The US ban on ASATs is intended to aid UN deliberations on space dangers

The announcement by the Biden administration of a prohibition on one type of ASAT (antisatellite) weapon test was scheduled to coincide with deliberations at a United Nations summit on space rules, according to a State Department official.

Because of the massive amounts of debris created by destructive direct-ascension ASATs, Vice President Kamala Harris declared on April 18 that the US would restrict their testing. In a speech at the Vandenberg Space Force Base facility in California, she said, “These experiments are dangerous, and we will not undertake them.”

In her address, Harris did not explain why the US was adopting this restriction now when the US military has made no public plans to conduct such tests. However, Eric Desautels, acting assistant deputy secretary of state for weapons control, verification, and compliance, linked the news to a planned United Nations meeting, officially known as an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), to explore norms of behavior for lowering space threats, during a webinar hosted by the BASIC (British American Security Information Council) on April 21.

“The vice president’s announcement is intended to spark a substantive conversation in the Open-Ended Working Group, as we see this as a vital tool in our attempts to multilateralism this pledge,” he explained.

The summit, which will take place in Geneva the week of May 9th, will be the inaugural of four planned over the next two years to debate norms, regulations, and principles of ethical space behavior, as outlined in a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly late last year. The first meeting was supposed to take place in February, but it was delayed at the desire of the Russian government, which said it wasn’t ready to start talks at the time.

The US embargo has received backing from some allies, but China, which has been advocating for a treaty forbidding the deployment of weapons in space with Russia for more than a decade, has expressed doubt. That pact, for example, would not prohibit Russia from demonstrating direct-ascent ASATs in November 2021.

The announcement of the restriction was hailed by a group of specialists at the BASIC webinar as a great move for space security and OEWG debates. “We’re beginning to see a gelling of reactions in terms of what’s designated as responsible activity,” said Victoria Samson, the Secure World Foundation’s Washington office director, citing the prohibition as well as a set of pillars of responsible space behavior announced by the Defense Department (DoD) in July of 2021, that includes preventing the formation of long-lasting space debris.

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