Nine years ago, the People’s Republic of China performed a test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) on its aging FY-1C weather satellite. The test, which to many amounted to a shot across the bow, drew international condemnation in part because of the debris it created and the resulting increased risk to objects in low Earth orbit. More significantly, this test brought to the forefront the vulnerability of space-based assets to direct-ascent ASATs.
Since then, the issue of ASATs has been become politically charged and efforts to address ASATs has been obscured by the ambiguous issue of “space weapons.” Less than a year after the test against FY-1C, both China and Russia brought the issue of space weapons to the forefront with a draft treaty, the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), in the UN Conference on Disarmament. Both nations have exercised great soft power savvy by diverting the discussion from the threat of direct-ascent ASATs, which are not considered “space weapons” under the PPWT.
Significantly, in the years between the first draft of the PPWT and a 2014 update, China continued testing its ASAT capability with a series of launches, demonstrating their ability reach satellites residing both in medium Earth orbit and geostationary orbit. These tests, which were touted publicly by China as missile-defense and scientific sounding rockets, did not go unnoticed by Western defense and intelligence agencies nor by its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific. Even though these tests were non-destructive, it raised concern that, despite China’s touted stance on banning space weapons, both it and Russia continue to develop counterspace capabilities.
Consider Russia’s activities with both Object 2014-28E and its Luch satellite, which has been maneuvering near several Intelsat satellites in geostationary orbit. Russian officials feign innocence and Russian media promotes Luch as supporting communications operations of the International Space Station and correcting the navigation signals of Glonass satellites. Notwithstanding Luch’s purported function runs afoul of International Telecommunication Union spectrum licensing and geosynchronous registration, its maneuvering capability and activities intimate its mission is not so benign.
The conundrum is that both China and Russia are clouding the issue of ASATs with soft power initiatives. In addition to the PPWT, Russia promoted a UN resolution passed in December that calls for a “no first placement initiative” for so-called space weapons. The United States, Israel, Ukraine and Georgia voted against the measure. Member nations of the European Union, though, abstained from voting, which suggests they are trying to appease Russia as Europe looks to the future of its International Code of Conduct while not voting against the United States. Nonetheless, the resolution found support among 129 nations and struck a diplomatic blow to a geopolitical adversary while essentially intimidating the European Union into silence. The result is Russia gained a noteworthy soft power victory and, by extension, more credibility to the dubious issue of space weapons at the expense of addressing the very real issue of ASATs.
Compounding the maneuvering of China and Russia is U.S. domestic policy — or lack thereof — that appears to shun the issue of ASATs. Prominently, the 2014 and 2015 Annual Report to Congress on Military Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, while briefly addressing China’s counterspace capabilities, does not include the term “ASAT.” Whether this was inadvertent, or motivated by policy concerns the term would provoke the Chinese government, is unclear. Abandoning the term in favor of other language, like “information blockade,” does nothing more than distract policymakers from the issue of ASATs in the same manner both China and Russia use the “space weapons” debate to distract from their own ASAT development activities.
Admittedly, options open to policymakers are limited, distasteful and may implicate U.S. national security operations in outer space. On the other hand, however unpalatable those policy options may be, the policy decision to avoid the issue through semantics, understatement or to act as though ASATs are not an issue is unsupportable in of itself, especially with the increasing geopolitical challenges and boldness of China and Russia. The United States is facing a change of presidential administrations, which creates uncertainty regarding the future geopolitical tack the new administration will take, However, the issue of ASATs will certainly still be relevant for the next administration.
Contrary to overtures, space-based assets, including GPS, communications and reconnaissance satellites, will be targets in the event of future hostilities. Addressing the threat ASATs pose through the use of clever vernacular, empty posturing, diplomatic overtures, codes of conduct or simply inaction is not an acceptable strategy to deal with the realities posed. Now is the time not to lament China’s actions and the current situation but, instead, to begin to sincerely explore policy options to address the issue of ASATs.
Michael J. Listner is an attorney licensed in New Hampshire and the founder and principal of Space Law & Policy Solutions, which is a legal and policy think tank/consultation firm that identifies issues and offers pragmatic solutions relating to outer space security and development. He is also the author and administrator of the space law and policy blog Space Thoughts.