debris were generated and 4,379 pieces are still in orbit, some dating back to 1968.

SWF Washington Office Director Victoria Samson told SpacePolicyOnline.com in an interview this evening that Harris’s announcement is a “fantastic step” towards establishing international norms of behavior in space. Samson is “cautiously optimistic” that other countries will follow suit, agreeing with Harris that non-spacefaring countries should be encouraged to make such a commitment, too. “It’s really important to establish what the international community believes to be responsible behavior” and create a “groundswell of support.”

Direct-ascent ASATs are only one of many means of counteracting another country’s satellites, and tests can be conducted against a point in space instead of actually impacting a satellite. Harris’s pledge is not a commitment to forgo “counterspace” capabilities, only not to conduct debris-generating tests.

SWF and the Center for Strategic and International Studies each publish annual reports on global counterspace capabilities and hold a joint seminar to discuss them. This year’s seminar is on Wednesday.

Harris said she has raised these issues with other countries, including India, which conducted a destructive direct-ascent ASAT test in 2019, and there is “strong interest” in developing norms.

How interested they are may become more apparent next month when the United Nations convenes the first meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats. Approved by a vote of the U.N. General Assembly on Christmas Eve, the OEWG was supposed to meet in February, but Russia asked for a delay on the basis there had been insufficient time to prepare. Soon thereafter it invaded Ukraine. Whether it will show up now remains to be seen.

Participation in the OEWG is open to all U.N. members, Samson said.  It is not clear who will be at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on May 9-13, but it may be the first test of whether Harris’s pledge is resonating.

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