On Sept. 13, 1985, Air Force Maj. Wilbert "Doug" Pearson launched an ASAT missile from a highly modified F-15A over Edwards AFB, Calif. that destroyed an unused satellite orbiting 340 miles overhead. The Air Force said that Pearson's launch was the first of an air-launched ASAT, which were to be carried under F-15s. The missile was never put into production or made operational, the Air Force said. (U.S. Air Force)
Rather than pursuing an international ban on anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, the United States is focusing on developing an international consensus on responsible behaviors in outer space, such as activities that do not generate long-lasting orbital debris.
"A focus on responsible behavior has a number of advantages, including the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances or technologies, and to include a voice from the civil and commercial operators who are increasingly present and active in the space domain," Amb. Robert Wood told a May 21 webinar sponsored by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs. "Taken progressively, these norms could be a first step in addressing potential mistrust and misunderstandings arising among states."
Since 2014, Wood has served as U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament and as U.S. Special Representative for Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) issues.
The Biden administration has said that it plans to move ahead on discussions with allies and partners about establishing rules of the road for systems in space. In March, interim national security strategic guidance by the administration said that the U.S. "will lead in promoting shared norms and forge new agreements" on outer space.
On Dec. 7 last year, the U.N. General Assembly passed A/Res/75/36, a resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom and backed by the United States, that encourages U.N. 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.”
This fall at the convening of the 76th U.N. General Assembly, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres is to submit a report, which is to include the views of member states on such norms of behavior in order to jump start the effort.
Thus far, the European Union and 26 nations, including the United States, Russia, and China, have submitted ideas for inclusion in the report. Nine organizations, including RAND, the Secure World Foundation, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have also provided their input.
John Hill, the acting assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told the House Armed Services Committee this month that an international ban on ASAT weapons would come with a host of problems, including the definition of an ASAT; the dual use of technologies, such as lasers; and the space situational awareness required to discern accurately that the employment of a given technology is as an ASAT weapon.
Amb. Wood on May 21 reiterated the U.S. stance that Russia and China are leading ASAT efforts, including China's fielding of "ground-based ASAT missiles intended to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit and ground-based ASAT lasers probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on lower Earth orbit satellites."
China, for its part, suggested in its report to the U.N. on recommended norms of behavior in space that the U.S. can use space systems, such as the Boeing X-37B and the L3Harris Technologies Counter Communications System, offensively.
Russia's report to UNODA on recommended norms of behavior under U.N. A/Res/75/36 also seemed to suggest that U.S. space systems may infringe upon the peaceful use of outer space.
"We are referring to the fact that certain U.N. member states are creating a space-based anti-missile grouping (including interceptors), as well as [a] means to exert unauthorized impact on objects of orbital space infrastructure," per Russia's report. "Placement in orbit of a large group of small satellites also raises questions. The capability of these means being used to damage orbital objects of U.N. member states is increasing."