Insight - A Golden Opportunity: Seizing the moment to stop destructive ASAT testing

Thursday, February 10, 2022

by Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communications Daniel Porras & Washington Office Director Victoria Samson

Over the last few months, discussions about a moratorium or ban on destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) testing have increased considerably. The tone of these talks is different from those of previous initiatives in that there appears to be genuine momentum among the international community to curb the deliberate creation of space debris through the testing of kinetic ASAT weapons. Three threads in particular seem to be converging to create a unique window of opportunity: the participants, the topic, and increasing unity amongst once-opposed communities. However, old threads remain that could upset upcoming talks among the international community, letting go of a unique opportunity that might not present itself again for years to come. 

More Participants

Much of the current discussion of a potential ASAT test ban has been spurred by the upcoming UN Open-Ended Working Group on “reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour” (as established in UNGA/RES/76/231, passed Dec. 24, 2021). The mandate of this OEWG is to consider threats to space systems and to make recommendations on how to mitigate these through norms, rules, or principles. This is not the only time that the international community has held such talks in recent years. From 2012-2015, the European Union attempted to gather support for norms embodied in its draft International Code of Conduct for Space Activities (ICoC). More recently, the UN formed a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to examine elements of a potential future legally binding instrument for the prevention of an arms race in outer space, which met in 2018-2019. Both of these initiatives ended without generating any consensus or agreements. 

The current OEWG is distinct from both of these in two key regards. First, unlike the EU’s proposed ICoC for space, the OEWG is being held within the UN, which is still seen by many countries as the most inclusive venue for discussing a multilateral agreement. The lack of inclusivity was a particular challenge with the EU’s Code of Conduct which caused a breach among the international community between Western allies and everyone else. Non-Western States in particular felt that they were not being asked for their input but rather solely for their approval, and that the EU was seeking to mandate rules of its own making. By holding the discussions within the UN, the OEWG will benefit from having well-established rules of procedure that will, necessarily, require input and consent from all Member States. In that regard, the process comes with as good a reputation as possible. 

The second reason that the OEWG is different from previous efforts is that, as noted above, it is in fact open to all UN Member States. The recent GGE was a valiant effort at discussing various options for a treaty on space security, but it limited participation to 25 States, albeit geographically diverse ones. Nevertheless, it still suffered from being limited in the scope of opinions. The OEWG can involve all space-faring nations, as well as actors who may not normally be part of space security conversations but who are critically dependent on space services and thus will be affected by the outcomes of these talks. Moreover, an inclusive process increases the chances for widespread support of whatever proposals that may emerge from these talks. Even if they do not result in unanimous consensus, it is possible that a plurality of the participants may agree on some of the outcomes, giving the proposed responsible behaviors credibility and increasing their likelihood of being enacted into state practice. 

A More Limited Scope

Another big difference between current discussions about a kinetic ASAT test ban and previous multilateral space security talks is that the scope of a test ban  is relatively limited. Most proposals for a kinetic ASAT test ban focus solely on preventing deliberate destruction of space objects that create space debris, while at the same time not prohibiting broader counterspace research efforts. States that still want to have the option to have ASATs could develop them by using virtual targets or conducting fly-bys in order to not actually create debris through the destruction of space objects. While not ideal for those seeking to eliminate space weapons or arms race all together, this limited scope would remove the biggest sustainability challenge while also reducing objections from countries like the United States who worried that these multilateral discussions would limit other defense programs.  

Unity of Purpose

The third aspect of the current mood that is different is the unity of purpose that seems to be emerging. This unity is apparent at both the international and national levels and in ways not seen by many seasoned experts in this field. 

Unlike the ICoC or the GGE, current international momentum seems to be coalescing around a concrete, tangible mechanism. Responses to a survey conducted by the UN Secretary General on threats to space security last year widely included concerns about the deliberate creation of debris through ASAT testing. This concern became even more concrete following the most recent destructive ASAT test conducted by Russia in November 2021, which prompted immediate concerns about the safety of astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station. Not long after, another piece of space debris debris from the same test threatened a Chinese weather satellite, once again demonstrating that ASAT test debris is a safety hazard challenge for all. These recent events only further proved the danger that ASAT testing can pose to all space actors, even the ones conducting the test. 

