When US Vice President Kamala Harris announced in an April 18 speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base that the United States would ban the testing of destructive, direct-ascent antisatellite (ASAT) weapons, it was not entirely surprising.
Like many other Western governments, the Biden administration was sharply critical of last November’s Russian ASAT test that destroyed the Cosmos 1408 satellite and created more than 1,500 pieces of debris large enough to be tracked, and likely many more smaller pieces. Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense, said at a meeting of the National Space Council just a couple weeks later that the Pentagon “would like to see all nations agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris.”
Why wait months before announcing a ban? The timing was linked to a United Nations meeting in May to discuss reducing space threats. The meeting is part of a long-term effort to agree on rules of the road to maintain safety in Earth orbit and prevent runaway growth of debris. But the growing commercial users of space are not waiting on the UN to take action.
ASAT BANS AND THE UN
The UN General Assembly approved a resolution in December establishing a committee to discuss ways of reducing space threats. That committee, known in UN parlance as an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), would meet four times over two years to exchange views and see if they could establish consensus, building on past efforts like the long-term space sustainability guidelines crafted by the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
The speech by Harris came just three weeks before the first OEWG meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. “The timing of our announcement by the vice president on Monday is meant to spur a meaningful discussion in the Open-Ended Working Group,” said Eric Desautels, assistant representative of state for arms acting control, verification and compliance, during a webinar by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) three days later.
He said the US viewed the working group as a vehicle to “multilateralize,” or build international support for, an ASAT testing ban.
“Having our own proposal at the OEWG of a norm of responsible behavior will allow the United States to demonstrate our leadership in this area and to drive a conversation in a way that supports our position and doesn’t immobilize US and allied security in the face of what surely will be competing proposals,” he said.
Space security experts see the ban as a counterproposal to a longstanding effort by China and Russia to advance a treaty binding, the prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, or PPWT, that would ban placing weapons in outer space but not necessarily the direct-ascent ASATs that both countries have demonstrated. The US has long rejected the PPWT but never offered an alternative.
“It seems like the United States has realized that it can’t engage with the PPWT in the Conference on Disarmament, but not do anything or not be seen to be doing anything regarding norms or soft law,” said Bleddyn Bowen of the University of Leicester at the BASIC event. The ASAT ban was a move to engage in discussions, he said, although “quite a modest move.”
The Conference on Disarmament is the traditional forum for arms control discussions that might include something like an ASAT ban, but that organization has become functional. “It has not been able to reach consensus on an agenda, much less the topics being discussed, for decades now,” said Victoria Samson, Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation.
The OEWG, then, might offer a fresh start. But like the Conference on Disarmament, the OEWG also operates on consensus. “I think we still need to aim for consensus at the working group,” said Jessica West, senior researcher on space security at Plowshares Canada. “I think we have to hold ourselves to a high standard, because if we’re not aiming for it, we certainly won’t get there.”
The working group held its first meeting the week of May 9 in Geneva. As expected, the US ASAT testing ban was a major topic of discussion. “The United States’ pledge certainly shook up discussions of the Open-Ended Working Group in Geneva, and contributed to moving the space security dialogue forward after several years without much substantive progress,” wrote Almudena Azcárate Ortega and Laetitia Cesari Zarkan of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in a May 23 white paper.
But while many countries expressed general support for the ban, only one country formally joined the United States. “For 40 years Canada has advocated for a halt to anti-satellite (ASAT) tests,” the Canadian government’s mission in Geneva stated May 9. “Today we joined the US pledge not to conduct destructive ASAT missile testing. We encourage all states to join so that together we can make this a global norm.”
China and Russia, as expected, promoted their PPWT treaty. “The development of an international legally binding instrument to prevent an arms race in outer space and to preserve it for peaceful purposes, prohibiting the placement of any kind of weapons in outer space and the use or threat of force in, from or against outer space , should be launched without delay,” the Russian government said in a paper it submitted to the OEWG, arguing the PPWT could be the basis for it.
