Discussions Continue over ASAT Testing Ban

Two weeks ago, VP Kamala Harris announced that the US would impose a ban on its own destructive, direct-ascent ASAT (ant-satellite) testing. The move is meant to set an example for other spacefaring nations to maintain a safe orbital environment. The US will also likely use its new posture as an example in upcoming UN space safety talks. 

Back in the US, discussion on the merits of the ban has continued. In Congress, vocal GOP critics have said that the ban could leave the US open to attack from space, or allow rival nations to leave us behind as they continue to develop this technology. 

Proponents of the ban argue that the US has a responsibility to set the norms for safe spacefaring, and that this particular type of ASAT tech creates debris clouds that threaten all orbital operations.

The critics

In an op-ed for Breaking Defense, Gen. Kevin Chilton, former NASA astronaut, Air Force general, and commander of US Strategic Command argued that the self-imposed ASAT ban does not do enough to deter aggressive actions from other nations in space. 

“We must convince our adversaries they cannot destroy our critical satellites, while retaining theirs,” Chilton wrote.

  • Chilton says that the testing ban should not stand in the way of the US using its ASAT capabilities if they’re ever needed for national defense. 
  • “This approach mirrors the policies and posture of our nuclear deterrent forces: Our voluntary compliance with the nuclear test ban treaty does not impede our fielding of a credible triad to deter adversarial strategic attacks on the U.S. or our allies,” he wrote.

Mike Rogers (R-AL), lead Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, also voiced his disapproval of the ban in a statement

  • “This unilateral decision mistakes activity for achievement. It does nothing to deter our adversaries in an escalating war fighting domain. In fact, I’m worried it will have the opposite effect,” he wrote. “Both the Russians and the CCP have demonstrated their anti-satellite capabilities—it would be naive to think they don’t intend to use them against our assets.”

A different perspective: On Saturday, Senator Mark Kelly, Arizona Democrat and former NASA astronaut, cast doubt on the idea that Russia would conduct another destructive ASAT test anyway. 

  • “They did an antisatellite test recently, but that test was just very well choreographed and produced to get a certain outcome,” he said on a panel at the McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum. “I wouldn’t say right now the Russians in particular have an antisatellite capability that I would be too worried about.”
  • He also said that the Russians don’t have advanced space situational awareness tech, and that the debris cloud created by their November ASAT test is still a danger to their other satellites.

Worth noting: The US ASAT ban only applies to one type of ASAT test: destructive, direct-ascent ASAT testing. That only means that the US will not fire any missiles from the ground directly at satellites and hit them as part of any tests. 

The US has other forms of kinetic and non-kinetic ASAT technology at its disposal that are still very much on the table. Plus, the US has tested destructive direct-ascent ASAT tech that works in the past, most recently in 2008, and already has that capability stowed away.

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