Reckless Endangerment on the Final Frontier
Why Russia's recent anti-satellite test gives the U.S. an opportunity to seize the diplomatic initiative
A little over a week ago, the Russian military shot down one of its own satellites in low Earth orbit – and created a massive debris cloud that forced astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station to shelter in their Crew Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft for roughly two hours before it became clear that the station was not in peril. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and the State Department both put out statements decrying the Russian test, as have American allies from Japan and Australia to the United Kingdom and France. It’s a bizarre move that not only risked the lives of Russia’s own cosmonauts but courted an international incident with the United States and other ISS partners as well - and a potent reminder that foreign policy and national security don’t stop at the atmosphere’s edge.
It's not the first time an anti-satellite test has created a debris field that threatened astronauts and satellites used for everything from Earth observation to telecommunications. In 2007, the Chinese military destroyed a non-functional weather satellite and created over 3,500 pieces of debris, amounting to one-sixth of the orbital detritus that can be tracked by radar. Roughly half of this cloud will remain in orbit until 2027, two decades after the initial test. Ironically enough, the International Space Station performed a “debris avoidance maneuver” to swerve away from a piece of space debris created by the 2007 Chinese test just a week before the Russian test added at least 1,500 new pieces of orbital flotsam.
For its part, the United States demonstrated that its Aegis ballistic missile defense system could take down a satellite in a 2008 test that destroyed a derelict spy satellite already on course to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. India likewise carried out an anti-satellite test in 2019 that generated 400 pieces of debris, 300 of which re-entered the atmosphere within four months. While anti-satellite tests pose a clear and present danger to both astronauts and the satellites we rely on for a variety of vital purposes (imagine navigating to unfamiliar destinations without the help of GPS location services built into smartphone map apps), it seems like everyone’s doing it these days – and threatening humanity’s collective access to space in the process.
So what should the United States do about this problem?
First, it’s easy to say what probably won’t work – namely, a total ban against anti-satellite weapons altogether. There would simply be too many ways to get around such a ban, rendering it largely unenforceable. Existing military hardware like the Aegis ballistic missile defense system can be repurposed to shoot down satellites. Indeed, the Russian anti-satellite missile used in Moscow’s recent test was developed from a missile defense capability first developed in the late 1970s.
Nor would a ban on “weapons in space” like the one proposed by Moscow and Beijing do much good. As we’ve seen, countries can easily shoot down satellites from bases on the ground, ships at sea, or aircraft in the sky. Never mind that such a ban would also be unverifiable and run aground on definitions of what constitutes a weapon in space. Would such a definition include satellites and other spacecraft that can capture or interfere with other satellites on orbit, an capability that both China and Russia appear to have developed in recent years? Worse, these proposals don’t adequately address anti-satellite tests that create enormous debris clouds and threaten human activity in space. They amount to a diplomatic non sequitur, a waste of international time and energy in the face of a more pressing problem.
It would be more profitable to pursue a prohibition on such anti-satellite tests, whether through a formal and legally-binding treaty or some sort of informal mechanism. The Secure World Foundation – a leading space policy organization – has proposed spacefaring nations like the United States declare unilateral moratoriums on anti-satellite tests that could create additional space debris. That would be an important first step, and one the United States should take in concert with other nations for maximum diplomatic effect. It’s not likely that, say, China or Russia would agree to such a step, but it would be worth the effort for the United States to engage them on this issue.
More concretely, the United States should put forward a draft anti-satellite test ban treaty that prohibits the destruction of satellites in orbit. This proposal would proscribe certain behavior detrimental to humanity’s collective use of space, not attempt to outlaw entire categories of weapons (many with other legitimate purposes) on that basis. It’d also offer an American diplomatic counter to Chinese and Russian efforts to push their no-weapons-in-space treaty, which both Beijing and Moscow have been able to promote for years with little opposition in the form of a constructive alternative. Here again, it would be good for the United States to build as broad a diplomatic front as possible – one that includes European and Asian allies as well as other partners around the world.
Such an agreement would be analogous to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which didn’t end all nuclear weapons tests but did pave the way for more constructive arms control discussions between the United States and Soviet Union. In a similar way, an anti-satellite test ban treaty would not resolve all questions relating to the military uses of space – but it would provide the United States with a launching pad for further diplomacy moving forward.
It could also be a ray of diplomatic hope, one that shouldn’t be underestimated or overlooked. Over the past decade, the world has seen the slow and steady erosion of the international rules and standards intended to keep geopolitics within acceptable bounds. Repeated attacks by the Assad regime in Syria and the Russian intelligence services have undermined taboos and prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons. Moscow has carved up and annexed parts of Ukraine, and American intelligence officials warn that Russia may be gearing up for a full-blown invasion early next year. China continues to abuse international law in the South China Sea and bully countries like Australia into toeing its line.
Those developments are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. An American diplomatic proposal for an anti-satellite test ban treaty won’t reverse or even these pessimistic geopolitical trends. But it does offer an avenue for diplomacy that doesn’t trade away important values and interests in the likely futile pursuit of Chinese or Russian cooperation on issues like climate change. It gives the United States an opportunity to take the diplomatic offensive and put Moscow and Beijing in a corner while promising to address a real, pressing problem that threatens America’s vital national interest in maintaining access to space.
Space remains a preeminent source of American pride as well as a guarantor of American national security and global prosperity. What happens in space won’t stay in space, and the United States should seize the opportunity presented by Russia’s anti-satellite test to ensure space stays open for all.