WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s announcement Monday that it will no longer test destructive anti-satellite weapons sets the stage for “meaningful discussions” at a United Nations open-ended working group meeting next month to recommend principles of responsible behavior in space, Pentagon and Department of State officials said.

Vice President Kamala Harris announced during a visit to Vandenberg Space Force Base in California that the United States would no longer conduct direct-ascent ASAT tests, which destroy satellites in space and can create hazardous debris in orbit. She said the U.S. hopes other nations will follow suit.

The announcement comes just weeks before a May 9 meeting of a United Nations working group tasked with proposing such norms, and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Emerging Security Challenges Eric Desautels said Wednesday the timing was intentional.

“Having our own proposal at the OEWG of a normal, responsible behavior regarding destructive, direct-ascent ASAT missile testing will allow the United States to demonstrate our leadership in this area and to drive the conversation in a way that supports our position and doesn’t undermine U.S. national security in the face of what will surely be competing proposals,” he said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington.

Along with the OEWG meeting next month, the Conference on Disarmament — an international body established to negotiate arms control agreements — is discussing efforts to prevent an arms race in space throughout its 2022 session, Desautels said. For several decades, a draft treaty from Russia and China has been “the only proposal on the table,” he said, noting that the U.S. views the proposal as flawed, particularly when it comes to “definitions, scope and verification.”

“Up until this point, we haven’t offered any concrete counter proposals,” Desautels said. “Announcing this voluntary commitment will allow us to finally reshape the conversation beyond Russia and China’s flawed draft treaty that has been specifically designed to constrain the United States.”

The commitment was shared in advance with allies and partners as well as some non-aligned countries and drew mostly positive feedback, he said. Following Russia’s November 2021 test of a direct-ascent ASAT weapon that destroyed one of its own spacecraft and created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, there has been growing international support for responding to the threat of future tests, Desautels said – even among countries that refuse to publicly condemn Russia’s actions.

As the U.S. garners feedback in the coming months, he said, the administration will consider its next steps, which could include a non-legally binding United Nations resolution that would allow countries to state their support for the commitment and potentially put pressure on any plans for future destructive ASAT tests.

The U.S. could also consider crafting a legally binding arms control agreement, but Desautels said this would take much longer to accomplish, noting that the non-binding commitment would serve the purpose of allowing future destructive tests to be observed and attributed.

Beyond deterrence

Following the White House’s announcement, some Republican lawmakers spoke out against the ban, calling it unnecessary and claiming it does little to actually deter bad behavior.

“This decision creates more opportunities for China and Russia to hold our assets in space at risk while they continue to field ASAT technologies and create hazardous space debris,” Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said in a statement.

Lamborn is the ranking member on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. His concerns were echoed by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who serves as the ranking member for the House Armed Services Committee. Rogers said the announcement “mistakes activity for achievement” and “does nothing to deter our adversaries in an escalating war fighting domain.”

“Simply declaring what they won’t do isn’t deterrence,” Rogers said in a statement.

Speaking Wednesday at the CSIS event, DoD’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space and Missile Defense Policy John Hill said the administration’s declaration doesn’t amount to a disarming and doesn’t put the United States at a disadvantage.

“We’re not disarming,” Hill said. “This norm is not focused on any technological capability, but on behavior that we want to dissuade and encourage people to not undertake.”

He added that the commitment to no longer test destructive ASAT weapons is not only about deterrence and space security, but also about the ability to continue operating in and exploring the space environment for the long term.

Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at CSIS, said that the benefit of the United States taking a leadership position on destructive testing outweighs the risk of any perceived capability limitation that the ban could impose.

“Putting China and Russia, in particular, on the defensive to justify why they won’t implement a moratorium themselves and why would they want to continue testing in this irresponsible way, I think that is really powerful,” he said. “I applaud the administration for finally taking this step. I wish we’d done it years ago.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.

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