SIn an effort to slow down the growing space arms race between world powers, Monday’s announcement by the Biden Administration was a unilateral moratorium of anti-satellite rocket tests. It also called on all other space-faring countries to do the same.
After high-profile, recent tests by India, China, and Russia that destroyed orbiting satellites and caused hazardous debris clouds that could linger for many decades in space, Vice President Kamala Harris declared the U.S. ban. “Simply put, these tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them,” she said during a speech from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. “We are the first nation to make such a commitment.”
As the world becomes more dependent on satellites for communication, navigation, and daily life, the risk of conflict is increasing. Recent years have seen more countries, militaries, private corporations and companies take advantage of new space technologies, which means that there is more capability here on Earth as well as more competition for the sky among global power.
ASAT weapons testing dates back to the Cold War. However, over the last decade, Russia, China, and the U.S. have created sophisticated anti-satellite weapons that can make satellites blind, deafening, and mute in space. Missiles may be the most widely known space weapon, but several nations have developed other measures including lasers, jamming capabilities, cyber-attacks and maneuverable spacecraft designed to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy other nations’ space systems.
Learn more: America Does Have a Space Force. We went in to see how it works.
Even with these advances, space military operations are still not governed by any enforceable standards. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids countries from deploying “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in space. But that language is broad, space experts and arms–control analysts say, and could not foresee the rapid pace of technology now in development. Reining in the proliferation of such weaponry is essential, they say, to avoiding an international catastrophe—either intentional or accidental.
There has been very little progress in space weapon diplomacy, unlike during the Cold War when Russia and the U.S. signed numerous agreements and treaties to limit nuclear weapons’ size, capabilities, and delivery systems. Biden hopes other nations will emulate its self-imposed ban against debris-generating ASAT rocket tests. “Our commitment today is just one step,” Harris said. “Our administration has already begun to establish a broader and comprehensive set of norms.”
The U.S., Russia and China have at times indicated a willingness to develop norms of behavior and ideas about what are (and what aren’t) responsible actions in orbit, but there are challenges. Defining a “space weapon” under law is difficult and verifying that an object is or is not a weapon is even harder once it has been launched into space.
The U.S. has tried for years to advance the so-called “Artemis Accords,” which aim to establish standards for safe behavior in space. So far, only 18 countries have joined the agreement, none of them being U.S. allies. “We will remain focused on writing new rules of the road to ensure all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful and sustainable manner,” Harris said.
Victoria Samson, a space security expert with the Secure World Foundation, says the U.S. declaration of a self-imposed ban on testing such weapons should boost next month’s United Nations-led discussions in Geneva on space issues. “This is a first step but a very positive one, as it indicates that the U.S. recognizes that there is a need for restricted freedom of action in space as part of a cost-benefit analysis of what we will get in return—increased stability and predictability, particularly if other countries join the U.S. in this commitment,” she said.
The Defense Intelligence Agency released an unclassified report last week that detailed China and Russia’s increased number of satellite launches as well as improvements to their military space capabilities.
ASAT tests were conducted by the Russian military on November 15, 2021. This test highlighted the dangers of space objects. Cosmos-1408 was a Soviet-era Intelligence Satellite. It had been inactive for many years. A missile launched from the ground blew it apart. More than 1,600 satellite pieces were scattered by the explosion. In preparation of a potential impact, the International Space Station’s astronauts from America, Russia, and Germany were directed to remove their space suits.
The debris did not reach the space station and astronauts were safe. However, this event brought to light the risks posed by ASAT testing. The speed of objects in space is up to 17,500 km/h, so even tiny fragments like tennis balls could be catastrophic for the satellites, vital infrastructure, and global economy.
“Even if international and national guidelines were made legally binding, mitigation thresholds were made more stringent, or if compliance were even close to 100%, there would still be a formidable debris problem from the remnants of the first 63 years of space operations,” the recently released DIA report says.
It is a problem that space junk remains. China demonstrated an ASAT–missile capability in 2007 when it blasted one of its old weather satellites apart, creating a cloud of more than 2,800 pieces of space debris—a tipping point that arguably started the space arms race unfolding today.
Since 2008 when the Navy launched an interceptor from the Navy, it was the U.S.’s last ground-to space missile launch. USSLake Erie was used to destroy a failing satellite spying on Earth that had been crashing back into Earth through uncontrolled reentry. U.S. military officers stated that the USA-193 satellite had to be destroyed as it contained toxic chemicals back on Earth.
India’s ASAT system was tested in March 2019 and it destroyed its own spacecraft. It proudly proclaimed that it had joined the “elite club of space powers.” Other nations such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan have demonstrated space-weapon capabilities or a desire to expand them.
Space used to be regarded as a peaceful realm until recent times. Many satellites like the GPS constellation were seen as too far from Earth and too expensive to strike. They are now within reach thanks to growing missile technology. Space Force, a uniformed new service created by the U.S. Military in 2019, is an example of this new reality.
And while the U.S.-Russian partnership in space traditionally transcended terrestrial political tensions, even during the Cold War, Russia’s unprovoked invasion into Ukraine has raised tensions between the two countries’ space programs. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space program, has threatened to pull out of the International Space Station and stop supplying rocket engines to U.S. companies.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington is giving up very little by banning ASAT tests because the weapons “do more harm than good,” for the United States. “It also takes away a key talking point used by Russia and China to justify their continued development and testing of ASAT weapons,” he said. “This move puts the United States back in the position of leading by example. It demonstrates to our allies, partners, and adversaries alike that we take the sustainability of the space domain seriously and are willing to move first.”
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