Proposals to ban anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons would face hurdles in becoming U.S. policy, according to a DoD official’s testimony on May 5th before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) strategic panel and the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s international development panel on Creating a Framework for Rules Based Order in Space.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, broached the question of whether a legally binding prohibition on ASAT tests would be advisable or whether the U.S. should be allowed to conduct ASAT tests, as other nations, including Russia, China, and India have done.
One such Chinese test in 2007 created 3,000 pieces of debris–about 10 percent of the debris that the U.S. Space Force tracks, Space Force officials have said.
“There is no prohibition today on anti-satellite tests,” John Hill, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Space Policy, testified in response to Lieu’s question. “There is quite a bit of scorn to be earned, as China earned in 2007 with their test. The question though is, if you were to try and prohibit weapons in space, ‘what is the definition of a weapon?’ These systems are so inherently dual-use. Lasers can be used for communications. Lasers can be used as weapons, and it goes on from there. It’s the practicalities, the verifiability, the enforceability of that. What we really have to focus on in the long run is reducing the benefits that people might seek to derive from employing capabilities as weapons. That goes to resilience and to mission assurance [of space systems].”
Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, the commander of Space Force’s Space Operations Command, told Lieu that “the real danger with those tests–we’re talking about tests now–is the long-lived debris, like the Chinese ASAT debris that we continue to have to operate around today.”
“I think we do absolutely want to establish a norm that no country’s actions in space create long-lived debris,” he said.
As the United States and its allies try to build support for norms of behavior in space, Space Force wants such standards to address any conduct that would interfere with the maneuver and communications of space systems.
On Dec. 7 last year, the United Nations General Assembly passed A/Res/75/36, a resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom and backed by the United States, that encourages United Nations member states “to study existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, including those arising from actions, activities or systems in outer space or on Earth, characterize actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible or threatening and their potential impact on international security, and share their ideas on the further development and implementation of norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours and on the reduction of the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations with respect to outer space.”