Another sign of unity at the international level is that the old debate over “legally binding instruments” versus “voluntary norms” has been largely absent, clearing the path for greater focus on substance than on form. This is owed to the fact that Western States seem more open than ever before to the idea that “voluntary norms” can be a first step on the way to a legally-binding solution. Indeed, the language found in the resolution establishing the OEWG specifically says that the possibility of a treaty is not ruled out as a matter of principle, language that would not have been likely even just a few years ago. 

This leads to the second level of “unity” that has not been seen for many years, and that is among U.S. national policymakers. In years past, a significant portion of the U.S. national security space establishment objected to any proposed restrictions on military space activities, in large part because of concerns that it would limit U.S. “freedom of action” in space and would limit missile defense development. As such, most U.S. allies also ruled out the possibility of discussing such a measure for fear of upsetting the U.S. However, at this time, it seems that there is fairly widespread consensus within the Department of Defense that the United States should be pursuing a destructive ASAT moratorium or even test ban. In December 2021, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was particularly encouraging, as she noted at the first meeting of the U.S. National Space Council under the Biden Administration that “we would like to see all nations agree to refrain from antisatellite weapons testing that creates debris”. This builds off of a memo released by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in July 2021, which listed “Limit the generation of long-lived debris” as one of the five tenets of responsible behavior in space spelled out. If the United States is willing to go forward with a ban or moratorium, it would remove one of the biggest roadblocks towards adopting this type of measure.

What could be the same?

While there are a number of elements that distinguish the current momentum for an ASAT test ban, there are other traditional challenges that could still unravel converging global interests. 


Oftentimes, geopolitics can create situations where States cannot cooperate or even negotiate in any meaningful sense. Today, it is no secret that relations between the world’s major military space powers are extremely tense, for reasons unrelated to outer space. At present, U.S./Russian relations are extremely tense due to a shifting situation in Ukraine. U.S./China relations have also been in a downward spiral since 2016, with no sign of improving any time soon. Nevertheless, political context will set the stage for discussions on ASAT testing.  The first substantive meeting of the OEWG, originally scheduled to be held the week of Feb. 14, has been pushed back to May, signifying a complicated geopolitical picture which may hamper global agreement on an ASAT test moratorium. 

Excluding other voices 

One aspect of multilateral negotiations that has struggled to keep pace with the current space environment is the nature of voices participating therein. Unlike multilateral negotiations, the current orbital environment features many private actors, academic institutions, and global agencies. Today, the largest single operator is not a government but a private company - SpaceX - and the proportion of commercial actors in space will only continue to grow. As such, it will be important to include the perspective of private actors and other non-state operators in any discussions related to space security and stability, as they stand to be significantly impacted. Moreover, they will likely be crucial participants in implementing any future agreements. For example, today, private actors are playing a key role in identifying and tracking debris generated from ASAT tests and providing operational warnings to both commercial and government satellite operators. As such, non-State actors can provide key inputs for how any measures emerging from these discussions can be implemented. They will also have much to say about how issues and challenges like space debris will impact their business models. Given that people all over the world rely on these services, their input will be vital in measuring the severity of the current situation and the lengths to which policymakers will have to go to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities. 


It appears we may be entering a golden window of opportunity to create an international agreement on responsible behavior in space in the form of an ASAT moratorium or even test ban. With so many interests converging around this one specific measure, it is worth putting all efforts into agreeing on something concrete. For organizations such as SWF, it means reaching out to our audiences, stressing the importance of this moment, and ensuring participants are well-versed in the current state of space security and stability. For industry, it could mean speaking up and letting governments know how important it is to adopt measures against the intentional creation of debris through ASAT testing. And for governments, this means being ready to take concrete steps to strengthen security and stability in space. For some, this will mean self-restraint, whether that be in military or political terms. However, such restraint could prove to be the difference between having a thriving orbital environment that benefits all, or not having any space-based benefits at all.

Last updated on February 17, 2022