Gordon G. Chang
“The destruction of space objects through direct-ascent ASAT missile testing is reckless and irresponsible,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking at Vandenberg Space Force Base on April 18, as she announced a unilateral American ban on anti-satellite tests.
“The long-lived debris created by these tests now threaten satellites and other space objects that are vital to all nations’ security, economic, and scientific interests, and increases risk to astronauts in space,” stated Harris, who chairs the National Space Council.
Many applauded the vice president’s announcement, the first pledge by any nation to not conduct such testing. “It’s an attempt to lead by example, and demonstrate we’re willing to make this commitment ourselves and then encourage others to follow,” said Robin Dickey of the Aerospace Corp. to the SpaceNews site.
There is no question that ASAT tests endanger space assets. Russia on November 15 launched a direct-ascent weapon, hit one of its satellites 480 kilometers in space, and created 1,500 pieces of space debris. General James Dickinson, head of the U.S. Space Command, said the test will “likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.”Harris said there are still 2,800 pieces of floating junk resulting from China’s 2007 test.
The U.S., the world’s leading spacefaring nation, would have the most to lose from the cascading destruction of satellites and other orbiting objects, known as the Kessler Syndrome. The syndrome occurs when debris hits such objects, creating space junk faster than gravity can remove it.
Even tiny pieces of debris can cause great damage in low-earth orbit. The inhabitants of the International Space Station, for instance, had to take shelter after the Russian test in November.
The U.S. has already demonstrated it can destroy objects with direct-ascent weapons. In 2008, in Operation Burnt Frost, the U.S. hit a satellite falling back to earth. Further American testing would be desirable but not absolutely necessary.
So what’s not to like about Vice President Harris’s announcement?
A lot, unfortunately.
Many hope Harris’ promise is eventually incorporated into a comprehensive treaty, and the Biden administration is amenable. “We must write the new rules of the road,” said Harris at Vandenberg. “And we will lead by example.”
It is irrelevant whether America’s international partners want to develop norms. It matters whether China or Russia want to and, if they do, whether they will adhere to their obligations. So far, Washington has a 100% record of failure regarding Beijing and Moscow in this regard.
“Biden recognizes the threat of orbiting junk, but he is making the assumption that if he unilaterally disarms in space he will somehow inspire America’s enemies to engage in similar behavior,” Brandon Weichert, the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower,” told me. “In fact, being the accomplished liars they are, the regimes in both China and Russia will likely pretend to be following America’s lead, wait for the U.S. to disarm, and then strike Americans in space when they least expect it. Mitigating space debris is important, but not at the expense of surrendering the high ground.”
The U.S. was once even more dominant in space, and American political leaders decided to slow development of anti-satellite weapons for fear of triggering a competition. With the U.S. having the most assets in orbit, the reasoning went, the U.S. would have the most to lose with a race. That view, however, was the product of a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese and Russian attitudes and directly led to America falling behind China in anti-satellite weaponry.
“Expect China and Russia to react with contempt to the Biden unilateral space weapons ban,” Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told me.
Right on cue, China’s foreign ministry, a day after Harris’s declaration, mocked the vice president and asked her to make even more unilateral space promises. “Why not announce that it will not use such weapons?” asked spokesperson Wang Wenbin. “Why not commit itself to banning the use of force against outer space objects?”
“It is,” Weichert says, “the height of utopian naiveté to think that unilateral disarmament leads to anything other than one’s total defeat.”
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Free Press or Daily Caller News Foundation.