A diplomatic effort led by the United Kingdom (UK) at the United Nations (UN) to take up a Kinetic Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Testing treaty has received international support through a Canadian Open Letter.
The UK is spearheading an effort on the responsible use of outer space by continuing to advance an initiative started in 2020. That effort resulted in part with a report published on July 13, 2021 titled “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours.”
Taking to Twitter, the British Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva Aidan Little tweeted on August 16, 2021 that “It’s becoming increasingly apparent that we need a new approach to space security. That’s why the UK has tabled a new @UN resolution to continue to build on last year’s discussions on responsible behaviour.”
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that we need a new approach to space security. That’s why the UK has tabled a new @UN resolution to continue to build on last year’s discussions on responsible behaviour. https://t.co/5OHrpI8XN0— Aidan Liddle (@AidanLiddle) August 16, 2021
Open Letter – Kinetic ASAT Test Ban Treaty
In support of this effort The Outer Space Institute (OSI) based at the University of British Columbia has published an Open Letter that has garnered over 160 signatories from around the world including Nobel Laureate’s, internationally recognized diplomats and politicians, past space agency leaders, astronauts, academics, lawyers and others.
The letter, available below, is addressed to H.E. Mr. Volkan Bozkır, President, United Nations General Assembly and states that “The need for such a treaty is driven by very rapid growth in the number of satellites in orbit.”
The letter further states that “the number of active and defunct satellites in orbit has grown from 3300 to over 7600 in the last decade, with the potential addition of as many as 100,000 active satellites within the next ten years. This rapid growth is raising concerns about collisions and the proliferation of space debris, endangering all forms of space use, from crewed missions, to communications, to Earth observations and environmental monitoring, to space-based astronomy. New practices are needed for the safe and sustainable use of space.”
The letter cites the Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours report in several places and notes that “most importantly, not a single State in its response submitted for this United Nations report has stated that kinetic ASAT testing is an appropriate or internationally legal action.”
It should be noted that all four countries who have initiated ASAT tests, the United States, Russia, China and India, all provided a response in the report. However, while the OSI letter is correct in saying that “not a single State in its response submitted for this United Nations report has stated that kinetic ASAT testing is an appropriate or internationally legal action,” that’s not the same as saying they would support an ASAT treaty.
I’ll note that China’s response on this issue was as follows “the vulnerability of outer space security is rising. The development of anti-satellite weapons, missile defence systems and long-rang precision attack weapons has posed challenges to traditional strategic balance and stability. The United States was the first country to conduct anti-satellite weapon tests, and with the most tests conducted, it has created the largest amount of space debris. In its 2019 Missile Defense Review, the United States stressed the importance of space in missile defence and its plans to build a network of space-based infrared sensors, develop new type of space sensors and deploy space-based missile interceptors in space. In recent years, the United States has been upgrading its space tests, including by repeatedly testing the X-37B spacecraft, extending the lifespan of a communication satellite (Intelsat 901) in the graveyard orbit after docking with MEV-l and deploying an upgraded Counter Communication System, which could be used to jam signals and disrupt satellite communications. These technologies can be diverted to offensive military use, thus posing a serious threat to the security of the outer space assets of other countries.”
This excerpt from the United States response shows that those wishing to implement an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Testing treaty may face an uphill battle. “States could consider elaborating best practices or responsible behaviours that avoid simulating or testing anti-satellite weapons in the direction of, or in close proximity to, another State’s satellite.”
The UK effort is a good one. Will nations take up the call? Will other nations start and test anti-satellite weapons? And will the four countries who have anti-satellite programs, and tested them, sign such a treaty?
The new resolution will be taken up as the United Nations starts its 76th session on Tuesday, September 14, 2021.OSI_International_Open_Letter_ASATs_PUBLIC