COMPANIES WORKING TOGETHER
The debates about ASAT bans and other topics in Geneva are largely beyond the scope of companies. “We can bring the facts and figures about how this is threatening our operations, but at the end of the day we are not sovereigns in the international sphere,” Laura Cummings, regulatory affairs counsel at Astroscale US, a satellite servicing and life extension company , said of ASAT testing.
“Commercial can inform and should be vocal,” she said during a panel discussion at Space Tech Expo in May. “But we don’t control that decision at the end of the day.”
Tobias Nassif, director of the Space Data Association (SDA), agreed. “I don’t know if anyone is willing to listen to the commercial sector,” he said. “When you have adversaries operating in space, I think they are going to look at national interests over the interests of the commercial sector.”
Companies that are launching more satellites, and dealing with more debris, don’t want to wait for governments to take action to reduce space threats, be it with international agreements like ASAT bans or national efforts at space traffic management.
They and other panelists endorsed more decentralized approaches to space sustainability, working together to coordinate activities and avoid collisions. The SDA, for example, includes nearly 30 companies — and a few government agencies, like NASA — that share information about their satellites through its Space Data Center, providing more accurate warnings of close approaches than what operators would get from government tracking data alone.
“All of the founders of the SDA are fierce competitors in the marketplace,” Nassif said, primarily in communications. “We came together because we knew we had a common problem that, if we were to have a collision, have a problem in space, it not only affects one but it affects all.”
“SDA is a perfect example of actors who share a common environment start who get together because they realize and recognize that safety is in the interest of all us,” said Josef Koller, co-founder of the Space Safety Institute at The Aerospace Corporation. He noted that it’s common in other industries, such as aviation, to share safety information.
He suggested that the future of space traffic management doesn’t require a central body, be it the Defense Department of the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commerce, which is building up its own civil space traffic management (STM) system.
“We need to rethink this notion of the need for a centralized body of space traffic management,” he said, advocating for a peer-to-peer alternative where actors coordinate with each other. “Modern technology has given us a lot of ways and means to think about different approaches to managing all the different participants with all their varying degrees of capabilities and technologies they have available.”
Another SDA official said the organization has tried to work more closely with the Office of Space Commerce but has found little traction. The office hasn’t held industry days with satellite operators or explained how it will use data from those operators, said Andrew D’Uva, senior policy advisor for the SDA, at a May 12 congressional hearing on space situational awareness, contrary to an earlier vision for a civil STM system the office developed.
“Instead, they’re turned inward, taking a government systems development approach with federal research and development centers,” he told members of the House Science space subcommittee. “Developing new government systems is too risky and slow, and it’s unnecessary.”
Kevin O’Connell, former head of the Office of Space Commerce, called for greater coordination between government and industry on STM at the hearing. He endorsed an April report by MITER and the National Academy of Public Administration that called for the office to be a “convener” that brings in various stakeholders to develop policies, norms and standards. “It’s an important ability to be the convener,” he said. “It does have that ability.”
The office is now run by Richard DalBello, who started working as director days before that House hearing. “I wish him the best in that regard,” O’Connell said.
The hearing, though, was largely silent on the ASAT testing ban or the UN discussions place at the same time in Geneva. “While space safety is a global issue that requires spacefaring nations to work together, we must continue to lead the way,” the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), said in his opening remarks. “I’m pleased that the Biden-Harris administration is doing just that by taking initial steps no norms of responsible behavior” like the ASAT ban, he added.
The UN Open-Ended Working Group is scheduled to meet again later this year, and twice in 2023, to try to develop recommendations on norms and rules of responsible behavior in space, topics that go beyond an ASAT testing ban.
ASAT testing is “the very least that states could ban,” Azcárate and Zarkan wrote in their assessment of the working group’s first meeting, noting that the group could do more in terms of norms and rules of behavior. “Nevertheless, one such commitment is better than none at all, as any initiative seeking to make outer space more secure and sustainable humankind benefits as a whole.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.