Biden Administration Says U.S. Won’t Test Certain Anti-Satellite Weapons

The Biden administration says it’s ruled out conducting one type of anti-satellite weapon test. 

While on a visit to her home state April 18, Vice President Kamala Harris gave a speech at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., formalizing the administration’s prior admonishments of an ASAT test by Russia in 2021.

Harris committed the the U.S. will not “conduct destructive, direct-ascent, anti-satellite missile testing.” 

She said the decision was one step toward “writing new rules of the road to ensure all space activities are conducted in a responsible, peaceful, and sustainable manner.”

Harris cited not only Russia’s recent test, but also its conduct in Ukraine. Russia launched a missile from the ground to hit a derelict Soviet satellite in November 2021, creating a field of more than 1,500 pieces of debris big enough for the Space Force to track. China, similarly, performed a direct-ascent ASAT test in 2007. 

Harris linked rules and norms in war—and the “brutality” of the Russian military’s acts in Ukraine—to rules and norms the administration wants to foster in space.

“Rules and norms provide us all with a sense of order and stability,” Harris said. “As we have seen in Ukraine, Russia has completely violated the set of international rules and norms established after World Ward II, which provided unprecedented peace and security in Europe.”

Having chaired one meeting of the National Space Council, Harris said she made rules and norms “a point of emphasis.” 

“A piece of debris the size of a basketball, which travels at thousands of miles per hour, would destroy a satellite,” Harris said. “Even a piece of debris as small as a grain of sand could cause serious damage.”

Her speech did not rule out other types of potentially destructive ASAT tests, such as co-orbital ASATs in which satellites are basically sent to collide with other satellites, nor weapons such as lasers, or cyber hacks from the ground, that could theoretically disable a satellite, essentially turning it into one big piece of debris.

The U.S. isn’t alone in seeking a new set of norms. Established in December, a United Nations open-ended working group on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors first met in February for an organizational session and plans to hold its first meeting in May.