WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris announced April 18 that the United States will ban direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests that create orbital debris.

“These tests are dangerous and we will not conduct them,” Harris said in a speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. 

The self-imposed U.S. ban on destructive anti-satellite weapons tests is an effort to start an international push to develop “new norms for responsible behavior in space,” she said. Harris called on every nation to do the same. 

Tests like the one Russia carried out in November 2021 and China conducted in 2007 are “one of the most pressing threats to the security and sustainability of space,” she said. The destruction of space objects through direct-ascent ASAT missile testing is “reckless and irresponsible.”

These tests are intended to develop anti-satellite weapons that would be used to “deny the United States our ability to use our space capabilities,” she said. 

Harris chairs the National Space Council, a White House-led interagency group that coordinates civil, commercial, and national security space activities. During her visit to Vandenberg on Monday accompanied by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Harris was briefed at the Combined Space Operations Center on U.S. Space Command activities. She also met with a group of service members and their families at a closed event. 

Russia’s Nov. 15 missile strike that destroyed its own defunct satellite in low Earth orbit was widely condemned as dangerous and irresponsible for creating a large cloud of at least 1,500 pieces of debris that will endanger orbiting satellites and human spaceflight for years to come.

Harris noted that there are still 2,800 pieces of debris from China’s 2007 test.

Ending destructive ASAT tests should be part of a “shared understanding of what constitutes safe and responsible space activities,” Harris said. This is important given the ever-growing number of states and non-governmental entities that rely on satellites that are increasingly in danger of colliding with orbiting debris.

These missile tests not only endanger space exploration and economic activities but also increase the risk of armed conflict, Harris warned. 

“Without clear norms we face unnecessary risk in space,” she said.

The United States will work with commercial industry and allies to “lead in the development of new measures that contribute to the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities,” Harris added.

“Through this new commitment and other actions, the United States will demonstrate how space activities can be conducted in a responsible, peaceful, and sustainable manner.”

Decision draws praise and criticism

Space policy experts hailed Harris’s announcement as a necessary step to keep outer space safe and sustainable. 

“I’m really excited about this announcement because it’s not just the U.S. committing to refrain from these behaviors, it’s about trying to establish international norms for responsible behavior in space and really encouraging other countries to join in,” said Robin Dickey, space policy expert at the Aerospace Corp.

“It’s becoming more and more clear every day that there is a higher level of national and international interest in norms of behavior,” Dickey said. “And that’s partially because there are ever more actors, commercial and national, that are vastly expanding the range of activities in space.”

Although the ASAT testing ban is self-imposed and cannot be enforced on other countries, it’s an important step because the United States is the world’s biggest space power, noted Marlon Sorge, principal engineer at Aerospace’s Space Innovation Directorate.

“Given all of the activity the U.S. has in space, it is a bigger problem for us than anybody else,” he said. “And getting this to stop is important even more so now, because we have all of this commercial activity that’s going on.”

Sorge said a ban on ASAT tests would benefit everyone, including China and Russia due to their increased activity in space. Their own proposed large constellations would be particularly vulnerable to debris, said Sorge.

Harris’ announcement, meanwhile, was met with criticism from Republicans. 

Colorado’s Rep. Doug Lamborn, the top Republican House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, called the decision to stop ASAT missile tests “a unilateral, voluntary, and completely unnecessary commitment.”

“This decision creates more opportunities for China and Russia to hold our assets in space at risk while they continue to field ASAT technologies and create hazardous space debris,” Lamborn said in a statement. ”An American commitment to not conduct ASAT tests creates a false equivalence between our carefully calibrated behavior in space and the reckless actions of China and Russia.”

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement following Harris’ announcement: “This unilateral decision mistakes activity for achievement. It does nothing to deter our adversaries in an escalating war fighting domain. In fact, I’m worried it will have the opposite effect. I want answers from the administration on what exactly is being done to protect our national security. Simply declaring what they won’t do isn’t deterrence.”

Dickey pointed out that the ban announced by Harris is “a very specific commitment and not a “broad ban on ASAT weapons.”

“We’re not even talking about a broad ban on ASAT testing,” said Dickey. “It’s a unilateral commitment to not conduct destructive direct ascent missile tests, which is a specific use case.”

She noted this is not a case of the United States imposing a behavior on others. “It’s an attempt to lead by example, and demonstrate we’re willing to make this commitment ourselves and then encourage others to follow.”

The Secure World Foundation in a statement said Harris’ declaration “solidifies what has been implicit U.S. policy since 2008 and reinforces recent efforts to promote responsible behavior in space.” SWF said it “welcomes and applauds this action and its positive implications for the long-term sustainability of space activities.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...