“Space-related rules and norms of responsible behavior are in our best interest,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense John Hill.
WASHINGTON – The Biden administration’s decision to ban anti-satellite missile testing has been strongly supported by the Defense Department, as the military’s own guidelines prohibit space activities that create debris, a senior official said on April 20.
Vice President Kamala Harris announced Monday that the United States will not conduct so-called direct ascension tests, where missiles are launched from the ground to hit and destroy orbiting satellites. She said the US will push for all nations to join in banning testing and setting standards for responsible behavior in space.
“That was a long time ago,” Hill said at an online event by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Space-related rules and norms of responsible behavior are in our best interest,” Hill said.
He noted that the DoD’s own spatial behavior guidelines issued last year require operators to “limit the generation of long-lived debris”. So the vice president’s announcement was a positive step, Hill said.
All routine space activities generate some debris, but anti-satellite tests (ASAT) such as those carried out by China in 2007 and Russia in 2021 create dangerous fragments that threaten all space operations, he said.
One of the problems today is that different actors use different definitions of what constitutes hazardous waste, he said. “Even after the recent 2021 test, Russia claimed that the debris they created was not harmful, despite astronauts and cosmonauts having to take shelter. [aboard the International Space Station] and despite having caused repeated risks to satellites in low Earth orbit, risks that will continue for years to come.”
Hill rejected criticism from Republican lawmakers that putting a moratorium on ASAT testing weakens the US stance in space.
“Will this rule put the United States at a disadvantage? No, it won’t,” Hill said. “This is not disarming, we are not disarming. This standard is not focused on any technological capabilities, but on behaviors that we want to deter and encourage people not to do.”
“It’s not just about space security, it’s about sustaining the long-term ability to continue human exploration in space, observe Earth from space, communicate around the world through space, and expand new and new economic uses of space. , such as in orbit, maintenance, assembly and manufacturing,” Hill added.
Test ban benefits the US
Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at CSIS and a defense analyst, said the DoD has nothing to lose and a lot to gain by endorsing the ban on ASAT testing.
“Direct ascent is a capability that we don’t really need,” he said. “It’s not that useful to us.”
And if that capability is needed for some reason, “we don’t need to test it. We already know we have. We know it works,” Harrison said.
A destructive test makes no sense “even in a conflict,” he said. “I think this is something that we would rarely consider using just because of the creation of debris. It will harm us, probably more than it would help in any kind of military conflict.”
The benefit of adopting a testing moratorium “certainly exceeds any risk or cost involved,” he said.
“This allows the US to resume a leadership role on the international stage when it comes to promoting responsible behavior and responsible norms of behavior,” added Harrison. “And that puts China and Russia in particular on the defensive to justify why they won’t implement a moratorium and why they would want to continue testing in this irresponsible way.”
Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, called the move to ban missile tests a “very pragmatic starting point.”
One reason international discussions on space weapons have stalled for decades is that they’re stuck on how to define a space weapon and how to track, monitor and verify, Weeden said.
Direct ascent tests are “very easy to see and verify,” he said.
It’s encouraging that the government sees this as a “starting point for a broader conversation,” Weeden said. If other countries follow suit, “maybe this will turn into a broader set of promises or even a legally binding agreement in the future, because that’s where we need to go.”
“And that puts a lot of pressure on Russia and China, who have been saying they are against weapons,” he said. “If they really believe that, then it should be easy for them to sign up and make their own promises. Because they are also using space.”