The Perils of ASATs


As the disarmament process has ground to a halt, missile defenses have been justified and encouraged. The strategic environment could become even more competitive as missile defense research yields technologies for offensive space-based weapons. It is thus hardly a surprise that prevention of an arms race in outer space is the subject of intense international debate and controversy today.

Over the past 20 years, the use of outer space has changed dramatically. From the dawn of the Space Age to the Cold War era, the Soviet Union and the United States were the world’s only space powers. Today, more than 41 countries own or operate satellites, about a dozen of them can launch satellites on their own, and many more are aspiring for that capability. At the same time, more and more states are using space for military purposes, from communications to mapping to intelligence-gathering as well as weapons-targeting. Going a step further, it should also be pointed out that even the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 were orchestrated using space technologies. Although the militarization of space has become an inevitable part of our lives, we should be careful against adopting the same norm for the weaponization of space. For decades, nations, experts and analysts have struggled to reach consensus over the definition of a “space weapon.”

The Henry L. Stimson Center estimates the economic dimensions of the space industry, in particular the satellite industry, as follows: In 2007, global space industry revenue was estimated at $123 billion, and revenue from GPS equipment alone was calculated at $56 billion. The number of U.S. jobs supported by the space industry was around 729,000 in 2006, while U.S. satellite radio subscribers numbered about 13.65 million. It is no wonder that space occupies a significant part of our lives.

In light of this, it is not surprising that significant developments have occurred, such as the Chinese anti-ballistic missile test in January, the Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007,  the USA-193 spy satellite tests in 2008 and the recent Indian shift in policy to seek ASAT capabilities. This is a worrying trend that the battleground is shifting from ground to space.

A space war — a mutual shooting down of satellites — between nations would be devastating for all. The resulting debris would pose enormous risks to all satellites in the orbit. The Chinese ASAT test in 2007 highlighted this: A few satellites have had to make avoidance maneuvers to circumvent the debris.

The threat from uncontrolled military expansion into space was recognized very early in the space race. In 1962, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the “Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space.” This resolution became the basis of negotiations in the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space of a multilateral mechanism regulating the use of space. The resulting Outer Space Treaty entered into force in October 1967, becoming the first treaty governing access to space. It established the principle that outer space is not open to national appropriation but is a global commons free for the use of all states, and it codified the phrase “peaceful use of outer space,” banning the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and the establishment of military bases in space. Nuclear weapons testing in outer space was banned by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, and several subsequent treaties and declarations were adopted in the 1970s regulating exploration and military activity in space.

The debate on the weaponization of space was featured in the U.N. General Assembly in 1981. The Conference on Disarmament was given the task of negotiating a treaty to regulate the military use of space in the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) resolution. Although the conference saw progress on a draft treaty, disagreements prevented the negotiations from going forward in 1995. In addition, the negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) were being carried out in parallel. The linking of the FMCT to PAROS to gain consensus further stalled the negotiations, ultimately causing both treaties to fall off the agenda.

The First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly still provides strong support for the PAROS mandate despite the stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament. At the 2002 session, the vote was 156-0 in favor of PAROS, with Israel and the United States abstaining. For 20 consecutive years, the General Assembly has supported efforts to ban weapons from space.

In light of these issues, important policy questions issues arise for all concerned nations: Why focus on developing an ASAT technology for a war that no nation can win in the foreseeable future and everybody would lose? The lack of progress on a legally binding norm to space assets needs to be dealt with. The debris issue, which has received far less attention than it warrants, needs more awareness.

In spite of this, there is currently no ban on attacking satellites in space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits only the placement of nuclear weapons on celestial bodies. The lack of a legally binding norm sends the message that there is no potential arms race in space. However, the recent trends in this domain have called into question the validity of such reasoning. The anti-satellite tests, no matter how innocent, have once again demonstrated the fragility of satellites and that nobody has a monopoly on such technology.

An issue worth debating is whether ASATs can be delegitimized as weapons of war since they affect the lives of innocent civilians. Although international treaties can involve extensive, time-consuming negotiations, they seem to be a much better path than other imaginable alternatives.


Bharath Gopalaswamy is with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in